I confess: I used to cringe every time I heard the "R" word. Growing up in suburban Atlanta, this white student found that "race" evoked unpleasant feelings: The topic felt abrasive; it often raised the chance of offending someone; and conversations about it felt like a waste of time. Why couldn't we just get on with our lives? I was born after the Civil Rights movement, and saw no need to talk about race anymore. The laws were changed, and now we could all get back to pursuing the American Dream. End of story.
But this was only the beginning of my tale. I found myself both blessed and challenged during my first year in seminary as I interacted with classmates from very diverse backgrounds. And yes, even 600 miles north in Washington, D.C., (which has its own history with the "R" word), the topic of race inevitably came up in conversation. I prepared to disengage mentally until I was forced to sit through Bible classes and hear my African-American colleagues (fellow believers and people I had come to respect deeply) tell their stories. I couldn't help but listen.
I learned that my classmates often had very different interpretations of scripture. For them, the story of Moses and the Exodus had another dimension of liberation that I simply did not perceive as a white person. Even as I tried to allegorize oppression into a purely spiritual concept, I couldn't deny how our divergent backgrounds concretely affected how we read scripture.
I even heard in the Bible stories themselves voices speaking from different settings -- some from privilege (such as Nehemiah); some from oppression (such as Hagar); and some who had to translate between the dominant culture, and their culture of birth (such as Esther or Daniel). I learned that the "story" of God's work actually contains many "stories" from vastly different perspectives. I finally had ears to hear, and my heart began to change.
At first, as I listened to my African-American colleagues, I experienced "white guilt." I lamented that I did not actually read any of Martin Luther King Jr.'s texts until I was in my third decade of life. I lamented not only the years I had refused to listen, but also the pain we as a society still bear from past atrocities. The generational sin of Exodus 34:7 took on new meaning.
After lamentation and confession of my willful ignorance, I began to experience a richer hope than I could have thought possible. I learned about groups such as the Christian Community Development Association who are reconciling Christians across race lines through outreach and empowerment. I deepened my awareness of God after attending my first African-American worship service. I have become wiser from listening to stories other than the dominant one of assimilation. I have been freed from fear in order to befriend people I previously never would have approached. And I have experienced a new dimension to the liberation found in scripture.
As we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. this year, the word "race" now evokes more positive images: I can finally face the fear that once held me captive; I see God's grace through different stories in the Bible and our contemporary lives; and I see the need for "place" and "space" to begin hard discussion. My prayer is that more churches will also embrace these more positive words and will take the risk of approaching racial conversations. I pray that congregations will seek freedom from the sins of silence and fear.
This is my story. I know it is still unfolding, and is one of many. What will yours be?
Melanie Weldon-Soiset is a former policy and organizing associate at Sojourners, and currently works at a church in Washington, D.C.