Why can’t I go to his funeral? He was my friend. I don’t understand,” I told my teacher as tears ran down my cheeks.
I was in 8th grade, and my friend had drowned in the Sabine River. He didn’t know how to swim. Brian and I had shared a lot that year. We were partners at a two-seater desk in science class for eight months. Neither of us liked science so we had a quick affinity for one another. We struggled over many experiments together and laughed a lot.
Brian not only made science class bearable, he made it fun. We shared our lives passing notes while our teacher droned on and on. We talked about our families and our middle-school crushes as we engaged in class assignments. We shared paper and pencils because inevitably one of us forgot needed supplies. By second semester we didn’t even need to use words. We could just glance at each other and have a communal knowing. We encouraged each other. And when I got paddled for standing up and looking out the window before school was out, Brian came to my defense.
I never saw Brian on the weekends. Our bicycle paths and parks were not the same. He lived on “the other side of the tracks.”
The day of his funeral, all of the black students were let out of class in my public middle school but not the white kids. He was my friend too, and I longed to mourn him with those who loved him like I did. Finally, two white students and I convinced a parent to drive us to the other side of town.
I will never forget the drive there and the funeral. We drove to the “south side,” and I quickly noticed the poor conditions of the homes; some seemed they would be demolished by one Texas storm. The play areas in the park were rusted. I felt I had been kicked in the gut realizing there was a lot about Brian I never knew.
We arrived late to a packed church that had no air conditioning and little space to move. Women fanned themselves, and people were wailing. It was a loud, deep groaning I had never heard nor seen. When Brian’s mother saw us enter the church, she ushered us to the front row. Family members moved aside to give the four white folks a seat.
I didn’t want that. I wanted to blend in with everyone else, but it wasn’t possible. Mrs. Smith demanded we be treated as honored guests. Hours passed as people gave testimony to Jesus and the life of my friend. After the funeral, I got thanked over and over for coming to honor my friend. I was tightly hugged again and again. In my mind I had just done what someone does when a dear friend dies. However, I quickly learned that I was thanked because it was such a rare occurrence for a white person to tread “south” in my small Texas town.
My desire to be part of racial reconciliation started at Brian’s funeral, yet what I encountered at every turn was division, mistrust, fear, and at times overt hatred. Images of division and racism flash through my memory. Every American, if they are aware, has these snapshots, and for our African-American brothers and sisters this is a daily and sometimes hourly experience.
I recall the KKK marching through my hometown and black residents kneeling silently crying as the enraged men in white hoods spat on them; I remember being mocked because of my nice clothes and skin color at my public middle school: “How big is your house, white girl? You can’t sit with us at lunch. Sit with your own people.” I recall an African-American student making the same grades I did in middle and high school, who scored higher on the SAT, but was counseled to apply to a community college while I was counseled to go for the Ivy League. These are only a few memories.
The racial divisions were uncorked once again in our city of Dallas in July, when five police officers were shot by a man who was outraged by the violence experienced by black men in American cities at the hands of law enforcement.
Dallas is one of the five most divided cities in America. It is a city laden with “tracks.” A Dallas resident can easily avoid the other and those people because we never bump into each other. We live in different parts of town. Unless you intentionally stretch beyond your own people and neighborhood, you can isolate yourself from knowing people unlike you. Where and how do we begin to break down these walls?
C.S. Lewis said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” In fact, we know as Christians that we were made for another world: the kingdom of God. The kingdom ushered in by Jesus is where there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female,” where “all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
As followers of Jesus, we are called to be reconcilers. Our Book of Common Prayer says, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (1979 BCP, p. 855). How do we do this?
The presiding bishop’s canon for evangelism and reconciliation, Stephanie Spellers, recently gave a TED talk at TEDxNewYork, where she discussed “the revolutionary listening of Jesus.”
TEDxNewYork, Sep. 10.
In her TED talk Canon Spellers said,
The walls today are higher than ever.
Black and brown bodies lie on the ground everywhere. Voices cry out. But we cannot hear. Because we stopped listening to each other a long time ago.
So yeah, I’m heartbroken and even terrified of how divided we’ve grown on race. And yeah, I hear people saying, “We need to talk.” I want more. I want us to learn the fine, revolutionary art of deep listening. I want us to listen to other’s deep pain, deep truth and deep humanity.
I’m an Episcopal priest, so my model for this revolutionary practice is Jesus. He’s known for walking around first-century Galilee, preaching and healing and telling truth and empowering nobodies, and of course then dying at the hands of the empire.
But if you were there, watching, I think you would have noticed something else. I think you would have seen him being curious. You would’ve seen him listening. To children and elders. Jews and Gentiles. To wealthy young men who were sure they had all the answers, and to mouthy dark women who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
He gathered this motley crew of outsiders and insiders, and it’s like he said: Receive each other, as if you’re receiving God. Listen to each other, as if you’re hearing God. And they grew in love, across the deepest divides, because of this practice.
That’s the power of this listening. I hope you’ve felt it.
I am convinced the structures that diminish black lives, these systems will not fundamentally change — and we will not be free — unless we are also doing this kind of brave listening. As if something true and necessary is coming out of that mouth. Even that one.
This listening — this is the revolution. What if you and I found that person, that group on the other side. Instead of having that argument, have this talk. Reveal some small part of your own broken heart. Welcome theirs.
Be grateful for the morsel of truth you never would’ve known except that they spoke it.
This is how we grow in compassion.
This is how we knit one more thread in this broken fabric together.
This is how we get real.
We have begun this process in Dallas. A group of followers of Jesus across denomination, race, and socioeconomic and linguistic barriers, across the “tracks,” started to come together about eight years back. We began eating together, listening to one another, sharing our stories and lives with one another and praying together. We engaged in kingdom listening. It led to taking action together, to facing head on issues that Jesus would have us face together: racism, poverty, and division. We are now joining together to take action in our city. We are sharing pallets of food daily, feeding people, advocating for our youth and the poor at City Hall, and we are evangelizing, proclaiming Jesus together. We are sharing the good news of Jesus together in word and deed.
Right after the July shootings here in Dallas, my friends from predominantly African-American churches said it seemed to wake up some of our white churches from the northern part of the city to reach out to them. They said it felt like some white Christians wanted a photo op and quick pulpit swap to pat themselves on the back. Our Greater Dallas Coalition had a meal together that we had planned before the shootings. We met that night, ate together, prayed and wept together.
It has become a way of life for us. I don’t want to sound self-righteous. We have a profoundly long way to go. But it is a start. It gives a whiff of the kingdom Jesus ushered in.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.
Carrie Boren Headington
Missioner of Evangelism, Episcopal Diocese of Dallas
Founder, The Good News Initiative
Adjunct Professor of Evangelism, Fuller Seminary