In the pastoral prayer from last Sunday’s service, we asked God to help us be especially eager to listen and learn from those whose experience may be far different. There’s nothing exceptional about that, is there? Behind that request is the second great commandment, to love our neighbors. Of course, really listening to someone else is more easily said than done, which is why we need the Spirit to enable each of us to “look not only to [our] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).

When we gather as a congregation, we come with many differing experiences, don’t we? Seated around us might be people who have grown up in urban Beijing, suburban Fairfax, or rural Guatemala; people with five or six siblings and people with none; software writers and truck drivers and teachers.

This past Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so let’s bring the question of differing experiences to the difficult arena of race. Does one’s race influence one’s experience in America? Do people in our country experience life differently based on their race? Our nation has been called a melting pot, we’ve been through the Civil War and passed the Civil Rights Act, so now issues of race, especially as related to slavery and African Americans, are behind us, right?

Maybe not. One reason we might doubt that issues of race are in the rearview mirror is the differing responses to major events. I lived in LA during the OJ Simpson trial in the 1990’s and there was a notable divide in the reactions many black Americans and white Americans had to what was happening. I’ve observed the same thing more recently in the responses to the shooting of a young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, or the events in Charlottesville in 2017. No matter what your opinion about who was responsible for what happened in these events, it’s easy for each one of us to simply look at the other side and say, “How could they think that? They’re just wrong.” But doesn’t love call us to seek to understand first? Wouldn’t a better starting point be, “How can I get in their shoes and understand why they think like that?”?

These differences carry over into the church, where black evangelical Christians and white evangelical Christians tend to understand racism differently, with black brothers and sisters tending to see it in systemic, institutional terms, and white brothers and sisters tending to see it in individualistic terms.[1]

How can we understand and empathize with those whose experience is different from our own? This is difficult for all of us, whether our heritage is Korean, Latino, African, Chinese, or European. Before any of us can say, “I agree with you” or “I disagree with you” the first thing we must be able to say is, “I understand you.” The only way to do that is to listen. I’ve got a long way to go, but I am trying to listen. As a believer with light colored skin I’m trying to listen to my darker skinned brethren. Through conversations, good books, helpful movies, I’m slowly learning.

For example, I remember a conversation shortly after moving to Virginia. I was expressing my enthusiasm for all the historical sites to see in this state and my friend Ken responded positively with the exception that he wasn’t a big fan of the plantations, because those were the places his ancestors had been enslaved. That has changed the way I think about, and visit, places like Monticello.

More recently, I heard a lecture in which the speaker mentioned how evangelicals in the 18th century, like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, owned slaves. I was shocked. Edwards has been one of my pastoral heroes; I’ve read several biographies, but didn’t know this. So, I went to my bookshelf, pulled down a biography[2] and found, right there on page 255 the heading, “Slavery,” under which the author explained that the Edwards family owned slaves, as did many New Englanders in that time. How could I miss this? And how might an African American brother or sister respond to Edwards differently than I do, in light of this?

Church unity grows when we seek to understand and empathize with people from differing backgrounds (Romans 14:1-15:13). Martin Luther King, Jr. helped put the spotlight on racial differences and injustices still present in our country and churches the 1960’s, not that long ago. Much progress has been made since then, for which we are grateful. May we continue to benefit from his legacy and press in towards one another, seeking to listen to, understand, and love those whose experiences may be very different from our own, but who are descendants of the same Adam, children of the same Fall, and now followers of the same Christ.

How are you learning to listen to others? How can we grow in our unity as a church? What are your thoughts about this post? I’d love to hear from you.

Mark Mullery

[1] For more on this see Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America”

[2] George Marsden, “Jonathan Edwards: A Life”