I'm sitting this Sunday morning in a coffee house in Millersburg, Ohio, which I'm just figuring out doubles as a church on Sunday mornings. I honestly had forgotten it was Sunday (I'm currently at a writing residency and have sort of forgotten the world outside the words I'm writing) and was confused when we walked in to the sound of a full gospel band. I gave a look at my friend Shannon, another writer at the residency, like, Want to get out of here? But we both had work to do, so I got a coffee and set up at a table to do some work.
Then the music stopped. A pastor sauntered up and said, "I know you didn't expect this, but you're getting another sermon!"
I groaned. I should say, for those who don't know me, that I am a recovering fundamentalist. I was saved at a Jesus camp before my senior year of high school, spent my first year of college preaching to youth groups, then was taught critical thinking and read my way out of my belief in One True God. I have an aversion to church, even to remotely churchy things.
As we prepared to leave the pastor said, "Now I'm about to say something that might make some of you want to get up to leave." He wasn't talking to me. "The title of this sermon is Why I'm a Racist." I looked around this coffee-house-cum-church and was pleasantly surprised to see a racially diverse crowd. I wondered where the pastor was going with this enough to stick around.
"I'm racist," he said, "because I am a white man in a country that extends me privilege because of that." I immediately thought of a HuffPost article I posted to Facebook earlier this week, "Why I'm a Racist." The piece, written by someone who, like this pastor, is a white Christian American male. The bulk of his argument could be summarized in these of his sentences:
I live my life day in and day out and only rarely am I forced to confront these realities. Certainly the media, social and otherwise, shine a light on the issue, but that is not what I mean. Reading a powerful blog post or an inspiring tweet does not constitute confronting anything. What I mean is that when I get pulled over, shop in a store, go for a job interview, meet a new person for the first time, etc... I expect to be judged by who I am.
Yes, I am tattooed and bearded so I’m sure that on occasion someone generalizes about me, but I don’t worry about it because I know that once they get to know me they will move beyond those judgements. And I assume that they will eventually get to know me, because even with their judgement, they will give me the benefit of the doubt. I live my life benefiting from other people’s glass walls. That is simply not true for people of color. They are forced to confront it every single day. Perhaps not in an overtly bigoted and hateful way (although I’m sure that happens too), but in the “deficit of the doubt.”
The pastor here just related a similar story, telling of growing up in Oregon and deciding to leave home as an adult to make his way in the world. "I'm free, white, and 21," he recounts thinking. "Where did that expression come from? It came from white privilege." Last night, talking about my own experience growing up and leaving home, I recounted feeling the same way. I also thought out how long it took me to honestly realize how lucky I was to be given the benefit of the doubt by strangers my whole life.
By now the pastor is leavening his argument by condemning homosexuality, transgendered-accessible restrooms, evolutionary theory, and environmentalism, but by the time he got to this I was willing to accept and ignore these gaping intellectual chasms between us. This message, that we are privileged in this country to be white, and even more to white and male, is perhaps the most important one that we white people can take from the Black Lives Matter movement.
After his sermon, I'm now listening to a young black father with his toddling child discuss history being written by the winners with a young white man who is nodding his head and seems to actually be listening. I decided I had to talk with the pastor.
I just finished talking to him for about a half hour. I started the conversation by describing myself as a recovering fundamentalist, that I was just here for the coffee but found parts of his sermon deeply affecting. He countered by describing himself as a recovering narcissist. We had about fifteen minutes of engaging verbal connection, with about fifteen minutes wherein he gave me the requisite sermonizing. He is a preacher, after all. I'd say that's a pretty good ratio.
I'm still not a Christian, and I'm still a reluctant member of dominant American culture. But I just did something I never thought I'd do again: I finished a church service willingly.