Having grown up in a working-class black family, I’d attended public schools until 9th grade, but was awarded an academic scholarship to a private school for 9th-12th grade. Some of my friends from the public schools warned me that I shouldn’t go there. Words like “snobs” were often used to describe my potential future classmates. “Only rich kids fit in there,” I was told, and I wasn’t rich. And at the time, there were only four other black kids in the entire high school. Still, my parents and I decided that I should accept the scholarship and enroll there as a freshman.
Overall, it was a wonderful experience, both academically and personally. I don’t regret the decision to attend there one bit.
By the time my sophomore year rolled around in 1985 and I had a driver’s license, I’d befriended more than a few of my new schoolmates. My best friend Jerry and I both had younger brothers who were freshmen, and we both drove big, old, beat-up cars. As a result, it was fairly common for the two of us to haul four or five freshmen each on a weekend night out. At one point, I was told, one of the freshman guys (I’ll call him “Frank Johnson”) expressed his concern about this routine–not to me or my brother Kenny directly, of course, but to others who hung out with us–thusly: “Y’all, Ben and Kenny are nice and all, but what if we got in a wreck? The paper would say that ‘Frank Johnson’ and two niggers were killed in a car crash together.”
Now, by the time “Frank” made that comment, I was generally considered to be one of the top three or four students in my class, and had represented our school well on local television, helping us win a well-watched yearly quiz bowl as the only freshman on the team. But apparently to some, my academic achievements weren’t enough. If we’d died in a car crash together, “Frank” would have a name, but I would be just a nigger. The good news is that, ignoring the potential disapproval of the Franks of the world, Jerry (and plenty of other friends) continued to risk being listed alongside me in the local papers for the rest of my time in high school.
Bear in mind that Frank was a 14-year-old high school freshman when he made that statement. If there exists an age where males are worried about how the local newspaper might report on their death, 14 isn’t it. I realize that I’m speculating a bit here, but I believe I’m on safe ground in operating on the assumption that Frank didn’t come up with that objection on his own, but that instead he was parroting what he’d heard from someone else–someone who was concerned about what the gossips at the Country Club would say about them if word got out that their son was known to be cavorting with Negroes. Let’s be honest: those words were the bigoted version of “wear clean underwear just in case you’re in a wreck.”
Fast-forward to November 1997. At this point, I was serving in vocational full-time ministry, on staff with Young Life, and I’d gotten engaged to my girlfriend Jennifer, who was white. For someone working in youth ministry in a mostly-white suburban area, in 1997 an interracial marriage did not come without controversy and concern. Would
donors stop giving? Would parents be worried that we’d encourage their teens toward interracial relationships/marriages? Would any eventual children from this marriage have difficulties fitting in? (Yes, I realize that just 20 years later, some of these concerns may sound unfounded, but at the time, they all seemed at least plausible.) Jennifer and I firmly believed that we were called by God to one another, so we were therefore called to bear whatever consequences might come from following His lead, being aware that there might be moments of adversity.
Shortly after we became engaged, I received a phone call from Dee Dee, someone I knew from my home town. Two of her four children were roughly my age, and we’d gotten to know one another well through various interactions over the years. In many ways, she was like a second mother to me, and more than once she told me that she viewed me like one of her own children. She had discussed our impending nuptials with some other believers from my home town, and all had agreed that they wanted to do something for us. That something would show their unequivocal support for us and our “controversial” marriage. She was calling on behalf of this group to throw a rehearsal dinner and post-rehearsal dinner party for us that neither my family nor I would have been able to afford, but that they would pay for. And this was no ordinary rehearsal dinner or post-party: the rehearsal dinner would be of significant size, and everyone invited to the wedding would be invited to the post-party.
It’s worth giving a more detailed profile of this group of people. They were all white. Respected names. Leaders in the community. Members of the Country Club. Evangelicals. Southerners. No, no, these were not just Southerners. They were DEEP Southerners. (I’m from Columbus Dadgum Georgia, after all.) Though a few in the group were a bit younger or older, most of them were like Dee Dee and her husband: parents of my peers–people born in the South in the 1940s and raised when the South was still fully segregated. When they were growing up, it’s likely that virtually all black people with whom they interacted were in subservient roles. I don’t have full insight into the details of every one of their upbringings, but I think it’s more than reasonable to assume that the vast majority of the people who gave us that phenomenal gift for our wedding didn’t exactly grow up being taught that it was ok for a black man to marry a white woman. Remember “Frank” from my high school days? Most of these people were Frank’s parents’ peers. They were raised in the same era in the same part of the country, ran in the same social circles, and some were members of the same Country Club.
So then, it begs the question, what made my experience with them so positive while the other was so negative? I’d suggest it was a combination two things: the power of the Gospel to break down barriers, and the relationships that we shared. At that rehearsal dinner, during my former pastor’s toast, he quoted Galatians 3:26:
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
Indeed, the totality of Scripture makes it clear that we are to be one in Christ; that people from every nation, tribe, and tongue will stand before His throne; that we are to love like the Good Samaritan; that we are to love the stranger and the outsider. First and foremost, these dear people who stood beside us so strongly at this time in our lives were those who had been radically changed by the power of the Good News of Christ, and when upbringing or American or Southern cultural norms were at odds with the truth of Scripture, they allowed the Word of God to govern their decision-making. But second, the truth of Scripture is often verified in our relationships, and I firmly believe our personal connections to have been the tipping point that changed head knowledge of “neither Jew nor Greek” to heart involvement of “we will offer our resources and willingly put our reputations in the community at personal risk to stand with our friend Ben.” These were people with whom I’d spent hours upon hours over the years. We’d prayed together, shared our lives, our struggles, and our triumphs.
“Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” I Thessalonians 2:8
When we build relationships across cultural lines, trust that God is bigger than the consequences of our obedience, and allow the power of the Gospel to change our hearts, we can turn the world upside down. Church, why don’t we go do just that?