It was 1989. I was a white Mormon missionary, a “farm boy” from Idaho Falls, Idaho, assigned to serve in the South Side of Chicago. I probably didn’t need to say I was white because you probably just assumed that when I mentioned the word “Mormon” or “Idaho.” That’s okay. That doesn’t make you a bigot or racist. It just makes you real. Anyhow, inasmuch as my religion had its own history of racism, I was nervous about living in Chicago for the next two years—to put it mildly.
I arrived with a high fever and strep throat. My first night there was spent waiting in a busy emergency room, where, as I recall, multiple ambulances arrived. There had been some gang fighting with multiple injuries and possible fatalities. Welcome to Chicago.
The first Book of Mormon I delivered was to a woman named Goldie who lived in some housing projects down near Calumet as I recall. As we walked through the housing project it was eerily quiet, much like the sound I remembered when a predator like a grizzly bear or mountain lion was afoot in the forest: deathly silence. Used condoms, crack vials and hypodermic needles littered the ground. It smelled like urine everywhere. It was hot and muggy. I thought I was going to die. I really didn’t like Chicago.
We knocked on the door and, when it opened, Goldie looked at us like she’d just seen two ghosts. Come to think of it, two white boys—we were literally “boys” at just 19 years of age—in the South Side were probably the last things Goldie expected to see when she opened the door. After picking up her jaw and recovering her senses, she looked over our shoulders and said, waving us towards her, “Get in! Get in!” Then one of the first things she said, as I noticed what appeared to be bullet holes in her walls, was that the place to go if we heard shooting was to the bathroom down the hall. Welcome to Chicago.
My first few weeks in Chicago were terrifying. It was a strange new experience being the minority. Often we would go days or weeks without seeing another white person. Almost always, we found ourselves the only two white people on a bus full of black people. Sometimes when we sat down people moved away from us like we were lepers. But that could have been because they didn’t want to be preached at. Most of the time we were treated with warmth and kindness or simple indifference.
We were kicked off a bus once because we were white. True story. As it drove off, people on the bus threw soda cans and other junk at us. That was preceded by chants of “KKK” and other taunts and jeers while we were on the bus. “Damn! What that stank? It smell like white fish!” “You know what God do when he make a mistake? He white it out!” Actually, I laughed at that one. I thought it was pretty darn funny. The whole bus was laughing and jeering at us. So this is what it felt like? God bless you Rosa Parks.
We walked a lot. And, more than once, black bus drivers or black police officers pulled us over and asked if we were lost or what we were doing in this or that neighborhood. You shouldn’t be here, we were told. You’re risking your life, we were told. Apparently, we were guilty of WWW— “walking while white.” They were probably right. They weren’t racists. They were just humans … realists, trying to help other humans. I think they were sincerely concerned about us. But what do I know?
We would often smell smoke from back yard or back porch barbecues and almost 100% of the time, if you knocked on those doors or fences, you could count on great conversation and even better food. We always left wondering what was the fullest: our bellies or our hearts. There was nothing quite like a South Side barbecue. I became a big fan of collard greens and ham hocks, ribs, and fried chicken—is Church’s, Harold’s, Popeyes, or Brown’s the best? I say Harold’s. But that’s only for the unfortunate people who never tasted Sister Epps’s famous fried chicken. I’ve still never tasted anything quite that good! But I could never quite stomach chitlins.
The economically poor black people fed us more fully and more often than the educated and relatively wealthy white members of our own congregation. We were loved and well fed by the “least” of these.
People who had almost nothing gave us so much. My heart ached for them. I’d never seen living conditions like this, people freezing in the winter, boiling in the summer, because they couldn’t afford their utility bills; school kids without text books; babies without diapers; empty cupboards and bloated stomachs from malnutrition right here in America! There were people literally starving. I remember giving a man just enough money to buy some neck bone—at least that’s what he said he was going to buy. I thought for sure he would just go buy some booze. But he ran straight to the corner market and came out a few minutes later with a big ole neck bone under his arm, tears in his eyes, and change in his hands. “Thank you, he said. Thank you.” I was humbled. I was wrong about him. I pre-judged him. I guess that’s what they call prejudice.
The stories were heartbreaking. Black young men were gunned down by other black young men. That was a common story. Why? A frequent explanation was, “They wanted his Air Jordans” or “I don’t know.”
It was rare to find a nuclear family. More often than not we encountered a matriarchal society, led by one generation of single mother after another. Life was hard for them. For the first time in my life I saw how it was possible that a person born into that situation could just get … stuck.
Chicago exposed me to so much I had never before seen or experienced: being a minority, racism, generational poverty, violence, addiction, prostitution, division, unity, segregation, solidarity, rage, kindness and brotherly love, regardless of skin color. Most of all, it exposed me to myself.
After two years, I returned home and I got on with my life. I married the girl of my dreams and went to college, earning a degree in sociology and, later, a law degree. But the South Side never left me.
I vowed to do something to make a difference. I took every civil rights course I could in law school and became an expert on the Civil Rights Act of 1871. I published scholarly articles. I volunteered for the local branch of the NAACP and served on its legal redress committee. But, in the years I served on that committee, we didn’t file or fight a single lawsuit. As far as I was concerned, the NAACP was good at collecting dues and speaking but not much else. And at the time I was affiliated with it, the NAACP was plagued with internal politics and in-fighting. For example, I was eventually asked to leave my branch’s legal redress committee simply because I spoke to another neighboring branch of the NAACP about civil rights. I guess my branch of the NAACP thought I was its property. Ironic.
Ignorance abhors nuance. It embraces the dualistic and binary consciousness of the masses, which are the bellows and foundries of extremism.
I don’t know what I think of the NAACP these days. I don’t pay much attention. But my experience left me a little disillusioned and frustrated about what I could do to stay connected to and help the black community in Utah. I drifted away from making any type of conscientious or concerted effort to help improve the situation of my black brothers and sisters. I changed the focus area of my law practice and moved on with my life. Slowly but surely my idealism waned, drifting into what could best be called a frustrated indifference. I wanted to do something to make things better in our country but I didn’t know what it was.
I voted for Obama during his first run for the presidency even though I have always been a registered Republican. I thought he was smarter and wiser than John McCain, who, in my opinion, was afflicted with Potomac Fever. I had chills and goose bumps during Obama’s victory speech. I thought this was the dawning of a new era in race relations in America. It was. But it was not for the better. I didn’t vote for Obama on his second run for the presidency. And I was glad when he left office. In my view, race relations in this country deteriorated quite drastically during his administration. Whether that was his fault, partly his fault, or not at all his fault, is for history to judge. My perception was that he treated white people differently than black people. There was an aura of “let’s stick it to the man” that I felt during those years. Of course, my perception could be entirely wrong. But at least others, like Key and Peele, might have noticed that, too.
I regularly go back to Chicago. I took my little white family there one time. We rented a mini-van and drove to the South Side. I wanted to show them where I lived. More importantly, I wanted to show them how their brothers and sisters in a different part of America lived. It hadn’t changed much in the last 20 years. There were dead cars on blocks, young men standing on every corner, loitering around in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. Shouldn’t they be working? Do they have jobs? And, yes, we drew stares. I’m guessing a mini-van filled with a young white family isn’t a common sight in the South Side. Did I start to worry that we were going to get held up or car-jacked? Yep. I’ll admit it. This was a high crime area where we often heard gun shots at night. And, you know, I bet the ghosts of those black bus drivers and black police officers who pulled over to help me 20 years ago in the same neighborhood would probably agree. We high-tailed it out of there. It was pretty clear we were not a welcome sight. Or was it?
I haven’t helped very many black people in my legal profession over the years. I just don’t encounter my black brothers and sisters in Utah very much. We’re still a very segregated nation. I handle pro bono cases from time to time. For the past year or so I’ve been investigating claims for a black man at the state penitentiary who claims he was raped and sexually abused by white supremacists after prison staff deliberately housed him in a wing of the prison known to contain KKK and Aryan Nationalists. He also claims excessive force. He is mentally ill and was talking to himself in his prison cell one day. He apparently didn’t respond to a command from prison officials, who asked him to present himself to be cuffed. My client apparently ignored them. So the prison officials sent in a SWAT team of 8 guards who deployed three flash grenades, tazed him, forcibly hog-tied him, and carried him out on the chain. Was that excessive? Was that racist?
When you try to categorize people as “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”, “conservative” or “liberal”, “black” or “white” you miss the mystery of who they really are.
These days, I often find myself conflicted. The part of me that considers himself a son of the South Side and the part of me that loves his brother-in-law, who is a cop and former prison guard, are often at war with one another. This war rages on inside of me right now more than ever before. But I can’t talk to very many people about it. I can’t honestly write about it because my thinking on the subject is far too raw and nuanced for people on either end of the political spectrum to handle. I would probably be simultaneously accused of being a leftist and a racist–maybe that’s happening right now. In reality, I’m simply trying to be as honest, as helpful and as loving as I know how.
This is my story. Judge it—judge me—however you want. Shame me. Humiliate me. Shout me down. Label me. Call me what you want. Misinterpret what I say to fit your narrative of me and the world around you. Do what you want. I don’t give a darn what you think any more. Well, at least I say that. Do I care?
Jesus taught me that it matters more what I think of others than what others think of me. I can control the former but not the latter. My final judgment will not consist of a stream of witnesses who are asked what they think of me. It will consist of a stream of people I encountered in life being brought before me while I am asked, “And what did you feel for them? What did you do for them?”
Jesus also taught me to practice non-judgment. Non-judgment isn’t amorality, disregarding what’s right and wrong. It’s actively and consciously practicing the avoidance of categorization. Enigmaticy. Non-labeling. When we were born, we didn’t come with labels. And we don’t deserve or need them now. All things, all people, are mysterious and enigmatic, neither black nor white, neither wholly good nor wholly bad. When you try to categorize and label people as “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”, “conservative” or “liberal”, “black” or “white” you miss the mystery of who they really are.
The issue isn’t black and white. It’s black and white thinking.
And that’s the problem. We can’t handle nuance or complexity. We want black and white. We want left or right. But this is not a black and white issue.
Ignorance abhors nuance. It embraces the dualistic and binary consciousness of the masses, which are the bellows and foundries of extremism. It’s easier to align yourself with group think than think for yourself. This has led us to where we’re at in this moment of history. The issue isn’t black and white. It’s black and white thinking.
So where do we go from here? I disagree with Obama’s recent article that basically advocates that change needs to come from the outside. You don’t screw in a light bulb and bring light into the room by holding the bulb and then asking everyone around you to move the house. You have to move! You have to change. We all have to change. We all need to repent! All the great world leaders from Gandhi to MLK recognized this. Change must happen from the inside out. Be the change you want to see.
Passing laws to love one another and treat each other fairly won’t work. That’s demonstrably true. We’ve had laws like that for more than half a century and look where we’re at! The outside in approach is the wrong approach. It never works. That’s not the solution.
MJ said it well:
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change
The solution is quite simple–and yet so, so difficult for me to actually carry out. As a then-relatively unknown day laborer said two millennia ago, “Love one another.” (John 13:34-35.) Or, as the mural I saw on my last visit to Chicago–and that is pictured at the beginning and end of this post–says, “SAVE THE PLANET. LOVE ALL. SERVE ALL. TAKE TIME TO BE KIND. ALL IS ONE.”
All is one. (See John 17.)