I’m thinking of a friend today — Clarence. He became my friend more than 30 years ago, and this relationship changed me.
Clarence is one of the neatest people I know. He’s smart, fun to be with, caring, dependable, patient, and active in helping families thrive. He is so many things. Oh, and he happens to be African American.
Before Clarence, I had not had any close black friends. He changed all of that, and he was willing to put up with my endless questions — call it the education of racially ignorant white man, though Clarence would never have been so crude. I still reference his answers in communicating with other white folks.
I think of Clarence today because this is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In Clarence’s 1998 book, Winning the Race to Unity, he used a shortened version of a newspaper article I wrote in 1996. Here’s the excerpt:
There’s a day in my past that embarrasses me. The yer:1968. The occasion: a violent death. I didn’t do the killing. It’s my reaction to the homicide that still troubles me. News accounts said Martin Luther, Jr., had been slain. A 12-year-old boy in Texas felt no sadness. Instead, he thought maybe all the racial turmoil would finally cease. The kid with no black friends or acquaintances had come to see King as the cause of so much discontent.
[King’s] dream, however, is still only a dream 30 years later. One could even say the situation is worse. It seems impossible to approach any social issue or relationship without reference to race.
Chicago pastor Don Sharp, an African American, took me to lunch on the south side of Chicago. I was the only white guy around, but I did not feel uncomfortable in the least because I was with a friend. Don seemed surprised when I confessed to past racial prejudices. “What changed you?,” he asked. “The Holy Spirit, I guess. That’s the only way I can explain it,” I responded. It wasn’t like I set out to change. I just changed.
The truth is, I’ve found race doesn’t matter much when it comes to liking people and enjoying their company. I have more in common with some black people, than with some whites. I respect some black people more than some whites. And the opposite can be said. But saying that, a truth still remains — I’m white, not black. I bring some cultural baggage to cross-racial friendships, just like blacks do. I like being white, not because it is non-black, but because it’s who I am. I expect black friends to like being black, not because it is non-white, but because it’s who they are.
In the body of Christ, there should be a coming together of believers into a oneness that transcends culture without denying it. African Americans have been coming into Anglo settings for sometime now. Whites have a chance now to go into black settings.
We need to be open and honest with one another, hearing different perspectives on what it means to serve Christ in Illinois in this new day. To be open and honest, we’re going to have to also be sensitive to one another — the needs, the hurts, the fears. And all of us are going to have to be willing to make some changes.
Those changes will be difficult if we lean upon our own understanding. They will be made easier if we lean upon Christ, who is Lord of us all.
Martin Luther King spoke of children in his 1963 [“I Have a Dream”] message. His words took new meaning for me one evening a couple of years ago as my young son played with three African American children in his room at home. They were living King’s dream. They did not judge each other by “the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
But those children were able to do that because two sets of adult parents had chosen to reach across racial barriers and embrace something new in their lives — a relationship where race did not matter. We can allow God to make something new so our children will reap the rewards.
As Clarence notes in his book, those three African American children were his and Brenda’s lovely daughters.
The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., should be personal for each of us. It should inform us and shape us, because the gospel of Jesus Christ informed and shaped King as a Baptist preacher. With King, we follow the example of Jesus and we worship God in Christ.