Letter to the Next Generation

Black Lives Matter. What is it about those words that makes so many of us uneasy, nervous, or defensive? We (and when I say “we” I am referring to white people) immediately want to respond and shout “ALL LIVES MATTER.”  It’s our first instinct, right? I think the accompanying picture of this little girl and her sign perfectly explains what is at stake these days.  But here might be another way that gives picture to what is happening: imagine your child dying and you are giving a eulogy explaining what your own child meant to you and how special your child was, and then someone grabs the mic and says “actually all children are special…” That’s what “all lives matter” these days sounds like to our brothers and sisters of color.  Black lives matter.

This is a human issue. And we as people of faith have to fight for all people, no matter race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, social class.  We are all made in the image and likeness of God.  Look around the world. If it’s not white against black, it’s Palestinians and Israelis, it’s civil wars in African countries of tribes fighting tribes.  Racism is nothing new. And at the core it is not a skin color issue, it’s not an issue of social elitism…it’s a HUMAN issue. 

Langston Hughes, the African American author, poet, social activist, novelist, playwright and columnist. He is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.  He died in 1967 from complications of cancer surgery. Yet his legacy and poetry continue to be a driving force for our thoughtful reflection and action today. His poem “Harlem” alludes to these tensions rising:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—And then run?

 Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?
 
Perhaps we have seen this “explosion” the past few weeks with protests, rioting, looting and all around calls for a change to the system.  I am in no means promoting or advocating the looting and rioting that has occurred. It’s unfortunate that some have taken advantage of the situation for their own personal selfish and evil means. But the protesting that has happened is a call for all of us to open our eyes and see that dreams are exploding. As a white man with white children, I will probably never have to worry about Anna and Peter driving one day and being pulled over by a cop because of their skin color. But ask a parent of black children and that perhaps is one of their biggest fears- their child never coming back home after going out driving. There is so much “we” may never understand because “we” have been privileged unlike people of other races/ethnicities.
 
Here’s where I want to offer us some food for thought. A few weeks back I asked these two questions: What will people 100 years from now thank us for?  And what will they wish we did differently?  I’ve thought a lot about those questions.  One answer I came up with is to leave a roadmap in the form of a letter for my family and generations to come of what I hope they might learn from my mistakes. What follows is a letter to Anna, Peter, Baby Hearne and any grandchildren that may come along. It’s my thoughts to them about these days.  
 
 

Dear Anna, Peter, “Baby Hearne,” and future grandchildren of mine-

I love you. Remember that. One day, I hope you will read this and it will make some sense. Over the past few weeks (May-June 2020), I have been imagining a better world for you.

I love to preach as a pastor. But maybe I have totally missed the mark in my preaching and teaching. And perhaps I have not prayed as hard or reflected as much as I should have in my life. I have realized once again in the light of current events I can’t imagine a better world for you if I don’t fight for a better world for people who don’t look like you. I’ve gotten a lot of things wrong in my life.  This might be one of the biggest. And perhaps I have been wrong for a long time. I’m sure the rest of the family can tell you more about some of the things I have gotten wrong. But rest assured I can tell you stories about them, too. But I digress. I hope you will be able to read this and learn from some of my mistakes.

Somewhere along the way I think I began to rationalize my own racism. I believed that as long as I was friendly to people of color, voted my conscience, treated everyone respectfully, generously supported specific causes and preached about love every Sunday in church that I certainly didn’t have any racist attitudes. I grew up in a white suburb of Chicago that quickly saw “those” people moving in from the city forcing white people to move away. I saw it happen right with my own eyes. “Those” people were black. “They” were somehow different and going to make our block and community less safe and certainly bring the value of the housing down. I heard my dad speak in those terms. I heard others, too. I just listened. I didn’t say anything. I just minded my own business. I was complicit.

 
I am pretty sure that most people who are racists don’t know they are. This is one of those issues that can too easily become a personal blind spot. That’s why you have to become intentional about taking a closer look at yourself. Racist attitudes can be seen in how you react to a joke, make assumptions about someone’s guilt or intelligence, allow a slur to go unchallenged, dismiss another person’s opinion, look at someone walking down the street or stay silent when there’s a threat. So, I’m going to give you a little fatherly and pastoral advice.

 

Here are some things I hope you will always do:
 

First, make friends with people who don’t look like you. Don’t just be friendly with people who are different than you. Do the hard work of becoming friends. Sit at a table with them. I wish I had done this more in school where it was all too easy to sit with those who looked like me, spoke like me and dressed like me. Dream with them. Share life with them. Lastly and most importantly. listen to them. If you don’t listen to people who are different than you, you will never see what you can’t see. Here’s the point. Most of us pick friends who see everything the way we do. Friends who are like you make life more comfortable. But when you have friends who see things differently, they challenge your world views in a good way. These friendships will always be harder. The problem is that, if you leave them out of your life, you will actually miss out on what makes life- magical, fascinating, and passionate.  I really failed at this. Don’t make this same mistake.  

 

So, invite yourself into their world and invite them into yours. It will create a better world because it will make you a better person. When vocabulary changes from “those people…” to “my friends,” people are changed forever. One of “those” people was a boy named Steve who lived two houses away from me growing up. He was black. My white friends and I would often play basketball in our backyards. I would see him playing by himself in his yard. My other friends would make fun of him. At first I said nothing. Then one day I asked if he wanted to play with me. He did. It started a great friendship. I didn’t care what others said. Steve was a boy like me who just wanted to play. And we did. That’s what I hope for you.

 

Learn the history in this country from people who don’t look like you. I studied lots of history in school especially at Loyola University and all the authors of the books I read in class were white. Diversify what you read. Get a different viewpoint. This is what I hope for you.

 
I have always believed this country is a land of incredible opportunity. I am thankful that you live here for more reasons than I can write in this letter. There are men and women from every background who have sacrificed everything so you can live with the privileges you have. Sadly, you don’t really understand or appreciate this fact until you get older. Be thankful. This is my hope for you.
 
But there is another sad reality. “America has not treated everyone who lives here equally.” I need to say this very clearly: you need to study what happened. You need to hear the stories of the Native Americans, of African Americans and all people of color. You need to imagine what was unimaginable. I’m afraid if you fail to imagine it, you will never speak up against it. I studied it as something I thought was some past event only to see it happen again in front of my own eyes.  Study, listen and learn. This is my hope for you.
 
I preach and talk about Jesus a lot. He might be the key in all of this. He was about healing people inside out.  If you see someone broken or hurt, do anything you can to help them. We will never heal until enough of us are willing to use whatever privilege we have to restore what has been broken. I hope and pray that will happen in my lifetime. We must care for every single person we meet.  Every-one.
 

Talk about God with people who don’t look like you. Here are a few interesting facts: Jesus had darker skin than yours. The disciples were from the Middle East. More than likely, it was a black man helped Jesus carry His cross. The Gospel story compels us to love neighbors who don’t look like us. God is infinite. He is far too big to be understood through the filter of one race. Never make the mistake of only viewing God through the lens of people who look like you. If you do, your version of God will be extremely limited. When you see, hear, and experience faith from people who don’t look like you, God will become bigger than you ever imagined. This is my hope for you.

Take your cue from Jesus. He showed us all what it looked like to love others. Speak up for people who don’t look like you. If we stop and truly listen to others, we can love with and because of our differences.  This is one of the things that makes being human great. There are so many of us and none of us is the same.

 

By the time you are my age, I hope it will be a much better world. I’m not naïve enough to believe hate and racist acts will not exist. But my prayer is that those behaviors will not be tolerated by most people who look like you. That’s why, I hope you will always speak up for people who don’t look like you. Not because they shouldn’t speak up for themselves, but because they shouldn’t have to speak up by themselves. The most dangerous version of racism is the kind that is quiet.  Quiet racism is harder to clarify, confront and confess. And it invites hatred to continue unchecked.  There is a saying I leave you with: “If you refuse to confront racism anywhere, you invite racism to thrive everywhere.” That same can be said of evil…evil must be confronted. That’s why the only way to imagine a better world for you, is to fight for a better world for people who don’t look like you.

 

Wherever you are, I will be with you. I’m proud of you. And I love you. Live by the words of Fred Rogers, who I loved watching on TV as a child: What is the next kindest choice? Then do it. This is my hope for you

 

Love,

Daddy and Grandpa 
 

 

So, dear friend, how might you answer the question: what will people 100 years from now thank you for? What will they wish you did differently?  Perhaps take some time this summer to craft and compose your own letter to future generations. What would you say? What legacy will we leave them? How might you speak about faith, justice, mercy and love? What does happen to a dream deferred? Will it just blow up or can we actively do something now together to make our world right? I finish with the words of “We are Called,” a hymn we often sing at worship. May these words become more than just words. Let them become a way of life for us:

 

Come! Live in the light!
Shine with the joy and the love of the Lord!
We are called to be light for the kingdom,
to live in the freedom of the city of God!

We are called to act with justice,
we are called to love tenderly,
we are called to serve one another,
to walk humbly with God!

 
~PJ

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