How does it feel to be black in America?

This weekend, we had another church, Windsor Crossing, who we’ve been partnering with in ministry come to our facilities and basically take over for the whole Saturday to do a “Christmas Store”. The point of the store is to offer low-income folks in our church community an opportunity to purchase new toys for their kids at a reduced price.

I thought we could just plan to have our rehearsal in the youth room and everything would be fine. Everything did work fine for us, but there was a little awkwardness. As I pulled up to my church -where I am a member and on staff – I was met with a “can I help you?” from a few unfamiliar men directing traffic in my church’s parking lot. After parking, I passed by a bunch of unfamiliar folk, wearing name-tags and Christmas sweaters. They looked at me with an expression that communicated that I was not one of them, so I must be one of the “low-income” people. I must be a person in need. Emotionally, I felt very uncomfortable.

The next day, I was sharing my feelings with my friend, Darwin, who was also on the music team this weekend and shared my experience. Darwin, who is black, responded to my feelings by saying basically that I (a white person) got a little taste of what it’s like to have black skin in America.

Let me say at this point that I am very thankful for Windsor Crossing and all the volunteers that came out this weekend. They did an excellent job and I don’t think that there was anything wrong with how they interacted with me. Everything that I’m sharing with you was an internal experience that was an emotional (not very rational) experience. Feelings, not facts.

So what were those feelings? No one accosted me or anything really overt. For about 10 minutes, I just felt a sense of alienation in my own community. I felt like I was not one of the tribe. I was cheerfully welcomed but still an outsider. Perceived as a “shopper” at the store, I felt like the object of charity and not like a peer. (Again, I didn’t actually participate in the store, I’m just describing my feelings). It’s amazing how the phrase, “Can I help you?” is so offensive in certain circumstances.

So have you ever felt that way?

If you are black in the America, is this a true description of what can happen in stores, churches, or other institutions?

The innocent volunteers were unaware of what they were communicating to me; am I as unaware in my own interactions?

Is this an example of me just being hyper-sensitive? In a situation like this, I am the one at fault for reading too much into nonverbal cues?

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  1. #1 by Dee on December 8, 2009 - 3:47 pm

    Kirk, you seem preoccupied with race issues. It’s a constant thread in many of the postings on your blog.

    I believe, at the end of the day, much of the Gospel revolves around the fact that folks are folks, and that looking at folks with color-blind eyes as much as possible is were the greatest amount of grace lays.

    • #2 by kirkwardmusic on December 8, 2009 - 4:42 pm

      Dee, you are correct that I am preoccupied with race. It’s something that I have to process and consider on a daily basis where I live, work, and worship. This blog is “worship in the city.” In the city of St Louis there are many different races living together, and I serve in a church where we try to live out the reality of the gospel by breaking down racial, social, and economic barriers. Grace is “color-blind” in the sense that it does not discriminate based on race; all are welcome to the feast of the Lamb. But, the prophetic revelation that John gives us of that feast includes people from every tribe and nation, that must have been a very colorful vision.

      Thank you for your comment and your concern that the Gospel remain a free gift to everyone regardless of race. However, I believe that gospel compels me and all disciples of Jesus to do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with God. In the United States, the issues of race continue to divide us both in the church and the culture at large. If we stand by and act like racial injustice and inequality are not there, are we doing justly? If we allow the church to remain so segregated because of our failure to forgive and be reconciled, are we loving mercy? If we don’t confess that the church needs to continue to reform and become reconciled, are we really walking humbly?

      I’d love to talk more about it if you would like to contact me directly through email. Thanks for reading my blog, and I hope you continue to read and comment.

      • #3 by Dee on December 8, 2009 - 9:59 pm

        Thanks for your response. Just to provide some background, I, too,
        live, work and worship “in the city”, in my case, Philadelphia.

        To cut to the chase, here’s what concerns me – do we love Jesus, or do we love “Jesus and diversity” more? I have recently left a church because, at least to some degree, I think that that church had come to iidolize diversity. My new church is just as diverse as the one I left, but they don’t crow about it.They just walk the talk, every day, every Sunday, every way. I think the latter is much closer to the Gospel.

        Thanks for the offer to chat about these things one-on-one. I hope to do so soon.

      • #4 by kirkwardmusic on December 9, 2009 - 1:39 pm

        I love Philly!
        You are exactly right, we can make idols of just about anything. Especially when we baptize secular political or social agendas like diversity, tolerance, or inclusivity. I am certainly guilty sometimes of idolatry of this kind. May God’s grace continue to reform our hearts so that we can all have the freedom to “walk the talk” as we love one another.

  2. #5 by Heidi Vincent on December 8, 2009 - 5:39 pm

    I can’t help but wonder how often I’ve been the “can I help you” person (question #3) in a way that has offended brothers and sisters. We church folk LOVE to be the “can I help you” person, and often pat ourselves on the back for being the “can I help you” person in as many contexts as possible-I speak from MUCH experience (at one point I wanted to join every ministry under the sun, because it felt good to help others-sounds noble, but my heart was often not in the right place)! It’s funny, how good it feels to be the “can I help you” person and how crummy it feels to be on the flip side. Since I am now a stay-at-home mommy I have felt that a bit. I can relate better with the “can I help you” person than the one that answers with, “actually, yes, you can help me.” I pray that God will open our eyes to the ways we-believers-can be sensitive and protective of those in need.
    Kirk, you did it again with another growthful post!
    P.S. It would be nice to hear Suzanne Bates regarding being the “can I help you” person, because she is very gifted and gracious in that position. When I met her as a stranger I remember feeling SO loved and welcome!
    P.S.S. Dear me, I’ve said “the ‘can I help you’ person” way too many times. Forgive.

  3. #6 by Melanie Luebbert on December 9, 2009 - 5:53 pm

    Loved your blog, Kirk. I also enjoyed reading the comments. I’m right there with Heidi. Now a stay at home mom, and in a few places have experienced the emotions that you did on Saturday. And I have definitely been the “can I help you?” person too many times. Praise God he can redeem all of this!

  4. #7 by Darwin White on December 10, 2009 - 11:15 am

    Well….
    Since I was actually named in this piece, I thought that the LEAST I could do would be comment as well.
    Firstly, Kirk, glad that my words reverberated. One never knows how impacting anything will be, so I’m glad, but, knowing you, nor surprised that you have and continue to give this matter some thought. And, that you put these thoughts out here for people to read and give thought to as well.

    I stand by what I said to you and your descriptors of your feelings were so spot on in terms of the ongoing struggle just to be seen as a person in one’s own community and country. It is frustrating and even maddening at times that, regardless of achievement, even, the view is that you are “the other”. I could use myself as an example but, instead, give you none other than our current President to drive home what I said. Leaving his politics out of it, it seems to me that, by American standards, it’s very difficult to be more accomplished than he. And, included in the accomplishments is being the head of the Harvard Review. I don’t think that any number of people really understand what that means. And, it is a position that is not given, but EARNED. And, yet….scorn, and I don’t think that’s an exaggerated term, is heaped upon him, in large measure, just because of the color of his skin. There are many, many examples of this both covertly and VERY overtly being done. It’s like, GEEEEZ…..WHAT has to be DONE?????

    Also, Dee from Philly, if you are reading this, I can tell you in all honesty that Kirk isn’t “preoccupied” with race. But, he is “intentional” with his thoughts and any number of his actions in this regard.

    The Gospel, indeed, says what you say it does. But, I would also ask you what does it say about a faith without works? I throw out for your consideration that you should NOT be “color-blind”. Why on earth pretend that, as one would look at someone else and that someone else, having more or less melanin in them than who is being observed, the physical appearance is the same? It isn’t. There are also matters of culture. Which, to that person or those people, may have great significance. Why pretend that they don’t? For this matter, finally, that there are all of these different physical presentations, which, we now know, have to do with the ability to adapt to the climate that that human entity finds itself in, that ability comes from God. So, again, why pretend that we don’t see what we do see?

    What Kirk and our church and others, hopefully, is/are pressing is what MAN ascribes, by negative stereotype, to the presentation of the colors. That can’t be done, at least not to me, by just thinking and or praying about it. At some point and on an ongoing basis, ACTIONS must be taken. Again, at least to me, if the Gospel is going to be actualized, things must be talked about fairly frequently (there’s a reason why we are instructed to gather as believers at LEAST once weekly – we tend to forget and lapse into the desires of our flesh) and, actually, acted upon and acted upon again such that what was foretold will actualize. So…..

    There is resultant discomfort, resultant “errors”, resultant frustration, but that’s the model. As I’ve come to understand it, Jesus walked the walk by actually putting himself in situations and around and amongst people that were different than him both in race and class. But, He also TALKED it as well. Over, and over, and OVER again. He talked to crowds great and small. To people of great import and to the most low. And, He actually spoke pretty frequently about matters of race. Any number of people thought He was pretty self assured and preoccupied, too.

    Fortunately for us, I believe, He shook His head and thought: “Umpf, umpf, UMPF……what’s a Savior to do?”

    I look forward to more pieces on race and, indeed, other matters from you, Kirk. I’ve been around long enough to now know that the element of ongoing discussion is one of the key factors(and, I s’pose I’d be remiss to leave out , in our country’s case, The Civil War. HOPEfully, we won’t have to go THAT far again.but we ARE THAT hardheaded) that must be present for foretold Biblical justice to occur.

    • #8 by kirkwardmusic on December 10, 2009 - 1:02 pm

      thanks for adding to the conversation, Darwin. And thank you for your leadership and insight on our session over and over bringing us back to intentionally, but of course tempered with moderation and grace.

      I hope to continue to write about “race” on this blog as well as issues of justice for the alien, the widow and the orphan, the unique challenges of making music in a multicultural context, as well as sharing my struggles with believing and living out the gospel as a father and church musician. Not to mention, constantly peddling my new CD, Guardian Grace, which will be available for $15 tomorrow night at my CD release party, 6:30 at New City Fellowship.

      • #9 by Darwin White on December 10, 2009 - 4:11 pm

        WHAT??????!!!!!! You have a NEW CD????????????

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