“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
Growing up in the industrial Midlands of England, I was unaware of discrimination due to race. I was, however, quite conscious of ever-present discrimination due to regional, educational, and class differences that marked much of British society. But racial prejudice was simply not something that I encountered. The handful of people of darker skin that I came across were usually professional men and women – doctors and teachers, etc. – who had moved from one of the British Colonies or the Commonwealth. It was quite a shock, therefore, when we moved to the US in 1967 and encountered a nation seething with conflicts – not only battles over race. There were deadly riots in more than 150 American cities and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in 1968 – but there were also anti-war riots, often violent, around the country, including the massive march on the Pentagon.
Living in Darien, Connecticut, insulated us from much of the turmoil, and we were also busy having children, working in a demanding profession, and staying active in the church. It wasn’t until we moved to Alexandria, Virginia, that we encountered issues of racial prejudice at a personal level. We had invited one of our fellow students to stay with us while he waited for his wife and children to join him in the US. Nick had grown up in England, where he had been ordained, but he now lived in the Cayman Islands. We drove him to the airport to meet his wife Winifred and were pleasantly surprised to discover that she was an exuberant Jamaican. Sadly, in the following days we witnessed distressing discrimination against them as a mixed-race couple – discrimination both inside and outside the church. Their search for a place to live and a church to serve was eye-opening and painful.
We also began to learn more of the long history of race discrimination in Virginia – especially in education. Even though the US Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that “separate but equal” in public education was unconstitutional, Virginia had fought back, and only after repeated legal challenges had they reluctantly moved toward desegregation. The school where our two older girls were enrolled had been essentially functioning as a segregated school until 1973 – two years before we arrived. We quickly learned that beneath the surface of an apparently integrated school, ignorance and prejudice festered. There were, however, moments of grace.
One day, our nine-year-old daughter Helen and an African American boy returned a few minutes late to the homeroom after music class, and the teacher immediately disciplined the boy with a detention. Helen protested that since they were both late, they should be punished equally.
This shocked the teacher so much that he told us about the incident at the next parent-teacher conference. He admitted that he was embarrassed by his blindness to his own prejudice.
I learned a great deal more about the challenges of racial integration from Billy Johnson, a seminary classmate. Billy had been an assistant to Dr. King, and after Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis in 1968, Billy decided to pursue ordination. He and his wife Essie and their two daughters, Angela and Anita, became good friends of our family, and we had many long conversations. I asked Billy to describe what it was like to grow up as an African American man in the 1960s/1970s. He told me about the experience of his family taking a road trip on their summer vacation. Gas stations, bathrooms, and motels were segregated and most identified as “whites only.” They had to drive slowly and usually at night, because any encounter with state troopers could become very unpleasant. Billy taught me more about prejudice and hatred and the power of forgiveness than did any class in the seminary.
Another student who taught me a great deal about forgiveness was Yona Mwendi, a priest from the Anglican Church of Tanzania who came for a year of study at VTS. Yona came to faith in Christ as a young man. He told me that shortly after he became a Christian, he was confronted by a group of men who demanded that he renounce his newfound faith or be shot. One of the men held a loaded gun to his head. Yona quietly dropped to his knees and began to pray for the gunman, imploring God to forgive him, whatever he did. The man couldn’t believe his ears and demanded that Yona stop praying, but he wouldn’t. The gunman was so taken aback by Yona’s faith that he began to weep. Before long he threw away his gun and ran off, with his friends close behind. Yona finished his prayers and was never threatened by them again. What a testimony!
Years later when I was consecrated a bishop of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), many of these stories and relationships served to lay a foundation for my astonishing experience as the only non-African bishop in a church of almost twenty million exuberant Nigerian Anglicans. Angela and I also learned something of what it meant to be a tiny minority in an often-alien culture, and there were many challenges. However, we developed many warm friendships and enormous admiration for the bishops, clergy, and people of this amazing church.
Sadly, I also became aware of the deep-rooted nature of racial prejudice and the price paid by those who dare to challenge unspoken and fiercely guarded traditions of discrimination. I am convinced that the church must take the lead in tearing down the walls of racial prejudice because they are fundamentally a matter of the heart – only the Holy Spirit can transform and redeem. While there are many outstanding examples of this transformation, perhaps my greatest disappointment is to see so many churches - clergy,and congregants who are still blind to their own prejudices and unwilling to embrace those around them who do not share their racial heritage. Not only do they miss the blessing of learning from and be friending many wonderful saints, but they perpetuate the devil’s lies. God’s Church can only be fully what God intends when all of God’s children are present.
Come Lord Jesus...Oh, deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome some day ...