In the summer of 2015, a white supremacist walked into a church in Charleston, SC and horrificly murdered nine African Americans. At the time, I was living and working in a predominantly black neighborhood of Philadelphia. I remember going to the grocery store the day after and feeling intensely aware of my white skin.
At first I felt ashamed that my skin color was associated with such an atrocious act. Then, I thought I perceived suspicious and judgmental glances from those around me. I began to feel defensive and defiant in a you-don’t-know-me, who-are-you-to-judge-me kind of way. Feeling outnumbered and backed into a corner has an incredible power to twist and crush the heart.
That day, I had a moment of realization that the wave of emotions I had experienced in one trip to the grocery store is something that many minorities and marginalized people experience every single day of their lives. I realized that I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to grow up with that kind of tension and weight from childhood into adulthood. Even more than the perceived prejudice I experienced, being black in America means experiencing blatant racism on countless occasions. As a white person, I could only guess at what kind of damage such a prolonged experience has on a human soul. I was humbled and knew that I needed a deeper openness when it came to the race issues in our country.
Little did I know that two years later I would fall in love and marry a black woman. Our marriage has been an incredibly transformative experience in a multitude of ways, including opening my eyes even more to how little I truly know about the black experience.
It is an eye-roll-inducing cliché to hear a white person say, “I’m not a racist; I have a black friend,” but certainly marrying a black woman clears me of any accusations, right? That’s the wrong question.
Racism isn’t just about instances of active aggression but also includes all those times when passivity fuels the fire just the same. Ignorance, stereotypes, and even subtle prejudices all contribute to an environment where racism can continue to poison our communities.
Rather than passive questions about how we can be cleared of guilt or responsibility, instead we need to ask active questions about how we can make a difference. What can we do to break down the walls of division? How can we began taking healthy steps towards reconciliation and unity?
1. Listen with humility and a desire to learn. Last year, my wife Natanya and I went to see the movie Black Panther. We were both excited about the movie, but coming out of the theater I realized we’d just had two very different experiences. I was excited to talk about the great acting, the incredible use of long one-shots, and the complexity and depth of characters and plot. Natanya, however, burst into tears as she began to share how emotional it was for her to see a movie full of strong and beautifully-portrayed characters who looked like her. I realized that while I appreciated that fact, it was something I could only have external sympathy for and not experiential empathy. I felt honored as I listened to her share from her personal stories and thoughts on the portrayal of heritage, love, and leadership. It was beautiful to receive such a gift.
God invites us to “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). If you’re wanting to truly learn about someone “other” than yourself, begin with listening — not waiting for your turn to talk, not ready to present a counterpoint, not with growing defensiveness, but with a humility that is eager to grow by learning from someone different than yourself.
2. Seek an expanded identity in Christ. Natanya and I were recently speaking at a church when we were asked about interracial relationships. The questioner stated that while they weren’t racist, they were concerned about the loss of cultural identity that could happen in such a relationship. We shared that regardless of race or culture, this is certainly a challenge of any intimate relationship, especially when there is an unhealthy power struggle. As Christians, though, we have the exciting opportunity to approach relational identity dynamics with an expansive rather than restrictive perspective.
Too often, when we encounter someone who is different, or whom we perceive as threatening to our way of being and doing, we proceed with our guard up, seeking primarily to protect our own identity — which often includes countering or defeating the other person’s point of view. However, if our identity is in Christ, everything changes! Rather than finding our identity threatened by someone different than us, it is actually an opportunity to experience more of the identity of Christ! We — collectively, communally — are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). Our hope of glory is Christ in us — all of us together (Colossians 1:27)! If we truly want to experience more of Jesus, we will seek opportunities to experience aspects of His identity that are different and new to us.
I love being married to Natanya. I love being married to her, not just her as a woman, but as a black woman. The history, culture, experiences, and perspectives she brings to our marriage as a black woman are inspiring and beautiful to me. I am humbled and honored to be united with her and to be learning from and growing with her.
We live in Vermont now, and there aren’t a lot of black people here. Whenever Natanya sees one, she’ll wave and smile and say, “Look, it’s another one of us!” Early in our time here, I was at a dinner with some co-workers who are all white in a restaurant with all white people. An unconscious tension began building inside of me until finally I saw a black couple enter the front door. Before reason could kick in, my gut reaction was relief as I thought, “Look, it’s another one of us!” Of course, I had to laugh at myself, but it also made me smile to think how deeply unified I felt with my new bride.
We believe this kind of unity is a gift from God, and it is not reserved only for romantic relationships. This kind of unity is at the heart of Christ’s final prayer for His church before He faced the Cross: “May they be one as We are one” (John 17:22). We can be a part of the answer to this prayer as we celebrate unity through diversity. We can listen to each other and truly learn. We can seek to experience an expanded identity in Christ through each other. We can embody the oneness of the Trinity here on earth. Will you join us in being the arms of God reaching out to embrace and draw in all nations, languages, and people — our families, our churches, and our communities — into the oneness found in Jesus?
Written By: Jason Vanderlaan
Jason is a creative leader dedicated to inviting others into deeper Jesus-centered living. After graduating with a BA in Theology from Southern, he has served as hospital chaplain, boys' dean, teacher, business manager, communications coordinator, and pastor. Now Jason is adventuring into new frontiers with his amazing wife and ministry partner, Natanya, in the beautiful land of Vermont. In addition to the work they're doing in conjunction with Upward Movement Ministries (upwardmovementministries.com) and his role as a youth ministry leader, Jason is passionate about communicating through poetry (balmandblade.com), engaging on social media (facebook.com/jason.vanderlaan), and blogging.