Bridging the Racial Divide
I was deeply honored to be asked to speak for a Martin Luther King interfaith celebration on Martin Luther King Day here in Denver. I was the only white person on the platform, although I am also Osage Nation. The audience of many hundreds was 99% African American. I spent the first half of the meeting choked with emotion – love from the heart of the Father. Here is the basic text of my 10 minutes drawn from my notes. It’s not all that I said, but it’s the heart of it. It was a powerful moment for me and a time of both love and bonding in the Father’s heart. I thought I’d pass on to you some drops of “leftover wine” from that important meeting.
I was only 16 when Martin Luther King was assassinated. Except for being afraid that I might get drafted in 18 months and go to Viet Nam, I didn’t much care about anything except girls and figuring out how to play Purple Haze with my rock group.
But I remember being impacted by the death of that great man. It still resonates in spirit. He was a father to a generation and a prophetic voice to a nation. The heart and anointing of a father is to release life and destiny into his sons and daughters. Martin Luther King did that for a generation, both people of color and white folks. Our culture today suffers from a lack of true fathers. There has been no one quite like him since that time. He understood how to bring about change without hatred, anger or violence. He knew that the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. He proved it. It worked. He changed our nation.
Now we live in a time when the spirit of hatred is once more ripping our nation apart. Left versus right. Black versus white. Native Americans venting hundreds of years of pent up anger and the rest of the culture seemingly unable to understand the rage. And on it goes.
How can we overcome it? How can we heal the wounds? I want to suggest a few things and it all begins with a personal testimony.
I pastor an interracial church. White, African American, Native American, Asian, Hispanic. Years ago the spirit of hatred began to divide us. Racial conflict flared up and I could do nothing to stop it. Events were twisted. Perceptions were warped and no one seemed able to listen.
We held a diversity training to try to heal things but it turned into something foul instead of bringing us together. Anger flared and offense was taken. We came out of it more divided than we were before. It was heartbreaking to me as a pastor.
In the midst of that division the Lord told me to study my Native American Osage Nation heritage because He had something there for me. I thought I’d find some scintillating spiritual truth in it, and I did find some of that, but the reality of what the Lord wanted me to see was something very different.
We Osage were the most powerful tribe on the plains when the French first came up the Mississippi. We traded with them and they gave us flintlock rifles to make us even more powerful in our pride and arrogance.
I found that my Osage ancestors hated the Pawnee. We had a funeral custom that involved killing a Pawnee, scalping him, and then burying the scalp with the deceased warrior in order to show his courage and prowess in the next world. Later, in trading with the French, we altered the custom so that we would capture the Pawnee and sell him as a slave. We kidded ourselves into thinking this was a kindness better than death.
I realized that every culture that has ever become dominant as my Osage ancestors were, regardless of color or ethnicity, has done the same things to those they dominated. It’s a sin thing, not a color thing.
But what the Lord had for me didn’t end there. God told me that there were two men inside of me at war with one another and until those two men made peace, I could never bring the races together in my church. Divided in myself, my people would be divided among themselves. What is in the leader will be in the people.
I grew up at my grandmother’s knee listening to tales of the honor and dignity of the Osage and how the white man was dishonest and dirty. All the broken treaties and cheating and murders. The first case investigated by the FBI in the early 20th century was the murder of Osage women by white men who married them in order to murder them and get at their money from the oil discovered on the reservation. And the tribe was made to pay for the investigation. I learned to despise the white part of me.
When the Lord spoke to me about reconciling the two men inside of me, one European white, the other Native American, I laid it down, brought those two sides together, forgave and found ways to honor both sides of my heritage. Racial conflict in my church evaporated overnight, never to rise again. If we would heal our nation, we must begin in our own souls. As goes the church, so goes the nation. Let it begin in us.
The theme of this meeting is Serving the Greatest by Serving the Least. How do we do that? There are lots of ways, but I want to focus on just one.
I’ve learned that the first act of service, the most foundational act of love, is to listen. Listen humbly. Listen with the heart and really hear. Every person is a story. When I listen to someone’s story, I want to feel who they are, what blesses them, what hurts them. What is their history and what experiences have formed their character?
That person then becomes real to me. Not a black man. Not a white man. Not a Native American. Not a Hispanic. Just a person whom Jesus loves but whose story and experience are different than mine. Listening is a gift of honor. Where honor is given, hearts unite. Especially when honor is given to the least of these, to the least deserving. Even those we would otherwise hate or reject. Some white folks have gotten angry with me when I have told them they have no right to tell black folks what they should think or feel because their experience as white Americans is not the experience of our brothers and sisters of color. We need to listen and we need to feel.
I don’t believe it’s about civil rights as much as it is about honoring one another. When honor is given, rights take care of themselves. Where honor is withheld, no one’s rights are honored.
I have had the honor of meeting some of the finest men and women of God I know who are not of the same skin color as I am. Many of them are in this room. I want to learn from them. I honor and respect their gifts and the obstacles they have overcome.
Honor brings people together. Heals wounds. Maximizes all of us. I think a big part of what made Martin Luther King such a great man is that he imparted a sense of honor into a people who had been so dishonored. We are called as Christians to the ministry of reconciliation. That starts with listening and learning who each other are. If we don’t do that, if we don’t understand one another’s stories and cultures, then we fill in the blanks out of our own hearts and minds and the result of that is always ugly.
Finally, I can’t preach it any better than the apostle Paul wrote it, Philippians 2:3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves;
2:4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
2:5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,
2:6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,
2:7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.
2:8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
2:9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,
2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
2:11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.