I Don’t See You As A Black Friend
I grew up in the hills of West Virginia and had no African Americans in my graduating class. I attended a university with a fairly diverse campus, but most of my interactions with people who weren’t white came on the basketball court.
My experience in church was much of the same. After I became a Christian, I moved to Texas and was part of a solid, but mostly white congregation. I later became the pastor of a church plant in a small oil town named Graham, TX. In the seven years I pastored there, we had one black member, a brother named Bobby who’s “amens” and “tell’em preacher” encouragements still ring in my soul.
Though I had a few black acquaintances, most of my friends looked like me, thought like me, felt like me, and experienced life in the same way I did. But all that changed in 2011 when I moved to Washington, DC to do an internship at Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
Our intern class consisted of 6 men, one of whom was black.
The Conversation that Changed Everything
Trip Lee was a quiet guy with a baby face. When I met him, I thought he couldn’t be more than 13 years old, but as our friendship developed, I grew to respect Trip for his devotion to Jesus and desire to be a humble servant of Christ’s church. We had regular discussions about theology, church, culture, and then one day—we talked about race.
As the discussion went deeper, Trip mentioned something about him being a black man. I leaned in and with all sincerity said to him, “Trip, when I see you, I don’t see you as black. I see you as my brother in Christ. I see you as a friend, but I don’t see you as a black friend.”
My intention was to communicate respect and to ensure him that I was “color-blind” because that was the height of love—right?
Trip looked at me and gently said, “Listen man, we are brothers in Christ, and that means something. But if you and I are going to be able to be real friends that go deep, you need to know that I am a man—but I am a black man.”
After a moment of silent staring, I pushed back and said that I didn’t understand. I explained that I never thought of myself as a white man and I wouldn’t want him to think of me as his “white friend.”
Trip said to me, “I hear you, but you’ve got to know that being a black man affects everything I do. Every time I walk into a store, every time a policeman looks at me, every time I step into our very-white church. I feel it. I breathe it. I live it. I am a black man, that is who God made me.”
He went on to explain that being a black man meant that, in many ways, he experienced life differently than I do. His pains and joys and fears were similar to mine, but also very different. He has fears for his children that are different than the fears I have for my children. He has hurdles in relationships that I don’t have to jump. He has to trust God in ways that are both similar and different than me. And those differences matter.
A Journey of Love
That conversation with Trip proved to be pivotal for me. It opened my eyes to the fact that not everyone sees and experiences life in the same way I do. This shouldn’t have been such a revelation to me, but it was.
I later became the lead pastor at Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA. Our church is mostly white, but is slowly increasing in diversity. Shai Linne, our assistant pastor, is an African American brother who has graciously allowed me to ask him questions and wrestle openly with things I find confusing about race and ethnicity.
After George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, Shai and I had several conversations about why the news was so upsetting to many of my black friends, including him. We eventually had a public discussion with about twenty other people where I (the ignorant white friend) got to ask Shai questions about how he saw and experienced the tragic event—not just as a Christian man, but also as a Christian black man.
During our dialogue, Shai humbly shared about a time when he was walking down the street and was stopped by police. He was questioned, cuffed, and put into the back of a police cruiser because he “fit the description of someone they were looking for.” He described to us the pit that formed in his stomach when a car with a white woman pulled up next to him to identify if he was the person they were looking for. He said, “my life flashed before my eyes. In that moment I knew that if she said, ‘that’s him’ that my life was over. I was going to jail. My whole life hung on what that woman said.”
I will never forget his tears as he told his story. I never knew that about him. But it made me love him and hate our fallen world and desire for Jesus to come back in a way I hadn’t felt before.
Nor will I ever forget the interaction Shai had with his young son after the news broke that the police who killed Eric Garner would not be facing any charges. While watching the news, his son asked, “daddy, what are they talking about?” Shai said to him “black lives matter.” And then with innocent eyes he looked at his father and asked “why are they talking about that?”
Now, as a father, I’ve had to answer tough questions from my children before. But that kind of heart wrenching questioning has never happened in my house. Shai and my other black friends have to explain things to their children that I don’t have explain to my children.
Yes, we have the same kinds of concerns about the persecution our children will face if they follow Christ (2 Timothy 3:12), but most of my black friends and their children have had and still do have, a path that with more obstacles than the one I and my family walk on.
The Lord has given me relationships with friends from different ethnicities and cultures to open my eyes, not just to what it means to be black or Asian or Hispanic, but to what it means to love people who are different than I am. Moreover, these relationships have even impacted the way I read and apply the Scriptures.
Seeing More Clearly
“Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Your law.” Psalm 119:18
I’d like to highlight three passages from God’s Word that have taken on a whole new meaning for me because of the diverse friendships God has brought into my life.
#1 – “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” Romans 12:15
If my black brothers and sisters weep and lose sleep over something, God-glorifying love calls me to care about it. I may not understand why they are weeping, but if they hurt, God calls me to sympathize with them and to seek to understand. There is no room in the heart of a Christian for apathy or indifference toward other believers (1 Peter 4:8).
Not all my black friends have been affected in the same way by the Ferguson and Eric Garner decisions. But many of them have—and that must mean something if I am a Christian. Why? Because we are “members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25) and “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it…” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Jesus says that I am to “do to others what [I] would have them do to [me]” (Matthew 7:12) and I am certain that when my day of weeping comes, I will want others to weep with me.
#2 – “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2
We live in a fallen world that is filled with suffering. In many ways, all people’s suffering is similar, but there are also unique burdens each of us bear. Many of my African American friends have unique burdens to bear. And though understanding why they are burdened by certain events may not come natural to me, loving them (fulfilling the law of Christ) requires that I ask them to help me understand how I can bear their burden with them.
Sometimes this burden-bearing comes in the form of a prayer or a phone call. Often times it comes just through listening and striving to learn more about your brother’s suffering. One of our white church members recently asked if he could have dinner with a few African American couples to talk about the issues of racial tension in our country that have been exposed through the events in Ferguson. They graciously agreed and one of the brothers said to him, “I really appreciate you asking to talk with me about this, because from my experience, it is very rare that someone would reach out to talk about these issues.”
Burden bearing begins by taking a step of love toward another and saying, “do you need help carrying that? I’m not sure I can help, but if I can, I’m here, and I’d like to try.”
#3 – “when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy…their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel…” Galatians 2:11–14
In days past I would have wholeheartedly dismissed the notion that “race issues” were Gospel issues. But the Apostle Paul clearly states here that because Peter and Barnabas (Jews) segregated themselves from the Gentile believers, “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the Gospel.” It was anti-Gospel to step away from brothers and sisters who weren’t like them in order to keep traditions that Jesus died to set them free from.
One of the goals of Jesus’ saving work on the cross is to “break down the wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile and to create in Himself a new humanity where hostility is put to death and we are united in peace (Ephesians 2:14-16). The church is to be a “city set on a hill” (Matthew 5:16) in which the glory of God is seen through the love and unity His people have for one another (John 13:34-35, 17:20-21).
If there is any place that love and unity seems tenuous, it is along racial lines. Marin Luther King famously said, “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” While we can praise God that there has been tremendous progress in race relations in the church since Dr. King’s day, we must all admit there is a long way to go.
And what is the way there? It is the way of Christ. God calls all His people to be “of the same mind in the Lord” (Philippians 2:2, 4:2). That doesn’t mean we will always agree on how we see an issue, but it does mean that we are to follow the example of Christ and humbly “count others more significant than ourselves” (Philippians 4:3).
It is through loving those who are “other” to us that we most walk in step with the truth of the Gospel. It does us good to consider the fact that we are more “other” to Jesus than any of us are to each other. Jesus is God, and it doesn’t get any more “other” than that. Yet, what did Jesus do? He was moved by compassion and love for sinners to come and serve and die and rise for us (Philippians 2:1-11). Jesus teaches us what it means to love.
Shai recently preached about loving those who are “other” in this sermon from Philippians 3:17-4:3.
A Few Final Lessons About Love
While there is much that could be said, I want to conclude with three reminders about what Gospel love requires from us.
#1 – Love requires relationship.
If we are going to learn to understand people who are different than us, we must pursue relationships with people who are different than us. This isn’t limited to black and white relationships of course, but it is certainly true for them. If love is going to flourish in the church, we must be willing to risk stepping out of our comfort zones and into the lives of other people.
I can hear what black men and women think on blogs and interviews, but love must go beyond this. As Shai said in the sermon I referenced above, “the more time and conversations you have with someone, the more sympathy is developed. It’s not going to happen through Facebook. It’s not going to happen on Twitter. It’s not going to happen on a blog post. It won’t be through watching news on cable, but its gonna be over the dinner table.”
How are you stretching yourself to develop authentic relationships with people who are different than you?
#2 – Love listens.
Love requires that I listen. I have learned that it is best for me to ask more questions and make fewer assumptions. This allows my brother the opportunity to speak for himself. And where better should we have the freedom to have these kinds of conversations than with our church family?
White police officers should be able to sit down with black members and talk about their mutual fears. They should also be able to encourage each other with how the Gospel gives them mutual hope. God is glorified in this, and the world is amazed.
#3 – Love risks.
If you walk down the path of love, you will be hurt and you will hurt others. As John Piper recently said, “there is no love in this world without tears.” If you take the risk of walking with people, you will encounter relational briars of racism and apathy and skepticism and bitterness and cynicism. These will hurt you, and your own briars will hurt others.
And this is why I am more convinced than ever that diversity in relationships is one of the best catalysts to our spiritual growth. When we are stretched to love and forgive and rejoice and weep in ways that are not natural to us, we are forced to lean upon Jesus in freshly desperate ways. And when we are all equally desperate before Jesus, we have great hope that He will move to unite us in ways that will call the world to ponder the power of our Lord.
There has been progress in our country and in our church. We have great reason to hope that God will grant even more progress. But this progress will not come from being colorblind. Progress will come when we see each other as we are, and prayerfully draw together for the honor and glory of God.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come.
I am so grateful for this renewed insight into the suffering that our black brothers and sisters in the church have had to endure. I pray we lead the way in gospel love and empathy. Thank you also for reminding us that Paul found it necessary, as we should find it right, to openly and publicly “oppose him to his face” those Christian leaders who are ashamed of the Gospel in the way you have described.
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AMEN. To say “I don’t see you as a ‘____’ friend,” says you don’t see me. You don’t see how my experiences vary from yours, and, by implication, that your white experience is the “norm.” I know many don’t mean to say that, but they do. By saying “your experience is the same as mine,” denies important parts of me. Are all whites the same? Of course not. But being of European heritage in the US does have commonalities that being of Asian or African heritage does not, no matter how many generations here.
Our unity as believers is not racial, our reconciliation is not racial, and our fellowship as believers is not based in anthropological properties, particularly race.
You are speaking of anthropological constructs. Yes, maintain the integrity of you and your friend’s racial identity (and all other anthropological properties) however, you are not required to be reconciled to him on such a basis believed to believed.
Rather, the Christian to Christian is to be reconciled to one another spiritually, based in, on and through Christ. Our DNA is spiritual with regard to our spiritual/ecclesiastical.
fellowship. Race has no merit or consideration in that respect.
Socially speaking, sure, you may extend yourself as far as your faith will permit, socially but social reconciliation is not the demand or construct of the spiritual construct of the believer/church.
Thank you for this Mr Kell! I don’t know you but I’m grateful for this blog. I’m black but I don’t live in America and I don’t experience racism as much as my black american brothers and sisters do. I do feel their pain though and I sympathize and empathize with them. Not only because I could be one of them, but because they’re hurting and it’s something I should be concerned about. I admire you taking up this burden as a white Christian brother. God bless you for that. One day, Christ will come and restore all the flaws in man.. until then let’s embark on this journey together. Thank you brother!
Thank you for this Mr. Kell! I don’t know you but I’m grateful for this blog! I’m black but I don’t live in America and I don’t experience as much racism as my brothers and sisters in the U.S.A do but I sympathize and empathize with them. Not because it could be me, but because they’re hurting and that should be something that I’m concerned about. I admire you for taking up this burden as a ‘white’ brother. Christ will come some day and restore all of these flaws in man, but until then, let’s embark on this journey together. God bless you! 🙂
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i must admit I am a black man, but I don’t see myself as a black man, I see myself as a man first and foremost. I have told so many people online strip away the skin colour and the race, and let people see you as the person you really are. after reading your article, I realise I am from the UK, where it is so different from the USA. in the UK we don’t have these same problem and issues, the way the USA has. it is 2 very different cultures. I was brought up in middleclass white areas. where there I did experience racism when I was younger, that was 32 years ago. apart from being stopped and searched by the police 14 years ago, they do not bother me anymore. I do not wear hats, caps, hoods, or trainers. I wear coats and shoes. what I do get is many homeless white people asking me for change on the streets, because they think I have money because I dress really well, I don’t have money.
I understand what was said, but I wonder if it is not time that we all see ourselves merely as humans. Science has proven that we are all a shade of brown thus our color assignments are all off anyway. There is no “Red and Yellow, Black and White, they are prescious in His sight.” It is more like “Jesus loves all those around no matter the shade of Brown.”
The Bible clearly shows we are all one blood or one race. Race is an evolutionary thing and divides us. One blood and Jesus unites us. We cannot stop the world from being unwise in their color assignments, but the Church needs to live in truth and reality so the world can see the difference. There is one Lord, one faith and one baptism. Only eight people got off the Ark. We are all related.
I lived across the creek from the only dark Brown family in town and one of their sons was my friend. We played, fished and ate together and neither of us mentioned the Whote or Black thing, which in reality is the light or dark Brown thing. It was never an issue untl we ran into some kids from the city Then he threw a dirt clod at me hitting me in the eye and we were done. He never humg out with me again.
When you are outside the church, you have to deal with the world, but in the church there is one race and one blood and we should merge into a blended worship. I was an Associate Pastor at a church that was very diverse. We had dark Brown people from here, Kenya and Jamaica. We had medium Brown people from Mexico and the Phillipines. Then we had light Brown people like me and the pastor’s wife was 50% lmedium Brown Native American. We were color blind.
Yes, we all live differently and have different tastes and different stories, but our identity is to be in Christ, not our shade of Browm or ethnicity. All designations by this workd should drop off like a coat once we enter the Church building or whenever we meet each other. Indeed, while other Christians are my sister or brother from another mother, we have the same Father. We need to live in communion under a biblical culture not a worldly one.
In the Scripture, there was only Jew or Gentile and now in Christ those no longer exist. We can celebrate our experiences. I have preached in several dark Brown churches and I have always said that if you cannot preach after a dark Brown choir sings you need to go to the house because you are not called. Church should be a melting pot where everything is about Christ, His love and evangelism and edification.
We should no longer be segregated, but work towards a unified Body not only in pigment, but end the splitting of churches and reuniting those who have split. We are stronger together than we are apart because He made us to be one in Him. When we move towards that we may see a revival like we have not seen in a cetury and then see Him in the air.