In which I relate the many interlocking steps leading to my aligning myself with all I once thought was opposed to God, flag, and country.
In the past eight years I have made many changes, from the friends I hang around with, the method of church participation I act in, and the attention I pay to the issues and people around me.
My behavior and words have puzzled some people, and angered others. And, to be frank, most people have largely shrugged their shoulders and said “eh,” which is an entirely natural action by most people when they see someone behaving oddly.
But if you are interested in how I went, almost unwillingly, from a Republican Precinct Committee Officer, a strong believer in my faith and my doctrine, a proponent of right behavior leading to righteousness, a defender of my own beliefs and a mocker of the people who did not believe exactly as I did…well, stick around. I will attempt to tell only the things that need to be said to explain the tale.
And like most stories told about ourselves by ourselves, I’ll be at the center, but only because it’s the topic, not because I’m the hero. I do not expect you to like what you read or even like what I am. That’s OK. The story is about the story, not about making me look good. I can’t change the past by forgetting it. The best I can do is retell it.
In 2008 the kids were grown and on their own, I had been married for quite a while, working for even a longer while, somewhat secure and satisfied in my church and friends and entertainment.
But, I still felt like there was something just not quite right.
I had been a believer since the tail-end of the 1960s, learning about Jesus and his work from a kindly set of ladies, first in the 7th grade and then in the 9th grade, who individually reached out to me to share the words of Jesus. It kinda didn’t take hold until a little later, in the 11th grade as a junior in high school, when I think I can say, to use American Evangelical language, I got “saved.”
I still believe I am saved, by the way, and have no shame in telling my past. I got myself to church, several times a week, and was lead through reading the Bible through several times every year. The intensity was to the point where I went to Bible school and considered being a pastor, because if you know the Bible you should teach and preach the Bible and lead others.
It was a nearly solid-white environment I grew up in, and without thinking I became like the people around me. That is just the story. There are no sordid details beyond ignorance of others, but it must be made clear, the ignorance was literally becoming studied. I picked up the kind of Christianity which comprises Bible study and Bible belief and Bible-centered everything. I poured myself into it, and worked as hard as I could to dig into the text, to the point of using Greek- and Hebrew-language study tools because “if it’s in the Greek, it’s true.”
At the same time, I was aware of some of the people around me at a distance. I could see the faces of angry people on TV. Earlier in my life I watched the black and white images of black and white people in Birmingham and Montgomery and Selma, and to be honest, I could not put the pieces together for the actions I saw back then and the things, even as a young child, I believed about people. “How could people attack others with a fire hose and dogs? What had they done wrong?” The best I could figure out was that those people had caused problems by being troublesome, and after a time I learned how to change the channel.
And in those early years I was also seeing things that were every so often breaking in to my life, events that mystified me for their ugliness and mystified me for the literal silence of the adults and other around me.
I remember the death of Medgar Evers.
I remember the death of John Kennedy and the death of Lee Oswald. (I got to see that on live TV.)
I remember the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., that troublesome black preacher who spoke a complicated message of the Christian words I understood and the words of another unrelated message of black equality and black goodness. When he was killed, I was sad, but I wasn’t angry. I was puzzled that the TV showed riots. But, it is how black people reacted to things, and how could I know anything about it?
And I was old enough and awake enough to be aware of Robert Kennedy. I was excited, even at 14, to have a young, smart, compassionate man as the likely candidate in 1968. He had been somewhat disreputable, but here he was, being kind and good.
I went to bed that night in June, happy that he’d won the California primary and likely the nomination, and was awakened by my father in the night who told me “Robert Kennedy is dead.”
I was, like a 14-year-old, able to process it by not doing much of anything. The man I’d hoped in was dead, and everything pointed to the disruption in our culture as being the thing leading to all these deaths. (The idea that our culture was the actual cause of the disruption and death was years ahead of me.)
With growing awareness I saw our nation begin to tear itself apart in the riots and uprisings and police actions. Destruction and death, flames and water and smoke, were what I saw on TV or in magazines.
That scared me, that we were going to fall apart, and the growing anger at a just war in SE Asia got me, too, because we were surrounded by Communists and bad people, and we needed a strong leader.
I turned, as someone too young to vote, to Nixon and Agnew, supporting them in ‘68 and in ‘72, along with my religious conversion. I firmly tied my Republican allegiance with my Christian faith, and it became a matter of solid belief that the Republican Party was a godly subset of the Christian faith. Well, to be honest, they were coterminous. You could not be a Christian without being Republican, and the Republican Party was filled entirely by Christians. (OK, I was young.)
That carried me through high school and my college years, including my time at Bible school. I became more active in my 20s, in both my faith and my politics, being led by Christian people in my church who also helped me be a more deeply aligned Republican, and in my 30s and 40s I got involved actively in becoming a Republican “leader,” albeit at the lowest level as a Precinct Committee Officer, the lowest of the low, tasked with walking the district to convince recalcitrant voters to choose their best interests by voting for only Republicans.
I was proud of my faith, and proud of my party. I attended a faithful, Bible-believing church, and I attending the county and state conventions as an elected delegate, proudly casting my vote for the first George Bush in 1992 in the state convention.
That carried me through – the party, my church, my family, the hard work of my job and of setting up a firm, Christian-based home.
And then in 2008 I was again restless and unhappy, because – well, I don’t know what the why that lead to the because was.
But I was restless.
My church was running a program called “Celebrate Recovery,” a more solidly Christian interpretation of the somewhat Deistic 12-step program. It wasn’t just for alcoholics, though, and when one day I saw the poster on the restroom wall at church, I decided to get involved in a “step group” with some men.
I showed up in the class with 12 other guys and the leader. I knew none of them, and I don’t think anyone but the leader knew me. 11 white guys, the white leader. And one black man.
I will tell you this, upfront.
I had never known a black man or a black woman or had a black friend or a black acquaintance. I had been around precisely two black people in my life – the next door neighbor’s maid, who was largely invisible in the house, and a co-worker back in the 70s.
That was it.
And here I am in a 12-step class, and I am thinking “Oh God, so this is what you’re bringing me to deal with.”
I’m just being honest here. It sounds ugly, and it was ugly, but it was me.
So I did what we do as white people. I won’t see color, I said to myself, and apparently the rest of us in the class made the same decision. This man was treated by us as if he was there, but not there as the man he was. We did not really listen to him (but hey, we weren’t really listening to each other).
We did this for a few months.
Then he exploded.
DO YOU KNOW I AM BLACK?
I was shocked and angered and a little ashamed.
My response was not out loud, but it was largely “But I don’t see color,” I said to myself.
However, there was a fatal error made by me that night. Because I decided that if I did not know that my classmate was black, or even what being black is, I would set myself to the task of finding out what it meant.
Even though the election of 2008 involved a black man, I wasn’t so much interested in that, and still voted for the Republican.
But I started to ask around using the resources I had. (I didn’t of course ask the man in the group, because how do you have that conversation?)
I started doing a little reading here and there.
Then in the spring of 2009 there was a concert in February, where the choir my son was in would perform. I had already been to several performances in the past, and enjoyed them.
The hall was full by the time the choir entered, and as luck would have it, my son was directly blocked by the head in front of me, but that was OK, as he was up there, and I knew it.
They sang some nice songs, and then they performed a song by U2 in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
You probably know it.
I didn’t, not really.
But there is this pure, clear tenor voice rising above the choir, a young earnest voice crying out for peace and crying out for sleep and crying out for King. And we all know what happened to King. We all now remember King though we ignored him and despised him before.
It sounds like my son, but it cannot be. He is not the scheduled soloist, not at all—but I know the soloist, and that voice is of my son, not the one in the program.
I finally am able to find a spot between all the heads in the audience – and it is my son, singing about King.
It was a moment, as they say.
We met after the concert, and he explained that the scheduled soloist got replaced at the last minute, and the choir director picked him, and that was that.
I decided to find out more about this whole thing about King and U2 through song, and I spun up Pandora later to set it to play songs like the one I had just heard.
And that led, through inexplicable program logic, to Kirk Franklin and the song “Hold Me Now.”
The spring of April is gone
The leaves have all turned brown
The children have all grown up
And there’s no one around
I’m looking over my life and all the mistakes I made
And I’m afraid
I will let you read the rest of the lyrics on your own, but hat just … grabbed me.
I started listening to more Franklin – heck, I bought every one of his albums.
And listening to his words and his music led me to other “gospel” songs, a genre I did not understand or appreciate, but I got other albums and listened to more and more, and I have to tell you this, out loud and with no sense of holding back, I had never, ever considered that black Christianity and black Christians had a valid faith because they were black.
(Remember, I didn’t see color.)
The words, the rhythms, the theology were all wrong, and they weren’t godly Bible-believing Christians like white people. Why didn’t black people run their churches like we did, or their services, or their ministries?
It got me thinking, I’m telling you.
And that study and soaking in song as black people worshipped the God I also worshipped, it got me interested in reading about what black people thought. I poked around on the internet, and found a few resources, and checked them out.
And Google, blessed be their name, was watching my searches and tracking my inquiries, because one day when I was looking for more blogs to read in my newsfeeder, up pops this picture of a black man with thick, black-rimmed glasses and wearing a beret, looking somewhat amused at the world he has encountered. It was Ta-Nehisi Coates, with a strange appearance, a strange hate, a strange name, and a strange approach to being black which comprised being black with no hint of its strangeness.
I clicked the link, and it led me to his blog on The Atlantic, where he posted almost daily about life and culture in America as seen through the eyes and mind of a black man. It wasn’t a serious blog only full of long long essays and rants. It was just culture and comic books and music and TV and movies, interspersed with essays about the life of black people, not told as instruction but just as what it was – life.
I was entranced, and “followed” his content, and began reading everything, every day, especially the comments. (Back in those days comments were not a sewer, and many thoughtful, fun, well-read, and well-spoken people participated in a lively compassionate and furiously onpoint community.)
I did not post, not at first, because I didn’t what the heck was going on. It was all so strange! I knew none of the movies or books or shows or plays or other forms of media. It was all foreign to me. These people spoke of black cultural creators and black leaders as if it was perfect natural, as if “black contributions” to world culture were not an exception carved out of “normal culture,” the special space given to “other stuff you can browse if you’re interested.”
I made myself read every book, watch every show, listen to every album, attend – in some way – every play mentioned, because I wanted to know and to understand.
And then one day, when someone made the comment that The Atlantic was unabashedly liberal, and I responded. To Mr. Coates. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, but even fools must forbear the white man with an opinion.
I told him that the magazine was liberal, and slanted, and that it wasn’t bad, but he had to be honest.
He responded, gently but firmly, to tell me that I had no factual basis for my argument, and proceeded to list all the writers at The Atlantic who were not purely liberal, why I was wrong in every detail, and that if we were to have a conversation I would have to know my facts and tell the truth.
I was shocked, and affronted, and embarrassed.
But here is the key—I was moved by that, that someone I saw as witty and compassionate and very busy with his own life had taken the time to correct me when he could have done what anyone else would have done when contradicted – he could have ignored me.
His confrontation and rebuke and correction made me decide that I would work as hard as he was at researching what I spoke about before speaking.
I doubled down on my research of reading / watching / listening / attending.
I reached out to every person I could, to get more understanding of them.
I attempted to at least be friendly, if not become actual friends, with the people I was meeting, not because it would make me feel better, and not because it was a way to show I was a good man, but because I genuinely wanted to know people I had been ignoring, and I wanted my ten-sizes-too-small heart to get bigger. Not by finding “those people.” But by the discovery of people and the enjoyment they bring in knowing them.
The research and thinking led to my first novel, a story somewhat inspired by the life and death of Emmett Till. (If you don’t know Emmett Till, look him up. I was 55 before I heard his name, and when I asked around I found that every black American knew of him. We are strangely divided in education.)
I wrote more and more, and talked more and more, and interacted more and more. The gentleman in my class who confronted me became someone I grew to like, to love, and then to admire as my friend with whom nothing was held back and all was honestly laid out, as I listened to what he was like, not for a subject, but as a person who was of great worth and value to know. He had put up with me as he had put up with thousands like me, and still managed to be open about his need for being seen, even though chances were that the step group would be like all other groups. I became real-life friends with him, and with more people, listening more.
And I became more and more aware that the life I had led of being a white man untroubled by the world around me was no longer worth living.
I can tell you why the break happened between my old, white, conservative life and now, but I can’t nail down when. I think it was around the summer of 2010.
I am online with the blog at TNC’s place. (We called him TNC because spelling out Ta-Nehisi Coates every time became hard. The guy had a hyphen in his name, f’r crying out loud!)
I’m mostly reading, but every so often contributing, small pieces here and there.
And there is the growing awareness that as I’m listening and contributing, my expressed values are being challenged, more and more. I am struggling with the realization that I will be forced to choose between what I was and what I needed to be, and it would need to become public. (Up to this point, my journey is mostly inward and private, and expressed only at TNC’s blog where I am using an assumed name, not my real one, because – honest to God – I don’t want people to know what I’m thinking.)
So, somewhere in the late spring/early summer of 2010 it comes to a head. “I need to leave the blog for a while and clear my head,” I post. “I don’t know that I’ll be back.”
And I go silent. I know I am going to have to break with my past, and I know that when I do I will break with all the people I’ve surrounded myself with all my life, who will think me mad, who will think I’ve betrayed my faith in Jesus, who will think me angry and anti-American.
I think and think, and write and write. I have a journal I’m filling with pages of thoughts.
And then I realize this: I have already decided. The moment I decided to listen to, accept, understand, and walk with these troublesome people with all their outrageous ideas, I had decided to make the break.
All that was left was the public breaking. All that remained was the time.
I took it slow. I listened to more songs and music, watched more shows and plays openly, talking about them, as if it was perfectly natural for a white guy to do this.
I talked more and more about the issues of people and their pains rather than of theology and the scriptures, realizing that my Jesus was a man who came to save people and not a leader who came to initiate a world-wide, eternal Sunday school. (No slam against Sunday school, but that’s not quite the point of Jesus’ life, I’d say.)
In 2010 I made the painful-for-me decision to vote for candidates based on their platform and character, and not my party. I can’t tell you how complex my feelings were.
In 2012 I announced I would vote for Obama and not Romney (I, a life-long Republican!). I announced that I would gladly vote for marriage equality in Washington State as a Christian, because it was the right thing to do. (Marking the “X” next to a Democrat for President was the weirdest feeling.)
I knew I had been acting oddly to my friends, but that was the public break, and a lot of people stopped being friends or friendly with me. People in stores would turn away. People in church would turn away. (Not everyone. My pastors—bless them all—supported me all the way and encourage me today.) My Facebook feed grew silent as many people defriended me.
I still think I did the right thing, and I still think I’m the better for it.
My circle of friends is wider, with people I love deeply in a way I never did before. (I think being white means being shallow and being afraid of losing position; abandoning that means being free to love and free also to not love in the sense of not waste time with people who will not themselves love.)
I grew more confident, and as opportunities arose I spoke out, online, in my community, at my work, through my writing.
I saw that many people were in a place I once was, and I found that many of them were just looking for a way out and even someone to help walk them through it.
I started to work with them, one friend to another, one man who found water to another who was thirsty.
I spoke out for justice and spoke up for people.
When my state representative attacked Muslims in my community as likely terrorists, I stood up and rebuked him, and when these same Muslims held an open house for our community, they chose me to be the representative of the community.
The work I had been doing in speaking up and reaching out led to an opportunity to speak to my own church and community, to the point where I was asked to lead an 8 week open community discussion and workshop on identifying and working on white racism in our church and community.
I, who had no credentials other than hard work and a loud mouth. I was afraid I’d blow it, but as in everything else since 2008, I have taken it one step at a time.
The good Lord and Google will guide me along the way, I presume. They’ve done great work so far.
To those whom I have offended and hurt in the past, I apologize and repent. If you can share with me the hurt I caused or the reason for your anger, I promise to repent to the best of my ability and do better in the future. There is nothing I can do to change the past or block the pain of my actions. I can only repent, and hope for healing, and ask you to tell me so I can change.