By Accident of Birth | Sojourners

By Accident of Birth

[This is adapted from an earlier version of the article "By Accident of Birth," which appeared in the June-July 1983 issue of Sojourners and remains relevant today.—The Editors]

In the summer of 1967, Detroit exploded into a city at war with itself. I remember vividly the terrible fear that the riots created in white people. Afraid that blacks would break out of the ghetto to attack and burn the suburbs, the police and armed, white vigilante groups stood guard at the borders of suburban communities. The vigilante groups were a visible manifestation of an attitude that ran deep.

Detroit in the 1960s was two communities, one white and one black, separate and dramatically unequal. Growing up white in Detroit, I had no exposure to black people, but for an occasional glimpse on a downtown bus or at a Tigers baseball game. What I was told about them was based on the stereotypes so common in white culture.

As a teenager, I felt the tension and hostility that pervaded the conversations among whites whenever the subject of blacks, race, the city, or crime came up; people that I knew to be otherwise kind and loving would be transformed, uttering vicious words of intolerance and fearful hatred.

I wanted to know why. Why did whites and blacks live completely divided from one another? Why were whites rich and blacks poor? What created the fear? I was persistent in taking my questions to my parents, teachers, and friends, but I soon discovered that no one could answer them.

Hoping that the church might provide some answers, I asked: "What about our Christian faith? Doesn't God love all people?" I reminded the people of the church of a song I was taught in Sunday School as a child: "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world."

Of course the song is true and God loves everybody, I was told, but there are differences. And of course we love everybody too, but that doesn't mean we have to live together.

I asked the church people why we sent missionaries to Africa but didn't have any contact with black people in our own city. Weren't there a lot of black Christians, and why didn't our churches ever have anything to do with one another?

I was told that we were better off separated. Some even used the Bible to undergird their argument, citing the Genesis story in which Noah curses the descendants of his son Ham.

Others said that blacks were happy with the way things were. They had their ways and places to live, and we had ours. There should be no problems. And if they had problems, they probably deserved them; after all, they were lazy, had too many children, and were dangerous.

Some people told me that asking these questions would only get me into trouble. That proved to be the only honest answer I ever got.

It didn't take long to realize that I wasn't going to get the answers I was looking for from white people. So I decided to make my way into the inner city.

The first thing I discovered, to my great surprise, was that there were black Plymouth Brethren assemblies in inner-city Detroit. They were just like my church in most ways, right down to the same dreadful hymnbook, and I wondered why I had never been told about them. I sought out the elders of the black churches and learned that they had known about our assemblies for years. Most even recognized my name because of the role my father played in the white assemblies, and some had even met him.

As I asked my questions, a new world opened up. Here were black church leaders making time in their very busy lives for a young white kid, full of questions, who had come to see them in the inner city. They were extraordinarily patient and receptive, never patronizing and always compassionate. They must have been smiling inside at my idealism and the questions that had such obvious answers to them, but they never let on.

I felt that the church should lead the way toward change. One of my first ideas was that we get our churches together and march through the streets of Detroit on behalf of racial justice. They wisely suggested we start smaller.

I believed that if black and white Christians would simply pray and examine the Bible together, they would learn to love one another and begin to see change. I was excited at the prospect. We decided on some meetings with people in the white churches. I learned later that the black leaders had been through all this before.

I'm sure I was so aggressive in setting up the meetings that the white Christians didn't know what to do except go along with the scheme. I will never forget our first get-together–in a white church, of course, since my white friends weren't about to go into the inner city. I can still see the polite, frozen smiles on their faces as they awkwardly shook hands with my new black friends.

There were not many meetings, and the idea soon died out. The interest was always strong from the black Christians, though I'm not sure why they were still willing to try after all the abuse they had received from white Christians. They were open and very reconciling in their posture. There were no angry words or militant spirits from these gracious saints.

My favorite was Bill Pannell, then a young leader in the black Plymouth Brethren assemblies and now professor of evangelism at Fuller Theological Seminary. I was deeply touched by reading Bill's book My Friend, the Enemy, a painful and articulate account of the experience of growing up black in white America. I felt especially hurt by his recounting of the racism of white churches.

Bill's was not the only book I read. I devoured everything I could get my hands on written by or about black people and racism in America. The Autobiography of Malcolm X became one of the most influential books of my life. The simple, self-justifying worldview of my childhood and my church, conflicting with my growing awareness of racism and poverty, caused mounting havoc in my teenage years. I was shocked at what I read, felt betrayed and angry at the brutal facts of racism. Worse, I felt painfully implicated.

As my commitment to the struggle for racial justice intensified, I wanted to go further in my relationship with the black community. I desired to go beyond the black church and become schooled in those streams of black thought and action that were more militant and radical.

I began to seek opportunities for interaction and dialogue, especially with young black workers and students. Over several summers I took jobs working first as a machine operator in a small factory and then on custodial and maintenance crews in Detroit office buildings. The blacks I met were much more angry and bitter than the black Christians I had come to know, and they provided me with a new education.

They were Detroit's manual laborers and unskilled workers, who slaved hard for little money. They had no future in the system, and they knew it. The goods of a consumer society were dangled in front of their eyes like carrots on a stick, but they were systematically shut out of the good life.

They never had the opportunity for a decent education. They lived in upstairs flats, rooming houses, ghetto apartments overflowing with parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, and friends who had no other place to stay. Many were at home on the streets and had become tough at an early age in order to survive.

Butch was typical of the young, bright members of Detroit's urban poor. Butch and I worked together as janitors at Detroit Edison the summer before I went off to college. Our lives were as different as the destinations of our paychecks. Mine went into a savings account for college, and none of it had to go for room and board since I was still living at home for the summer. His went to support his wife, mother, and all his sisters and brothers, who lived together in a small place in one of Detroit's worst neighborhoods.

According to the executives and their secretaries at Detroit Edison, the difference in the color of our skin meant Butch and I merited different treatment. Their race and class bias was blatant. I was often put on moving crews with Butch and the other blacks who worked there. They were regarded at best as men with strong backs and no heads, and at worst as beasts of burden. Nineteen-year-old office secretaries ordered them around, complaining constantly about their work.

The resentment among the custodial crew went very deep. After a while, some of them trusted me enough to talk openly in my presence about the hatred they felt for the system and those who ran it.

Butch and I were often put on elevator duty together. We both had to endure an insufferable barrage of bad jokes from the upper-echelon workers such as, "Bet this job has its ups and downs," and, "You're moving up faster than anyone in this whole company." We had been instructed to be polite and humor the people. But I never had to suffer the patronizing tone which always greeted Butch. I received respect because it was known that I was soon to be a university student and had every opportunity to one day be one of them.

The job became a school in political understanding, and Butch was a ready commentator and tutor. One night when we were working late, we were asked to clean the executive offices on the fifth floor. These offices of the company president, the chairman of the board, all the vice presidents and executive officers, were more than extravagant. As I took in every inch of the spacious offices and conference rooms with thick pile rugs, hardwood furniture, and expensive art, Butch said, "Come here, I want to show you something." Well hidden away were the executive liquor cabinets, stocked full of the finest liquors and wines money could buy. Butch commented, "You think these guys spend all their time up here working, huh?"

Butch was very savvy–about the streets, the job, Detroit, and international politics. His education came from the pages of the perpetual string of books he kept tucked in the back pocket of his khaki janitor's uniform. His experience of oppression and his reflections on it were turning him into a political revolutionary. He was very conscious of and committed to the worldwide black liberation struggle, and he knew as much about African history as I did about American. My growing political awareness was bringing my convictions in line with his.

The job gave us an opportunity to spend literally hours together. We had many of our best conversations in the elevators. Elevator operators are required by law to get periodic breaks, as going up and down all day without a respite begins to make one's head spin. But mine was already reeling with all the thoughts and ideas Butch was helping to nurture along, so I spent all my breaks in his elevator, and he spent his in mine.

We must have appeared as quite a startling pair to the office workers, toward whom we eventually learned to be oblivious as we continued our conversations nonstop while carrying them up and down. Here were two young men, one black and one white, carrying on intense conversations about revolution, urban guerrilla warfare in Detroit, and the overthrow of the capitalist system, while taking middle-management executives to their third-floor offices.

Butch and I talked about everything: our backgrounds, our families and neighborhoods, our churches. We discussed black consciousness, the police, and the suburbs. We lived in the same city, but might as well have grown up in two different countries.

Violence, both on the streets and in corporate boardrooms, was a continuing conversation. He gave me his views on the war in Vietnam as an imperialist war against people of color in which he would refuse to fight.

Eventually, Butch invited me to come to his home and meet his family. I felt deeply honored and very eager to go. But every time I asked him to write directions to his place, he would change the subject. Finally one day with pen and paper in hand, I sat him down and said, "Look, Butch, how do you expect me to get to your house if you don't write out directions for me?"

Awkwardly he began to scribble on the paper. I was deeply sad when I realized the reason he had hesitated before was that he could barely write; I was ashamed at my insensitivity.

That small incident was very significant to me. I went home that night and both cried and cursed. I could not believe that someone as bright as Butch had hardly been taught to write. I was furious at a system that had given me so much and him almost nothing, simply by virtue of our skin color. By accident of birth, I had all the benefits and he all the suffering. I vowed again through angry tears to do everything I could to change that system.

On the appointed evening, I went to Butch's house. I attracted a good bit of attention driving into his neighborhood and getting out of the car; in those days, white people didn't venture into certain neighborhoods of Detroit.

All but Butch's youngest brothers and sisters were nervous and suspicious of what a white man was doing in their home. Almost from the moment I sat down, the youngest ones were in my lap, smiling, their bright eyes sparkling at a new-found friend. But the older they were, the deeper the hurt and distrust in their eyes. I stayed for several hours. When the older ones realized that I really was a friend to Butch, they began to open up.

I was especially taken by Butch's mother. She was a lovely woman, gracious and warm, so anxious for me to feel at home. She was just like my mother in so many ways. She wasn't interested in politics, was certainly not militant, would never have been taken for a radical. She was primarily concerned about the same things my mother was: the health, happiness, and safety of her family.

Her love for Butch was obvious. Since she had lost her husband, Butch had filled his shoes as the family provider. As the eldest son, he was her pride and joy. Butch's love and respect for his mother was also evident.

But I could also see how fearful she was of his growing anger and militance. She, just like my mother, was afraid that her son's political views would get him into trouble. It wasn't that she disagreed with him, but that she was afraid he might be hurt.

I asked her questions about her past, her experiences in Detroit, her family. She had a way of looking into your eyes and speaking right to your heart. I knew that I was hearing the honest reflections of a proud woman who had somehow kept her family together through the difficulties of growing up black in Detroit. She recounted a history of poverty and abuse. I will never forget what she said about the police. She told of countless times that her husband or one of her sons had been picked up on the street for no apparent reason, taken down to the precinct, falsely accused, verbally abused, and even beaten.

She would go down every time to find out what had happened and try to bring them home. Each time she was assaulted with vile and profane language. The police would tell her that they would "take care of her husband or son, give her man what he deserved, and that she'd better 'get her ass on home' or she was going to get the same treatment."

My insides began to hurt and my eyes to well up with tears as one by one every person in the room told me stories of how they or close friends had been abused by the police, mostly for the crime of being at the wrong place at the wrong time and for being black. I knew then that the reputation that the Detroit police had for brutalizing black people had been earned.

The image I had of the police as I was growing up came to my mind. My mother had told us kids that if we ever got lost, we should try to find a policeman, and he would help us and bring us home. Butch's mother told her kids that if they were ever lost and couldn't find their way home, they should try to avoid the police because if the police found them, they might hurt them. The police were known for verbally and physically abusing black children if they wandered too far from home.

There are many more people that I came to know and stories that could be told from those years. The fact is that people like Butch and his family were my teachers. If education is to learn to see the truth, to know the world as it really is, then my education began when I got to know black people in Detroit.

They showed me the other America, the America that is unfair and wrong and mean and hateful; the America that we white people accept. But they taught me about more than racism. They taught me about love and family and courage, about what is most important and what it means to be a human being. In listening to the black experience, I discovered more truth about myself, my country, and my faith than by listening anywhere else.

I felt a deep sense of betrayal by white America. I was disillusioned with my country and my upbringing as never before. My burning question became: Why hadn't I been told?

White America successfully kept the truth hidden, kept itself isolated and protected, until the truth finally could no longer stay ghettoized. It blew up in the faces of white America in cities around the country in the late 1960s.

The black anger that tore Detroit apart created not so much a riot as an insurrection. At root it was a political rebellion against the oppression and control of white America. Some of the young black men who tore up the city of Detroit in the summer of 1967 were friends of mine. I talked with them before and after, and I knew that their motives had more to do with political rebellion than random violence.

The riots were an explosion of pent-up rage, and the weight of oppression was their cause. Black political leaders went to the streets and tried in vain to quell the crowds, but it was too late. A revolutionary spirit had taken over, and nothing anyone could do or say would stop it.

Most of the casualties were black. I heard of incidents of black men lynched by white police and citizens, of black women being hauled into precinct houses and gang-raped by white police. The blacks fought back.

Black snipers shot and killed white police. A few white motorists who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time were dragged from their cars, beaten, and killed. Windows were smashed, stores looted, businesses–black and white alike– estroyed. Whole sections of the city went up in flames. The city just stopped. I never saw anything like it before or since.

The police started to lose control, and the National Guard were sent into the streets with rifles, gas masks, and tanks, like an occupying army moving into the ghetto. Pitched rifle battles took place between the Guard and the snipers, the sort of urban guerrilla warfare Butch and I had talked about while going up and down in our elevators.

I remember wanting to go into the riot areas during the rebellion, but I would never have gotten in and to try would have been foolish. The ghetto was cordoned off as in a military operation, with police barricades and a strict curfew. I maintained an almost around-the-clock vigil at the television or radio, watching and listening to what was happening just a few miles away.

I could get close enough to where I could see the flames at night. They lit the sky up brightly, and it looked as though the whole ghetto was burning down. I could hear gunshots and sirens, and I wondered what was happening to the people I knew. I felt angry and helpless.

Virtually all the white people I talked to blamed the rioting on black people. The riots were totally baffling and deeply frightening to them. I felt helplessly stuck in the middle, unable to get into the city, unable to relate to the fear and lack of understanding expressed by my white friends and neighbors.

When the riots were over, my father and I drove into the city to survey the scene, which looked literally like a war zone. Gutted buildings, abandoned storefronts, piles of rubble–Detroit looked like it had been bombed. Soldiers still patrolled the streets, giving a feel of martial law, which was in fact what the situation had become.

Later the Kerner Report, the presidential commission study of the riots in Detroit, Newark, and other U.S. cities, identified their cause as the persistent racism of a society divided against itself. I must have read that report at least five times, studying its more than 600 pages with a thorough intensity. It completely confirmed my experience of the black community. The causes of urban violence were poverty and its accompanying miseries: bad housing and inadequate education, lack of medical care, high unemployment. And the most commonly mentioned grievance by all the black people surveyed was police brutality.

For a long time I had tried to get my church to deal with the issue of racism. After the riots, the people of the church finally agreed to take up the subject. Even then it was relegated to a Wednesday night midweek meeting rather than Sunday morning.

The format of the meeting was to be a panel discussion, and I was to take "the side of the blacks." Two of the church's elders were selected to take the other side, the "white point of view." The fourth panelist was a young social worker new to the church, who was sympathetic to the black perspective.

I never prepared harder for anything in my life. My presentation was chock-full of unemployment figures, housing statistics, facts about poverty, welfare, inadequate education and health care, police brutality. It was also overflowing with Bible verses that dealt with God's love for the poor and concern for justice, and the reconciling work of Christ.

By the time the big night came I knew I was ready. I was sure that no one could dispute the facts of the situation or disagree with the overwhelming biblical imperatives for justice and racial reconciliation. I began my remarks with a line from a song by a black Detroit singer, which spoke to the depth of her personal despair: "The windows of the world are covered with rain; what's the whole thing coming to?" I shared what I had learned from blacks about their experience of being poor, segregated, and disenfranchised. The social worker buttressed my argument with more facts and stories from his experience in social work.

The response from the two elders was predictable. One spoke of how his Scottish grandparents had pulled themselves up from their bootstraps as immigrants to America, and he asked why blacks couldn't do the same. The other spent his time defending the American way of life, praising the virtues of capitalism. They failed completely to engage with anything I had said.

The discussion was then opened up to the congregation, and I hoped the conversation would improve. The first question set the tone for the evening. One of the adults who had known me since birth directed his question to me: "But, Jamie, would you really want Barbie (my younger sister) to marry one?"

It got worse from there. Most people refused to look at the suffering of black people. One after another they rose to emotionally defend themselves, their church, white America, and its way of life.

By the end of the evening I was thoroughly discouraged. Only my parents and the wife of the young social worker expressed any real support. People who had known me all my life came up to me afterward and offered a string of empty, patronizing remarks about how impressed they were with my presentation.

My first idealistic impulses had driven me to take my concerns to the church, with the hope that the church members would respond. Their defensive reaction and opposition to me only spawned greater awareness and more action, which spawned more reaction, and–it's a familiar story.

As the church people sought to justify themselves and the country they loved, that country seemed uglier and uglier to me.

My alienation from the church over the issue of racism grew to anger when I went away to Michigan State University. I had little to do with the church after I went away, but occasionally when I was home for a weekend, at the persuasion of my parents, I paid a visit on Sunday morning.

I remember one Sunday when the preacher was a white missionary to South Africa. He gave a rather contentless devotional talk that said nothing about the situation of apartheid in South Africa. Afterward I walked up to him to have a few words. One of the church elders, who was waiting to take him home for Sunday dinner, saw me coming. Worry was written all over the elder's face.

I asked our speaker what American missionaries were doing to oppose the racially segregated and exploitative system of apartheid in South Africa. He smiled and whispered, "Now I know that in this country you have a belief in integration. But let me tell you that it would never work in South Africa. We know these people and, believe me, we love these people, but they just couldn't handle equality with whites. The whites are the only ones who can really run the country and the blacks and the coloreds are better off with apartheid than they would be without it. I know because I've been there."

Quite sure of himself, he was a bit unprepared for my response and astonished by it. I looked at him with all the anger and bitterness that had been growing inside me for a long time toward such hypocrisy, and I said, "Some day when black people in South Africa rise up to take their freedom and put people like you up against the wall, don't you dare have the gall to say that you are being persecuted for the sake of Christ."

The missionary stood dazed for a moment with his mouth gaping, while the church elder turned so red I thought he might burst. Being an evangelist and assuming from my remark that I couldn't be a Christian, the missionary asked me if I had ever been to the church before. I replied that I had been there all my life and was now away at college. A smile of understanding crept over his face, and he nodded, "Oh, I see, you're away at college. One of those secular schools, no doubt."

Such interactions were typical of those years in my life. I had become a very angry young man, especially about the hypocrisy of the church. Little gentleness or humility could be found in my rage, and I'm sure I was more than just a little self-righteous and arrogant.

The people of the church and I found ourselves less and less able to talk with one another, and none of us had much desire or energy for it anymore. I continued to drift further and further away from Christian faith.

Eventually, the alienation from the church that my confrontation with racism had begun was completed by Vietnam. It would still be a few years before I would be drawn back to Jesus and would come to see, for the first time, that the gospel spoke with more power and authority than anything else I would discover to the questions that burned in my heart.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. This is adapted from an earlier version of the article "By Accident of Birth," which appeared in the June-July 1983 issue of Sojourners.

Image: Magnifying glass in front of a Detroit map, Gemenacom /

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