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From the Rev: Reflections on Racism

Mar 22, 2012

Downtown Detroit might look bright and shiny, but the streets are dark and despairing

As I prepare to head into the training ground, today, and speak with the players about the issue of racism. I have been reflecting on my own journey and wrestle with attitudes of racism and prejudice. Growing up near Detroit, Michigan through my teenage years, I wasn’t sheltered from issues of race and prejudice. I still can remember driving through the inner city and seeing two homeless men – one white, one black fighting each other. One taking a lead pipe and threatening the other over a blanket and shopping cart – whom stole from whom, I couldn’t tell. My small, private school was near the suburb of Pontiac which had a large community of African-American people and while not a majority of the student body by any means, it was the most exposure I had ever had to another ethnic group. It was during those years, I fell in love with Black Gospel music. The passion, energy, the way the choral parts could be distinctly heard and the way I felt the Spirit move, drew me in and I loved the deep, moving words and rhythms expressed (I would, later for the college radio station, go on to host a Black Gospel music program). I can’t say at this point, I had any really close friends that were from a different ethnicity – my closest friends still hailed from the Anglo people. But, I didn’t have prejudiced attitudes – or at least so I thought.

I moved from Michigan to Colorado just before my senior of high school – I confess it was a bit of a blur. Attending two high schools in your senior year is not on my list of life recommendations, but if there was any diversity to be had in Colorado it would be more along the lines of Hispanic, but it was difficult to make friends for me in such short amounts of time. My only recollection of the race issue coming up that year was in our church youth group – which was milky white, and had no people different from me. Our youth pastor at the time brought up the issue of race and how we ought to love others as ourselves. I remember making a comment about how some of my “black” friends that I had grown up with in Detroit felt about how people treated them. A peer criticized me – saying that my “black” reference was racist and that “they prefer to be called African-American.” Another student rose to my defense, but one could see the lines of confusion even amongst the student youth at our church.

I started college in the city – the University of Colorado-Denver. One of my fellow classmates that I loved spending time with (his name was Michael) we would debate the merits of socialism and whether it was better to be a Republican or Democrat. Michael was African-American, but we lived in different worlds – I bused in from suburbia and he lived in a motel along Colfax. I transferred to Moody Bible Institute the following year.

A resident of Cabrini Green before it was leveled

Not knowing much about it – its location in downtown Chicago and bordered by the Cabrini Green Housing Projects – put some fear in the heart of my mother, but I was just excited to be in the city. There was a vibrancy and life that came from being there. As far as the projects – we could hear gunshots sometimes at night, but the saying was, “If you are white and in Cabrini Green you are either an undercover cop (and we know who they are) or you are a Moody Student coming to pick up your little brother or little sister through the school’s outreach program. Here, at Moody, I also got to live out some of my love, joining the campus Black Gospel choir – I was a white boy swaying and clapping (many times off beat) to the rhythms and songs I had grown to love years before.

Dante Upshaw - EFCA Director of African-American Ministries

But it was while I was at Moody that I was confronted (and rightfully so) with the true nature of my prejudice attitudes. It was a small meeting of several students on campus – some folks from the choir had invited me to attend. A couple of African-American students were looking to put together a chapel presentation on racism. What was supposed to be a planning and idea meeting turned into something very different. I recall one of the students (who would later go on to become one of my dearest friends), Dante Upshaw, speaking with such power and conviction – asked us to examine our own attitudes that might be considered prejudice – even at this Christian campus amongst people that believed in God as I did. As I thought about his question, a moment came to my mind – I shared a moment in the gym a week before. I had been shooting hoops when another student came in with his little brother from Cabrini Green – I had left some personal things (a jacket, wallet, keys) at the other end of the gym. I stopped what I was doing and walked over trying to inconspicuously collect my things and take them to the other side of the gym. I remember thinking in my mind, “This kid might steal my stuff…I better move it.”

Moody's campus (seen from the John Hancock tower) is sandwiched in the middle of the city (brown brick bldg at left edge of picture is the men's dorm) - a buffer from the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue and the housing projects of Cabrini Green (now row homes at top of photo)

I forget where my sharing of that story occurred in the process of the meeting, but I remember that the meeting changed soon after that – there were some tense moments as I defended myself and another student challenged me. There were other students – on all sides of the ethnic divide – sharing their own stories. An American Indian describing how people ignored him or made fun of the way he looked. A Latino girl angry about how others treated her. A white person mad because he felt that there was reverse prejudice imposed on him. And on and on it went. There were tears, apologies, confrontation and a lot more. At the end of our time (I think we went on for a couple hours) we had done no planning or talking about taking the issue of racism and prejudice to the student body, but we had lived something out. Dante picked up on this, “This is it – we take this, what just happened here” in all of its ugliness and strange beauty we decided to recreate what had just happened for the student body. Tearing Down the Walls – the name of our program. We didn’t need to rehearse any lines – because we had been living out the lines in our everyday lives.

Well, I may have already gone on too long in this post, but I would hope that someone could look at my life and say “He changed. He’s different, today.” I still have some reservations and difficulties at times. The issues seem somewhat different and yet somewhat the same today – whether it is about immigration issues or older forms of racism and prejudice. I confess that I am not some great ambassador or example of inter-racial relations. But I do value people of different ethnicity and culture. I still make mistakes, but I pray God keep perfecting me. And in this, I hope that the players today that I speak with will listen and receive and put attention to the ways in which their own prejudices might play out. And, for the Christians, I hope that they trust in the power of God to change the way they think, act, treat, and even love one another. For it is when we love God and others, as ourselves, that we really begin to fight the fight against racism.

Blessings,

Rev. Brad Kenney

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