What does a white, middle-class, cisgendered Protestant American male have to say about being black in America, especially in the wake of the Ferguson grand jury decision? Well, not too much. So, I’m not talking, I’m listening.
There are others with far more insightful and important things to say than I. The best thing I can do is shut up, listen, and amplify the voices that really need to be heard. One of those voices belongs to my friend, Drew Hart.
Drew and I first met when we both worked for the same campus ministry organization in Philadelphia in the early 2000s. We went on a weeks-long tour together, exploring the sites of the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. I did a lot of listening at that time, too. Since then, Drew has gone on to become a leading scholar in the #Anablacktivist conversation and writes a regular blog for Christian Century, called “Taking Jesus Seriously.”
In October of 2014, the book I edited on faith and fatherhood was published. Drew was one of the first contributors to sign on to the project, and he helped me find other important voices to include in the volume. His essay is a deeply honest exposé on what it is like to be a black Christian father in America, today. I spoke with Drew and received his permission to publish his essay, in its entirety, on this blog. Read it and share; it is timely and important.
“Fatherhood: Faith and Vulnerablity” – Drew G. I. Hart
I can still remember the feeling I had after my first son was born and our growing family was leaving the hospital all together for the first time. The short drive back to our home was the most paranoid 5 minutes of my life. I was pulling out of the Einstein Hospital parking lot and onto Broad Street, which is the main North/South traffic artery through Philadelphia. As I cautiously drove, wanting to protect my special cargo in the vehicle, it seemed as though people were driving especially hazardously at that moment. I could sense every car around me, like I was Spiderman with a sort of spider-sense that had me jumpy at the slightest of movements by the cars in front, behind, and beside me on the road. I think it was at this moment in my life, rather than when my son was actually being born, that I realized the deep responsibility I had just taken on. I had become a Father.
Now my wife and I have two children, both of them boys, which has been a tremendous experience, despite the normal challenges that are expected for any new parents. However, that isn’t to say that I do not have concerns about my role as a father, especially as my boys get older. The two greatest and most constant concerns in my own life have, unsurprisingly, been on my mind as I think about raising my two sons. First, is the conviction that I have to disciple my boys in the way of Jesus, with an authentic faith that walks humbly before God and alongside those on the margins of society. And secondly, as an African American father, in a multiethnic family, I want to teach my boys about their enslaved ancestors and America’s greatest and ongoing sin of racial oppression. If I can accomplish those two things I will consider my parenting a success.
I have discipled and worked with adolescents in the Church, in the neighborhoods I have lived in, and for an urban afterschool program. What I have observed over the past decade is the constant temptation many Christian parents are seduced by; to make their kids and families idols and the end goal of their Christian faith, while losing sight of simple Christian practices like discipleship and servanthood. The enticement of providing one’s own child with the best of everything that America has to offer (food, clothes, housing, education, vacations, etc.) and the intoxication of making sure our own kids don’t miss out on experiencing a typical American childhood (sports, clubs, dances, getting a job, etc.) are very real and constant challenges that we all face. To be clear, I am not suggesting that any of those things are evil, but that they are non-essentials in regard to a life of faithfulness to Christ.
One of the gifts of my college experience was studying under a Biblical studies faculty that helped me read scripture faithfully. Within that came the need to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, which I found to be a missing characteristic among many American Christian interpretations of scripture. The expectation that we are to take Jesus at his word without domesticating it to ‘work’ within American sensibilities became an important approach to understanding Jesus in my own life and returning Christ to the center of my faith. This reoriented what I understood Christianity was. More than merely a onetime confession or prayer that defined your status with God, I believed that to be a child of God demanded that we follow Jesus in our lives and walk as he walked (1 John 2:6). Discipleship meant understanding who Jesus is, as depicted in scripture rather than our own American projections of him, and then committing to following him into the world as we are conformed after his image by the Spirit of God. This means that Jesus’ life and character are the standard that God desires to pattern his people after in the world, so that they reflect God’s own heart, concern, and perspective in society, especially in relation to his love for people who are poor, marginalized, or oppressed. Fatherhood and discipleship, then, ought to have the same basic goal; I am called to raise my children in an awareness of Jesus’ lordship over our family’s life, I am to imitate Christ in my own life as a model for my children to follow. Our lives, as a family, collectively should be visibly distinct glimpses into the heart of God. God’s people are called to be generous, forgiving, truth-telling, enemy loving, servants of God who care for our neighbors and confront injustice. However, as I mentioned earlier, this is not what it commonly means to be Christian in America and so it is easy to get disoriented with the allure of the American way of life.
This tension in my own soul has had me rededicating my kids to God over and over again. While America would love to have my kids (and yours, too, if you are a parent), that is not what I want to be discipling my kids into. My wife and I are trying to raise our kids into a family where Jesus is at the center and where we don’t live for ourselves. However, our kids are still very young, and I know there are endless alluring traps awaiting us from now until my children become adults. Until they are old enough to become primarily responsible for their own commitments and values, I pray for the courage to raise my children in light of the reality of Christ rather than in the fleeting delusions of American values and materialism.
Right now, our country locks up more African American young men than it sends to college. It seems like every week there is a new story coming out about profiling, police brutality, statistics pointing to systemic racial discrimination, underperforming or closing schools in our city, gun violence, and occasionally even overt hatred for people of African descent. Our country, locked in historical amnesia, refuses to speak truthfully about the origins of these issues and the ongoing legacy of race, which is used as a tool to criminalize black and brown people, or to be apathetic to the unjust systems that distribute resources and educate some in our country while neglecting others.
As I grew up, I slowly had to come to terms with the ongoing racism that continued to plague our society. From very early on I was acutely aware that in my area, if you were black you were most likely poor and urban, but if you were white you were very likely to live in the suburbs, have a big yard, and in comparison were much better off financially. Of course, I knew very little social history in America, so my interpretation of it all most likely was unsophisticated and bloated with misunderstandings. Nonetheless, race was an unavoidable reality that acted as a marker that defined life expectations, identity, relationships, and one’s overall place in society. When I was 15, my family moved out of our diverse but primarily African American neighborhood and into a predominately white suburban community that was 30 minutes outside of Philly. I became very aware of the stereotypes that many kids had of black people in my 3 years attending that suburban school. However, I also was the beneficiary of that well resourced school. Throughout that time my church, comprised mostly of African Americans, became an important community and network for me. They encouraged me, believed in my potential, and affirmed the various God-given gifts they saw in me, like leadership and teaching. And so, when it came time to pick colleges, I confidently followed my emerging sense of calling towards ministry by choosing an in-state Christian college. Nothing prepared me for the rude awakening I would have to come to grips with in my young adult life while there.
Unfortunately, my experience at the Christian college was filled with more racial tension than my 3 years at the suburban public high school. Even though I was there as a Biblical Studies major, many people interacted with me (or better yet, didn’t interact with me) as though I was dangerous, suspicious, or a threat. In general, it seemed like people were very friendly towards one another, but I continually had to prove my friendliness before many would put down their guard around me. While there, I heard some of the most discouraging sentiments directed towards several black students on campus. I left four years later, with my eyes wide open to how people could simultaneously insist they were colorblind and not racist while clearly still having very negative racial instincts that made them look at most black people with a gaze of suspicion.
At the same time, my older brother, while hanging out on a stoop, was randomly grabbed off the street by police who were looking for a suspect that supposedly fit his description. The description he fit was that he was ‘a black male with blue jeans and a black t-shirt.’ There was no height description or any other characteristic that offered anything more specific. They also claimed at the time that he had a blood stain on his shirt. After several weeks in county jail before any trial, they eventually dropped all charges when he was finally put in a lineup and cleared. Also, the blood stain turned out to be a food stain when it went through the lab. The truth is that this happens to hundreds of black men every day in our country and often turns out much worse. But when it touched my own family, it made me especially aware of how vulnerable I was in America, and how I could just as easily ‘fit a description’ and be grabbed and locked up in our society without apology. I’ve had countless experiences that have shaped my understanding of how race works in America, but I think what happened to my brother helped me think about racism as a much more active system of discrimination that targeted young black men and made them very vulnerable.
America is a hostile place for me to raise my boys. However, I intend to always remind them of their roots, that they are descendants of enslaved Africans and that those who came before us found Jesus in the midst of slavery and it sustained them. I want them to know about the faith of the African American community that believed Jesus was on the side of the slaves, despite what the slaveholders told them. I want them to learn about how African Americans survived slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the KKK and the White Citizens Council, and the terror of lynching through most of the 20th century. And I want them to see that Jesus, who also was an oppressed and vulnerable minority living under Roman imperial rule, understands what it is like to be treated wrongly. I believe that this reminder of where we have come from and the God that brought us to where we are now, is the same God that will keep them as they face the challenges of merely being and existing in America. But I can’t afford to not let them know explicitly that some people will see them and will immediately, yet unconsciously, interpret their bodies as dangerous or criminal.
If my sons grow up with authentic faith, taking Jesus seriously in their lives; and if they allow their unique African American heritage to provide themselves a lens through which they explore the world as people of God, then I will consider myself as having done my job as a father. But my kids are still very young, and I will need profound courage and deep wisdom from God to do my part in discipling and reorienting my children in Christ and their stories. As I see it, this is my task as a Christian Father.
In addition to his blog, Drew can be found on twitter at @DruHart. You can find Father Factor: American Christian Men on Fatherhood and Faith, volume 6 of the I Speak for Myself series, wherever books are sold.
It is worth noting that the bolded text in Drew’s essay was an editorial addition for this blog.
(Image credit: “Listen, Understand, Act” by Steve Shorrock. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)