Living in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania has broadened my perception of geography and challenged my notions about which “place” is better. (I grew up as a “First State” (read: Best State!) Delawarean. But living “across the line” has taught me much.
Where you live is where you spend a lot of time “just being yourself.” It is home. No wonder the Jewish people at the time of Jesus understood “neighbor” as those near your home (people living near or surrounding a particular place). In Kennett Square, my “neighborhood,” there is a lot of diversity.
On Saturday, I was at the Kennett Laundromat doing my wash. While the machine processed its different cycles, I sat outside in my car working on Sunday’s homily. I was writing about the past week’s tragedies in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and I noticed two young African American men walking up the street. They stopped right near where I was parked. Apparently, they were saying goodbye and the house I was parked outside of was the home of one of the young men.
Impulsively, I stepped out of the car and, as I walked toward them, said, “May I ask something?” They both turned to look at me.
“I’ve spent many years working as a teacher with young people and I know young people have great wisdom. I was wondering if I could ask if you might have any thoughts about how I could become a better person?” I paused as they continued to look at me, blankly, no doubt wondering, “Who is this guy and what does he want?”
I continued, “I want to be a better person.” Again, I paused. “I want to be a better man.” Pause. “I want to be a better white man.”
Their looks grew more serious as they realized that I was not there asking for directions to the Post Office.
Slowly, carefully, they began to talk with me. They are both 17 and attend Kennett High School. Their names are Jason and Dylan. Next week, online, they will begin their senior year. They described their world to me… a world of the internet and smartphones and virtual connections and video games… a world that sees everything as it is happening, a world that is filled with so “much” that it’s hard to find your own space when you need it.
“My name is Greg,” I told them. “I live here in Kennett and I work in Delaware. I work at a church. And I’m so sad about what’s happening in our country. I am committed to Jesus and the people I know are good people who also believe that every person is a gift, a blessed and wonderful child of God. And yet, I know that we live in a culture where white privilege is dominant and where Black people are discriminated against and so often denigrated.”
“My generation has contributed so terribly to the mess we are in. I wonder if good young people have any thoughts on how we might become better.”
They have strong friendships with a few people and many acquaintances. Their world is black and white and brown and all colors…. “Groups” or “tribes” are based on what we enjoy that others enjoy (like wrestling, or a type of music) but others are treated with the freedom to enjoy what they enjoy.
Jason mentioned to me that he “is half.” I asked what that meant. He said, “My mother is white. I’m only half black.” Smiling, I said, “To me, that means that you are FULL! You’re better because you are Black and White! I hope in a hundred years we are all so “blended” that we will have moved beyond all the boundaries that divide us because of difference, because of labeling based on things like color.
We had a remarkable conversation. Finally, trying to answer my original question (“Do you have any thoughts about how I might become a better white man?”) they told me, “The fact that you talked to us… that you admitted that you want a better world… that you care enough about Black people to talk to Black people… We are willing to listen. We are able to tell out story of racism, how we’ve been hurt by white people because we are black. But maybe something good can happen by our telling our story… by your listening to our story…” Maybe, something good can happen.
I asked if I could take their picture and share their story with my “church.” They agreed.
In the current issue of Sojourner’s magazine, there is an article titled, “How Will Christians Answer This Moment in History?”
And so I ask, “How will we answer?” In the article (Sojourner’s, Otis Moss, September, 2020), it states, “How people of faith answer this moment will determine the future of the American church.”
“Shall we follow a dark-skinned Palestinian Jew, who cast his lot with those who had their backs against the wall, or will we march with the advisers of Herod, hoping that our strength will suffice?”
Those who have been baptized by the radical notions of Jesus who lived, loved, and died with all the disinherited…. How will we respond? What is your answer?