Let’s Talk, church: Labels

Eric Garner
Mike Brown
Sandra  Bland

Sometimes we live blocks away and worlds apart.  Our churches are no different.  Depending on the church you attend, those names above could mean everything or they could mean nothing.  If you attend a predominantly black church, you have heard those names more than once.  Not just in post-service conversations, but from the pulpit.  You’ve heard calls for justice and liberation, and you’ve probably heard calls of “Come, Lord Jesus!”  If your church is racially diverse, you have likely heard laments over the injustice and started some conversations about what can be done.  And then, likely, you’ve moved on.  If you attend a predominantly white church, you might have to google those names to understand the rest of this.
Sometimes we live blocks away and worlds apart.
I live with this internal disharmony in more ways than one.  If I walk two blocks to the east, there is a good chance I could find a foreclosed house for sale surrounded by unkempt rental properties.  If I walk three blocks to the west, there is a good chance that I will find a house I will barely be able to afford even if I win the lottery.  But wait, there’s more.  I’m white.  Inescapably white.  The community where I grew up is all white, meaning that my school and church and neighbors all had pretty similar experiences to me.
But not so for my sons.  No matter my whiteness nor how light-skinned they may appear, they are black.  In the eyes of the world, they are black.  This past week I’ve had two different people stumble across my photos on Facebook and respond, “Your kids are mixed?!”
Yes.  It’s not that hard to see.
Why does this matter?  Or why does it matter to you what happened to Eric Garner?  Or Mike Brown?  Sandra Bland?  My sons?  Should it matter?
That depends on how you label them.
We have a tremendous propensity to label our experiences.  Even more so, we label people.  When Eric Garner died in a chokehold, many labeled him as a criminal.  He was, after all, known for selling cigarettes illegally.  Mike Brown, upon his death, was portrayed by many as an accused criminal.  And, due to his size, some even said he was a weapon all by himself.  Sandra Bland died in her jail cell.  Some call it a suicide and point to the marijuana in her system and her “combative” behavior.  Others see a murder and a cover-up.  Our words – our labels – matter.
Your skin color alone will not determine how you see them.  Your labels will.  Would you like to know one of the most powerful labels that you possess?
The moment that my oldest son was born, part of me could no longer label all black people as “them.”  I tried.  I really did.  My sons were an image of me, and I’m white.  So couldn’t they be white as well?  Yes, but not fully.  That is not the whole of them.  And the problem with labels is that it keeps us from seeing the whole of someone.  This should matter in your church.  Did a white person recently join your church?  Or a black person?  Or maybe a Puerto Rican joined and you told someone that you had a Mexican come to your church?  Let’s just be honest:  we label, and we often get it wrong.
Let me tell you briefly about my ongoing struggle with this.  It’s not only race that causes us to label.  It’s not only behavior.  Sometimes it comes from our status.  I worked for a Christian social services agency for years.  I started working there while I was in college.  Even though I looked no older than the young men I helped to care for, feed, discipline, and physically manage, I learned how important it was to have labels.  They were “delinquents.”  They were “ADD” or “depressed” and required medication.  They were their levels within the program.  They were clients and I was a staff.  They were a them.
In reality they were young men removed from their families – not by their own doing – and had a story.  But I wasn’t listening.  By God’s grace and many conversations, I started to see beyond the labels.  They wanted the same thing that I wanted: to be known and yet still loved.
One Friday before Spring Break in 2012 I had a lengthy conversation with a young lady in a program who had just discovered that her drug test had returned dirty.  It wasn’t news to her, but now that the staff knew of it, everything would change.  How should I label her?  I had been her case manager.  I was a chaplain.  I had heard her stories of abuse.  I had been there when she found out that she could no longer have any legal contact with her younger biological twin sisters.  But who was she now?
I drove home later than normal that Friday.  I had listened.  I had heard her story.  And I had run out of words.  Before I made it to the first stop sign I uttered this simple prayer: “God, help me to love more deeply.”
He did.  Be careful with those prayers.
I had a date that same night.  I purposely left my phone in the car in order to avoid any distractions.  When I returned to my car, two different people had left me a message that the young lady had run away.  So now what?  Depends on the label I use.  A client?  A runner?  A drug user?  If she is any of those, I simply go home like I had so many times before.  I might say a prayer and wait to see if she’s found.  If I am bound my labels and policies, I had better believe that every policy is in line with the will of God.
But if it’s not about how well I can sleep at night, and if her labels are not the whole of her, I had better do something about what I know.  I had a very good idea of where she would go because we had previously found her written plans should she run away.  Was I supposed to do nothing with that?  I knew the family at the location, but I had never been there.  So late on a Friday night I knocked on a door that said “Do NOT use this door!” just to see if she was there.  I had no plan.  I had no script.  I had no labels.
The young lady wasn’t there.  I left my number in case she would show up and I drove around the corner.
That’s where I saw her.  And she saw me.  She and another young lady with her began to run.  They had escaped from what felt like a prison to them and they did not want me to return them there.  I stopped my car in the street and ran also.  I did not catch up with them.
Later I laughed at how comical, and even frightening, it must have looked for a white man in his thirties to be chasing two young black girls in the dark.  I guess it depends on how you label it.  It looked pretty strange for the father to run out to the prodigal son also.  But love runs.  Labels watch.
Later that night, the lady at the house where I knocked made a phone call to me.  She told me the girls were there, but she was very certain they would not turn themselves in.  I understood.  I went to sleep.  By God’s grace, three days later the young lady called to say she would return.  It wasn’t home, bu she would come back to the program.
I’m reminded almost daily of what happened to me in this process.  I was eventually dismissed from my position and I have documents that announce how I clearly violated acceptable client-patient protocols.  Hallelujah!  No one is born a client.  It’s just a label.  So is “professional.”  Neither one of those matter in the end.
Shane Claiborne has written a marvelous book titled The Irresistible Revolution.  In it, he makes the assertion that no one is truly fatherless; they just haven’t met Him yet.
What are we doing about that, church?  Are we looking at names like Sandra Bland and saying, “Well, that’s not me?”  Are we looking at those who don’t fit in and labeling them as “sinners,” “unchurched,” or “out-of-place”?  We have a lot of the older brother in us, church.  We see the younger brother or sister  – the prodigal – and feel they are stepping in on our grace.  Not so, church.  Not so.
Let’s try to be more like the Father, church.  God doesn’t see “THEM,” He sees “MINE.”  Let’s learn to run.  Learn to see the us in them.


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