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Early last month I was invited to write a guest post for ReDEFINE, a blog about race, religion, justice, and culture in the United States. Below is a version of that post.

 

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When I immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1969, one of the first challenges I faced was selecting the racial categories on college, government, and job forms and applications. One could check the box labeled “Negro,” “White,” “Hispanic,” “Native American,” or “Asian,” if one were one of those, but there was no category that allowed me to accurately list my racial makeup. So I always ignored the boxes and wrote in the margins “OTHER.”

I am of a black-white-Chinese mixture: My maternal grandmother was black, a descendant of Maroons—former runaway slaves who fought and won their independence from Britain 170 years before that country abolished slavery in 1808 and emancipated slaves in Jamaica and other British colonies in 1838; my maternal grandfather was a Hakka Chinese immigrant from the Kwangtung province in South China, who immigrated to Jamaica in the early 1900s and became a grocer; my mixed-race paternal grandfather was a descendant of an English barrister who came to Jamaica in the early 1800s and became a plantation owner and magistrate; and my paternal grandmother was white, a descendant of German immigrants to Jamaica.

My mixed race is a common characteristic of many in Jamaica, a small Caribbean island nation whose national motto is “Out of many, one people”—people whose Screen Shot 2014-12-01 at 3.02.09 PMfaces and skin colors reflect the intermingling of the races of our ancestors from such diverse countries as Africa, England, Whales, Scotland, Ireland, China, India, Germany, Spain, Lebanon, Syria, and from the Jewish diaspora, some coming to the island under the Spanish control in the 1500s, others coming under the British in the 1600s, and still others coming under the indentured program that Britain started in 1838 to fill the sudden labor shortage on plantations after the emancipation of slaves.

My first encounter with racism was in 1967 when our Jamaican youth choir toured America. While in Washington, D.C., the members of our choir stayed in the homes of various American families. My hosts were a white couple who welcomed me to their high-rise apartment, and, at one point during my stay, invited me to go swimming in the pool on the building’s ground floor. However, when I entered the gated area of the pool, the building’s manager stopped me and told me that I could not swim in the pool because it was a “whites only” pool. When I went back up to my hosts and told them what had happened, they were embarrassed and very apologetic.

Two years later when I returned to the U.S. and enrolled in my denomination’s small, predominantly white liberal arts college in Indiana, I was surprised by the reaction I received half way through the semester—not from the whites on campus, but from a group of black students. They were highly critical of me and other foreign students of color because we did not choose to sit exclusively with them in the cafeteria and at other social events. They accused us of being “uppity” or “Uncle Toms” for associating so much with white students. The parents of a black student went so far as to warn her not to date African students because they acted as if they were superior. This was at a time when there was a segment among the black population in America, including some of these students, who had grown impatient with the pace of the civil rights movement and had become more militant and separatist under the “Black Power” slogan and intolerant towards any minority who fraternized with whites, whom they called “Whitie” or “The Man.”

While we foreign students of color understood the defensive mindset of the black students because of the centuries of white racism against blacks and other minorities in America, most of us were from countries where we were in the majority and were far less likely to be defensive about our relationship with whites. The biases and prejudices of our home countries were more about differences in social class, religion, clans, or tribes. So as someone from a multiethnic family and culture, I was unwilling to take a separatist approach to my new life in America.

However, what defined me was not so much my multiethnic Jamaican heritage, but rather my personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I fell in love with him as a result of a dramatic spiritual conversion at age 17 when he led me from out of a life of violence and juvenile delinquency to follow him in a life of discipleship, and of loving and serving people. During nearly five decades living in the United States, the image of myself as a beloved and valued child of God was the main factor that sustained me through the ups and downs of finding my way in a society and culture that sometimes could be harsh, cruel, and racist.

This image sustained me through the lean college years as I pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees by working a combination of part-time jobs supplemented with education loans and grants; through entry-level jobs, job layoffs, periods of unemployment, including one that lasted 23 months; through bankruptcy, divorce, depression, near-homelessness; and through racist encounters with people, including a white former father-in-law who refused to acknowledge or speak to me and never accepted his first grandson, the only child of his daughter and me. Throughout all this, I have tried to mirror the grace, love, and forgiveness of Jesus Christ to all individuals I encountered.

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 1.04.02 PMThat approach has served me well, for at 71, I can truly say that life in the United States has been good for me and has allowed me to achieve my version of the American Dream—a solid educational foundation, university degrees, fulfilling jobs and careers, home ownership, U.S. citizenship, strong family and church ties, community leadership and respect, a healthy lifestyle, worldwide travel, and a comfortable retirement that is allowing me to volunteer with faith-based partners to serve the poor in Los Angeles, India, and the Congo.

Although much of America’s overt racism of the past has disappeared, it still exists inconspicuously in hiring, job advancement, housing, and in various levels of society. While I live in a very racially diverse San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles, and often take four-mile power walks at various hours of the day or night in my neighborhood, even sometimes at 4 a.m. when I cannot sleep, I would not risk such an early morning walk in nearby Beverly Hills because I would surely be stopped and frisked by the police. And while I enjoy playing golf at various courses around the country, there are still certain courses where I would not be welcomed or allowed because of my color.

Yes, while I am thankful for the opportunities that America has given me, I am also very aware that for millions of individuals of various races and colors living in
the U.S., the American Dream is still not a reality. They still face prolonged unemployment, poverty-level wages, injustice, police profiling and brutality, discrimination, suppression of their voting rights in various cities and states, and part of a political system that favors the rich over the poor. Recent events in Ferguson and in major cities around the country reflect the anger and discontent that people feel over these conditions.

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Nevertheless, I remain hopeful for my adopted country, for just as she has progressed to where there is now a space for “OTHER” on application forms, and “WHITES ONLY” signs have officially been removed from public places, I’m optimistic that her growing racial and cultural diversity will eventually reflect Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream in which our “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

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Living in community — whether in a family, in a church fellowship, with coworkers, or within society at large — is not always easy for me.  I find that in some ways I tend to be a loner and would much rather go off by myself to pursue my own agenda.

Building and maintaining meaningful relationships is hard work, whether it’s within the community of marriage and family or in developing friendships with people outside our immediate circle.

My tendency is to want to bolt and escape when the going gets tough, especially when friction arises in my marriage.  My walls come up, my defenses harden, and my natural impulse is to pack my bags and flee to the ends of the earth.

This impulse to flee to the ends of the earth seems to be a trait in my family.  Generations in our family have been marked by absent fathers, shattered marriages, half brothers and sisters, and family roots and branches that spread far and wide — England, Ireland, China, Africa, the West Indies, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

Part of me wants the freedom to roam the world, free from responsibilities that tie me down, and free from relationships that demand too much of me.

But at the same time, part of me strives to break the pattern of broken marriages, absent fathers, and dysfunctional families and seeks instead to build and maintain solid communities — a loving marriage, caring family, a vital church fellowship, and an active, productive civic involvement.

And it is in the fall and winter each year that skeins of migrating geese rekindle in me this desire to strengthen and build the communities in my life.

For as I watch the geese crisscross the skies of Southern California in their V-formation flight pattern during their winter retreats each year, I’m always reminded of something I once read about the scientific reasons why they fly that way:

As each bird flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the bird immediately following.  By flying in a “V” formation, the whole skein adds at least 71% more flying range than possible if each bird flew on its own.

People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going more quickly and easily because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.

When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to go it alone . . . and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front.

If we have as much sense as a goose, we will stay in formation with those who are headed the same way.

When the head goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wing and another goose flies point.

It is sensible to take turns doing demanding jobs, whether with people or with geese flying south for the winter.

Geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

What do we say when we honk from behind?

When a goose gets sick or is wounded by gunshot and falls out of formation, two other geese fall out with that goose and follow it down to lend help and protection.  They stay with the fallen goose until it is able to fly or until it dies.  Only then do they launch out on their own or with another formation to catch up with their group.

If we have the sense of a goose, we will stand by each other like that.

Those thoughts and observations have remained with me over the years, lying dormant for a while, only to be reawakened by the sight of the geese flying overhead or congregating in the wetlands, lakes, and reservoirs around Southern California.

On each occasion I marvel at the way God created these wild fowls and instilled in them this sense of caring and community.

And inevitably I’m reminded of how God desires us to have that sense of community and caring, too, especially those who seek to follow Christ as members of His body, the Church.

In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul tells us that as Christians we are diverse individuals with many spiritual gifts and ways to serve each other and Christ, yet there is unity in this diversity because we are all bound together in the love and Spirit of our Savior:

Now God gives us many kinds of special abilities, but it is the same Holy Spirit who is the source of them all.  There are different kinds of service to God, but it is the same Lord we are serving.  There are many ways in which God works in our lives, but it is the same God who does the work in and through all of us who are his.  The Holy Spirit displays God’s power through each of us as a means of helping the entire church. — I Cor. 12: 4-7 (Living Bible)

Our bodies have many parts, but the many parts make up only one body when they are all put together.  So it is with the “body” of Christ.  Each of us is a part of the one body of Christ.  Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free.  But the Holy Spirit has fitted us all together into one body.  We have been baptized into Christ’s body by one Spirit, and have all been given the same Holy Spirit. — verses 12-13

God has put the body together in such a way that extra honor and care are given to those parts that might otherwise seem less important.  This makes for happiness among the parts, so that the parts have the same care for each other that they do for themselves.  If one suffers, all parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad. — verses 24-26

Paul was writing to a group of believers who, like me, had started to forget what real love is all about.  He reminded them — and continues to remind us today — that all our abilities, talents, and spiritual gifts amount to nothing if we don’t love each other.  Without selfless love, we have nothing:

If I had the gift of being able to speak in other languages without learning them and could speak in every language there is in all of heaven and earth, but didn’t love others, I would only be making noise.

If I had the gift of prophecy and knew all about what is going to happen in the future, knew everything about everything, but didn’t love others, what good would it do?

Even if I had the gift of faith so that I could speak to a mountain and make it move, I would still be worth nothing at all without love.

If I gave everything I have to poor people, and if I were burned alive for preaching the Gospel but didn’t love others it would be of no value whatever.

Love is very patient and kind, never jealous or envious, never boastful or proud, never haughty or selfish or rude.  Love does not demand its own way.  It is not irritable or touchy.  It does not hold grudges and will hardly even notice when others do it wrong.  It is never glad about injustice, but rejoices whenever truth wins out.  If you love someone, you will be loyal to that person no matter what the cost. You will always believe in him, always expect the best of him, and always stand your ground in defending him.

All the special gifts and powers from God will someday come to an end, but love goes on forever. – 1 Cor. 13:1-8

Yes, there are many times that, in my anger, haughtiness, and selfishness, I want to turn my back on the people in my life.  Yet, again and again, the Spirit of Christ constrains me, convicts me of my sinfulness, then covers me with His grace and forgiveness, and sends me back into my communities to fellowship, love, and serve the other members of the body.

And sometimes He simply uses a gaggle of geese to do it.

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Prayer: Father God, may your grace and love indwell us, enabling us to be patient and kind to one another.  Forgive us for our selfishness, rudeness, irritability, and grudges.  Teach us to forgive others as you have forgiven us, and may we be instruments of peace, healing, and harmony in our communities of brokenness as we pray and serve in the redeeming name of Jesus our savior.  Amen.

I welcome your comments:

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