I suppose I’m not surprised that so much of the blogosphere and Facebook chatter about race has died down. I suspect it’s symptomatic of our short attention span. If it’s not in the news, then there’s no need to think about it anymore.
Except that there is. In the lively social media conversation a couple of months ago, there were several threads to the conversation that had to do with the notion that most white people don’t have any black friends. The implication seemed to be that white people should go out and make some friends who are black.
While I’m certainly not opposed to friendship, I think the notion is a red herring.
While my experience doesn’t need to be emblematic of anyone else’s, it’s the only experience I can speak of with any authority. In the first place, I don’t have many friends period. White or black. I am not the kind of person who cultivates a large number of social friends. I don’t go to a lot of parties. My social contacts are to a great extent the people of my congregation, and while I am friendly with them, and have a good relationship with many of them, they are not my friends.
I am also in a vocation where nurturing friendships is not particularly easy. I’m a pastor. My schedule doesn’t match the schedule of much of the world around me. I mostly work weekends, and when I do have some time on Saturday, it’s spent catching up on domestic chores that I’ve ignored all week. I don’t like to go out on Saturday night because I’m preoccupied with Sunday morning. My day off is Friday, when most folks are working. And I often end up working two or three evenings a week. That’s why over the years, the few friendships that I have cultivated have been mostly other clergy. Our schedules mesh. It’s easy for us to find time for coffee in the middle of the morning or the afternoon or even an occasion for a late afternoon beer before heading home for dinner and another evening meeting.
Having said all that, though, I think friendship across racial lines is not necessarily what’s needed. What’s needed is public relationships across racial lines and all the other lines that tend to divide us: religious, political, socio-economic, and on and on. What we need, what I need, what the world needs is people who are willing to sit down and get to know what the Other cares about, is passionate about, lies awake at night worrying about. If racism is going to be addressed in any meaningful way in our communities, then we have to do the relational work that will make a difference in the long run.
I don’t know what it’s like to live as a black man in the western suburbs of Chicago. How could I? So, I also don’t know what’s needed or what actions on my part or on the part of the faith community I serve might be helpful. So, rather than take a stab in the dark or engage in action that is merely symbolic, I reach out.
I sit down and talk about the issues of racism and interactions with police and what it’s like to live as a person of color out here. I sit down as a pastor with members of my congregation who are African-American or Hispanic or refugee or gay or poor or any of the other boundaries that separate me from them. I reach out to my clergy colleagues across the boundaries of what makes us different. I sit down across the coffee shop table from them with an inherent curiosity and ask questions and listen. I ask them who else I should be talking to. And I encourage and challenge the members of my congregation to do the same thing.
When we do that enough times, not only are we building meaningful relationships, we discover that certain themes begin to emerge. Now we are positioned for meaningful action that just might get something done instead of the often symbolic flash in the pan action that gets some attention and then dies as if nothing at all had happened.
When enough of those conversations happen, when enough people begin to listen to one another across the lines that divide us, when we can agree on mutual action that will begin to lift some of the burdens that our brothers and sisters carry simply by virtue of the color of their skin, then we will begin to make meaningful progress towards communities where what happened to Michael Brown and Eric Garner will not be repeated over and over again.
I’m not whistling in the wind here. This is not theoretical. This is work that I do and that the community I serve does and it’s work that is bearing fruit. But it’s slow, plodding, time-consuming work. It’s work that requires a persistent, determined, and disciplined effort. And it seems like it’s not the kind of work that very many people have the appetite for in an instant gratification culture. It’s the kind of work that will draw no TV cameras, will elicit no requests for comments for a newspaper article, nor probably is it the kind of work that one can ever post to Facebook or tweet about.
But it may be the only kind of work that will really make a difference.