On Martin Luther King Jr weekend, I was honored to speak at Willow Creek Community Church, alongside one of my best friends, Jenny. The story we shared, the story of how we became friends is the namesake for this blog. We met on a college trip called Sankofa.
Sankofa is a civil rights bus trip through the South, where a black student and white student are paired up for the length of a three day trip to talk about race. On this trip our group's first stop was a plantation in Louisiana. Far from being an educational experience on the harsh realities of slavery, all we learned was how ignorant and self-congratulatory our guides could be. For the entire tour, we were told about "happy slaves" who sang in the fields, and then we were given the chance to go pick some cotton ourselves. The whole trip was filled with misconceptions and inaccuracies that bordered too closely on defending the institution of slavery.
The anger of the black students and the confusion of the white students, during this guided tour was no laughing matter. Our conversation quickly moved beyond superficiality, but it was the next stop rocked us all to our core.
Our bus pulled into a museum consisting of only one exhibit- a lynching exhibit. Every wall was filled with photographs of dark-skinned human beings swinging by their necks. A mother and son hang over a bridge, burned bodies swing over dying fires, the smiles of white faces proudly testify to the joy of the occasion. We came across newspaper stories advertising the community events and finally a postcard with a note on the back, "sorry we missed you at the barbecue." Startling, jolting, wrecking. There was no sound as we walked though the exhibit. We could barely breathe let alone speak.
When we climbed back on the bus, all that could be heard were sniffles. The emotion was thick. It was as if no time at all had passed between the generation in the pictures and the one sitting on that bus. It was all so real.
The first people to break the silence were white. They attempted to distance themselves from the pain and anger of the moment. "But I didn't know this even happened," or "Its not my fault; I wasn't there," even "Well, what about the holocaust; its not like your the only ones to face difficulties." They were reaching for anything; anything to retreat from the guilt and shame, the anger and disappointment, the atrocity of this practice.
The emotion continued to build. Black and white grew further and further apart with each new speaker. Another white girl stood to speak. But instead of a different variation on "please don't make me responsible for this", she took a deep breath and acknowledged our pain. She gave in to the emotion of it all. She, too, was in disbelief but she didn't allow herself the luxury of not grappling with it. "I don't know what to do with what I've learned," she said. "I can't fix your pain, and I can't take it away, but I can see it. And I can work for the rest of my life to make sure your children don't have to experience the pain of racism."
And then Jenny said 9 words that I've never forgotten, "Doing nothing is no longer an option for me."
As she said those words, tears began to fall down her cheeks, mixing with her mascara, they left dark streaks down her face. I turned to a friend behind me and whispered, "She's crying black tears."
This was my first experience of racial reconciliation. It was the first time I had connected so deeply with my own history. It was the first time I really tried to share that experience with others. It was the first time I heard what white people really think about African American history, and it was the first time I watched someone get it- really get it.
That was 9 years ago. Only by God's grace were we able to tell this story together, and it was pure joy because those words have remained true for us both- doing nothing is no longer an option.