In the summer of 1967, my family moved away from our exclusively white, middle-class neighborhood, school, and church in Salem. Looking out the car window as we neared our new home, I asked my parents, “Why are there so many Black people in St. Louis?” At eight, I was about to have my ﬁrst experiences with race during a turbulent decade in a city with deep racial rifts.
Living in an intentionally mixed-race, mixed-income rental community near the most impoverished areas of St. Louis, I walked to a predominantly African American public school during the week. On Sundays, my family attended our neighborhood church. It was at this church that I met Norm. Outside of family, Norman Ellington was my ﬁrst mentor in the faith. My younger brother and I gravitated to him before church and between Sunday School and worship.
Norm put up with our silly jokes, our brotherly rivalry, and our constant questions and comments. Norm took advantage of teachable moments to mentor our understanding of Christianity in a broken world where racism, poverty, and violence were never far from our doorstep. Norm, an African-American man, patiently explained what it meant to be Black in the late 1960s St. Louis and what it meant to be a Christian during those violent times. When I was being bullied daily by an African American classmate, being called “honky” and other epithets for whites, it was Norm who helped me understand what was happening through a loving lens.
When my best friend’s African American father was shot and killed on the job by a mentally ill man, Norm helped me understand that Jay’s father had been doing God’s work striving to help poor Blacks and whites ﬁnd employment. He did so despite the risks to his safety created by embedded racism and hatred. Norm reminded me that Jesus was never afraid to go where those who were in need lived and struggled.
When my mother was distressed by harsh language directed at her by Black Panthers at a suburban shopping center, I listened as Norm counseled her with love and compassion. He helped her understand the deep pain and harm that white supremacy has wrought in our nation. When I was older, my mother told me that she left that conversation with a deeper understanding of her complicity in racism.
Norm had a profound formative inﬂuence on my faith and my understanding of race. I’ve told a version of this story for decades. Over time, as my experiences and knowledge of race change, I use different terminology and interpret the events of 50 years ago differently. When I committed it to print a decade ago, I ended it this way, “He helped me interpret both my positive and negative experiences in such a way that racism spared me its harshest sting —internalized hatred of the other.”
I cringe when I read that now. It is so self-congratulatory. It’s as if I’m saying, “Look at me! I’m a good white person.” Having grown up white in this country, it’s impossible not to have some embedded racism. It’s not that I’m a bad person, but those words I wrote before are naive. They imply that racism is exclusively about personal actions. But racism is about power structures and systems that favor white people like me.
As a white man, it is hard to see the myriad forms that racism takes. Instead of congratulating myself on being a good white person, I need to listen to the lived experiences of people of color and follow their lead.
Tim Graves is the lead pastor of Albany First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He is a runner, grandaddy, and husband of 40 years.
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