Leaping the Gap

I was sitting at my soundboard one day, running sound checks and preparing for worship, when a young woman, perhaps 16 years old, came in with her friends and sat down right in front me, such that I could plainly see what was printed on the back of her shirt in large white block letters: “I WASN’T EDUCATED IN NO F***ING WHITE MAN’S SCHOOL.” I was a bit shocked, as you might guess…


I’ve always been a strong proponent of equal rights and justice for all, but how that has been expressed changed radically one day in the fall of 1995, as a result of an encounter in an all-black church I was a member of at the time, and where I was the chief sound technician for the church’s worship services. …It was (and still is) a transformative moment for me…

I was sitting at my soundboard that morning, running sound checks and preparing for worship, when a young woman, perhaps 16 years old, came in with her friends and sat down right in front of my position in the church’s sanctuary, such that I could plainly see what was printed on the back of her shirt in large white block letters: “I WASN’T EDUCATED IN NO F***ING WHITE MAN’S SCHOOL.”  (Well, OK – I added the asterisks!)

I was a bit shocked, as you might guess, and raised this with a good friend of mine a day or two later, Shermaine. Shermaine listened patiently to my story, paused for a moment, then said, “You know, what that young girl did was wrong, but you have to realize: you’re white. When you encounter racism, you can just leave and never have to deal with it again.”  Then she paused again, longer this time, and quietly added “I can never leave my skin.”

I was stunned, a blow to the heart. I’d pranced into that church, thinking I was reaching across racial barriers, deliberately and sincerely seeking to be a truly humble and involved child of God in an environment that was otherwise foreign to me. And yet, I was being rejected. It took me many years to fully understand why.

You see, I was intruding in the “sacred space “of that young girl. She lived in a community in coastal Virginia that was filled with racial hatred and bigotry.  Church was a place where she’d been able to share and fellowship with others without having that hatred staring her in the face. It was her only refuge from the cruelty and judgment of the outside world.

And then I intruded. No matter how well meaning or kind I was, my white face was a reminder of all that she had to deal with, every minute of every day, in the world outside the doors of that church. She had lost the one place where she’d been able to escape from all of the oppression and painful experiences that resulted from the color of her skin. No wonder she reacted as she did.

I learned a great deal from that experience.

For one, I’ve come to the firm conclusion that for any group to escape oppression, it can’t be handed to them. They need to claim it for themselves. I can’t unilaterally fix the problem for them. I might be invited to assist, but I cannot take the lead – it is their healing, and their redemption, not mine.  I can take the initiative to open doors, but those who are marginalized and oppressed are the only ones who have the right to choose whether to walk through it, or find another door of their own – and I will wholeheartedly support their choice.

For another (turning this around from looking at God’s Creation to looking directly at the Creator) it seems to me that this says a lot about the nature of the relationship between God and us. God may have created this world, but it has been given to us. It is up to us to take care of it as God calls us to do; but God will not fix it for us – just as I could not “fix” racism for this girl, or for anyone in that church, for that matter.  But then again, I believe the Almighty would be pleased if we asked for a little help from time to time…

To put it another way, in that moment with Shermaine, I came to realize that our faith does not merely demand that we treat others with justice and compassion, nor are we called to unilaterally apply our ethics to the situations of others.  We each need to claim justice and ethical treatment for ourselves, in the way that works best for each of us, and we are called to support others when they endeavor do the same.  It is their voice, and their choice, that matters.

Social Justice is about walking with the oppressed and marginalized as they proceed on the path they believe God has laid for them; it is not about others making a path for them.  Such a path would simply be introducing a new form of oppression and injustice, no matter how well intentioned, and would also mean that we are substituting our own sense of justice for God’s.  We’d be setting ourselves up as gods in place of The God; we’d be idolizing ourselves.

Copyright (c) 2013, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site). 

Author: Allen

A would be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is a father of two (ages 28 & 7). He and his wife enjoy life near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/ or on Twitter @allenvm3.

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