Listen Up!

Everyone is talking about Ferguson. I can add nothing new regarding the grand jury decision and the specifics on the ground. Most of us can do nothing about it either. However, many say that we need to take time to listen given the height of emotions and the various reasons for them in our current race-relations climate. For instance, Lecrae’s thoughts can be found here. Thabiti Anyabwile longs for the same here.  We need to listen, even if we think the speakers might be wrong. Very little is being said about how to listen. Listening on the internet or to the television is not sufficient. It does not count for much. This post is written to encourage us all to dialogue face to face with those of other ethnic heritages.

Biblical authors like Paul (1 Thessalonians 2:17) and John (1 John 1:14) longed to see those whom they addressed face to face. Paul did the hard thing and looked Peter in the face when he disagreed with him (Galatians 2:11). Jesus looked directly at those with whom he disagreed (Luke 20:17), and he was moved with compassion when he saw hurting people (John 11:33). Face to face contact changes the dynamic. We need it where we live. It takes effort. Though we be far from Ferguson, we are responsible within our own communities to cultivate a spirit of understanding, love, and responsibility. Doors of discussion are wide open right now in our communities.

Increased mobility, upward mobility, legal and illegal immigration, and a surge of international students in our land all give us a remarkable opportunity to grow in understanding. We may not agree with others in our communities on the nature and needs of race relations and needs in predominately black neighborhoods, but too many people fail to seek relationships where any substantial personal discussions could be had.

Indianapolis is my home. It is one of the most racially integrated cities in the United States, according to at least one study. My family and I live and worship in one of the city’s original suburbs. The property immediately to the south of our church building is the home of a predominately African-American congregation. Al Sharpton preached the installation sermon when the new pastor arrived. Protestors from that congregation shut down our road on Lord’s Day after the Trayvon Martin incident. I interact occasionally with black pastors of like precious faith. In their buildings and offices, I’m struck with how much is the same and how much is different from my own tradition. Reading Glory Road helped me to appreciate some of the cultural realities and pressures for those in African-American reformed churches. Thabiti’s biography in Glory Road adds perspective to his recent take on Ferguson. When Thabiti spoke at a conference in Indianapolis last month, he reminisced some on his growing up experiences. I now read his take on Ferguson with greater insight, even if I do not altogether agree. And, I’m looking forward to his coming to Indianapolis again next year.

At our home, we have neighbors from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. It is not uncommon to see quite a mix of children in our driveway playing ball. Our Little League features a number of different skin tones. Some of my children go to high school where they have friends from many racial and cultural backgrounds. Ferguson has been no small source of discussion for them. Others of our children are in a homeschool group that is racially diverse as well. One evening a few years ago, we had a parent-meeting for the homeschool group. The boys played football while we met. Afterward, the young boys innocently recounted “We were dividing up teams, and everyone was wearing different things, so we decided the easiest thing to do was just play black against white.” Such innocence is a beautiful thing.

In spite of all these near opportunities, I still struggle greatly to connect deeply with those in the black community. I need to grow in the Lord in the exertion of love and seeking of truth. I need to work at forging ties with Christians and non-Christians. When people sense tension on matters of race, I ought at the very least be close enough to listen. In the past, it has always led to greater understanding, deeper love, and hopefully, a greater ability to serve.

Do I have my own history and my own opinions about racial needs in America? Absolutely. On November 29, 1819, my great-great-great grandfather spent $600 to purchase a slave in South Carolina and then free him in a free state. He opened his home on the Under Ground Rail Road. Personally, I grew up in rural community that had one African-American family. Occasionally, our family hosted inner-city kids on our farm in the summer, but it was in college that my friendships became more ethnically diverse. The Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary also introduced me to many black fellow-servants in the Lord. Today, the congregation I pastor is noticeable diverse, except that there are few African Americans and Hispanics. In life, I do not face many of the fears African-American people tell me they face or have faced regarding police presence. I hear testimony of my black friends facing discrimination and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. My recent trip to India gave me a small taste of being the minority and feeling the constant stare of many eyes, but there is little other comparison.

I have sought to be biblical in my thinking. I also grew up reading Thomas Sowell. Clarence Thomas convinces me often. I think Voddie Baucham’s Thoughts on Ferguson is the best piece I have read on the subject in helping us think biblically. I know that I am advantaged beyond compare (for which Baucham gives thanks – noting that his children are similarly blessed). So what should my response be? My desire is to help others gain such blessed advantage through knowledge of truth. Yet, there are no answers that make everything easy.

My neighbors say there is a lot of emotion pent up over past and continuing evils. I do not understand it though experience, but if they are ready to tell me about it, I need to listen. My neighbors disagree with some of my perspective, but I need to grow too. If we disagree face to face in a mature way, at least each knows the other cares, and it builds a framework for a long-term neighborly relationship, discussion. Through it, the Lord might just be pleased to move either or both of us to a more scriptural understanding and behavior.

We can listen to what leaders are saying. Writers online inform us, argue a case, tell a personal story, plead with us, and urge us to sympathy. There is a good place for those things, but it is not enough.

Our culture will change most as we talk with others. What are the alternatives? Ignore each other? Sit back and tweet and post critiques of others from a distance? My plea is that we all get off the computer for a while, and go find someone to engage face to face. Go to a retail store and strike up a conversation if you have to – Jesus did something similar at a Samaritan well.

Part of Jesus’ redemptive work was to come in the flesh and minister to us face to face. He had written from a distance through his prophets, but that was not sufficient. He came, ministered, and died on the cross so that we might be reconciled to God. Obviously, none of us are called to that work. However, we are called to reconciliation through face to face relationships.

All of our communities are changing. We have a chance to help shape the future of them. I don’t know why the Lord has brought the events in Ferguson to pass, but if consequently people want to talk, it seems to me we should not miss the opportunity to listen and engage thoughtfully face to face.

Addenda: Dr. David Blank left a comment on Facebook in response to this article that I’m adding here because when he ran for public office I observed him doing exactly what is written above. He has been a great example for me, and our community is the richer for him:

James Faris is my pastor. This article sums up a reasonable response to the events in Ferguson. When I ran for the Indiana Statehouse in 2010 and 12, I sat in on many neighborhood meetings. Many were made up wholly of Democrats, and at many, I was the sole caucasian. (As a Republican, I didn’t fair well in my heavily Democratic district!)
While sitting back and listening to these folks discuss their neighborhood problems, and their solutions, I was struck by how similar their ideas were to my own. If you only had a printed transcript of the discussion, you’d easily mistake the meeting for suburban Republicans. Yet, we all continue to vote for which ever party we consider “ours”.
As James discusses, sitting down face to face allowed me a much greater insight, and a realization that we are all much more alike, in thought and beliefs, than we are different. It’s the outspoken “leaders” and the media that make it appear we are hostile to each other, and will never get along.
It’s easy to read something and complain and bloviate. It’s harder to take the time to make friends with people that totally disagree with you, and have meaningful discussions with them.

Luckily for me, I’m related to some people just like that. Happy Thanksgiving!

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