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I’m not sure when it dawned on me that I had embraced pretty deep racist attitudes expressed unconsciously in regular behavior. Discerning, then trying to deal honestly with those, took years. It felt like peeling off layers of scabs covering my soul’s eyes. 

I thought I came from a diverse community in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago. We all descended from different European ethnic groups and thoughtlessly called each other names no longer acceptable. Up and down 103rd Place resided, among others, people we called “Paddies,” “Polacks,” “Swedes,” “Limeys,” and “Krauts.” They called us Dutch folks “Wooden Shoes” or “Cheese Heads.” I’m not sure why we deserved two epithets. Was Dutch too much? Many parents and a few kids spoke with heavy foreign accents. Neighbors went on picnics together on summer weekends. Surely there were more, but I remember only two fights among neighborhood kids.

We knew all the neighbors from Harvard to Wentworth avenues. Kids played baseball and basketball on Roseland Christian School’s playground. Every kid rode a bike all over Roseland and Beverly Hills. In winter we ice-skated at Fernwood Park or Kohn School. A few buddies and I often hung out with the firefighters on 104th Street. Sometimes they let us slide down the brass pole. 

We all attended ethnic churches. Dutch people went to Reformed and Christian Reformed churches, of which there were seven; German people to Lutheran; English people to Episcopalian and Baptist; and Irish, Polish, and Italian people to Catholic churches of their groups. Other kids could ride bikes and play ball Sundays. Christian Reformed kids studied the catechism, read The Banner, or napped.

I didn’t really know that I was “white,” because everyone I knew looked like me. I often saw Black people, but I never knew a Black person until I met Rocky. He scraped Dainty Maid Candies’ floors clean of thick chocolate grime dripping daily from trays carted to the packing area. Rocky mopped those floors till the maroon paint was visible. I didn’t know where he lived and didn’t ask. During breaks I bummed cigarettes off him; he never snitched to my Cadet counselor boss.

A mile north, 95th Street marked the divide between white and Black neighborhoods. We ventured there only around Christmas. Houses and front yards full of lights displayed Santa Claus and elves packing a sleigh with gifts. It never struck me as odd that those characters were always white.  

In April 1956, my family and I took a trip to the Smokies. One afternoon we stopped at a Tastee-Freez in Tennessee. After finishing my soft-serve, I had to wash the ice cream off my hands and face. Halfway to the bathroom I saw two drinking fountains labeled “White” and “Colored.” “I’d love that colored water,” I thought, and grabbed the faucet. A split second later an employee shouted, “Hey, that’s for n******.”

White Flight

Around 1963, Black people started moving south of 95th Street. Neighborhoods farther north were being destroyed by the Dan Ryan Expressway construction. That 11-and-a-half-mile, six-lane trench linked downtown Chicago to South Holland and Lansing, Dutch farming towns south of 159th Street. Churning to the Loop and back, the Dan Ryan displaced thousands of Black families. 

White people soon began leaving Roseland. Pain and anger fueled conversations full of those wicked names for our new neighbors. Black kids rode their bikes on “our” streets, played basketball on Roseland Christian School’s courts. Black families shopped in “our” grocery, hardware, and department stores. We didn’t know exactly why we were feeling so angry and scared, but we knew whom to blame.  

Those several years of disruption to our daily lives and transition to the suburbs took deep root in me. I have spat out all those epithets when a Black person did something annoying, like throwing a candy wrapper on the ground. 

I didn’t begin to recognize such attitudes and behaviors as racist until late in high school. Such community and personal blindness was, well, wooden-headed, inexcusable. Martin Luther King had been making news for years in the U.S. South, going to jail along with John Lewis and leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I don’t remember hearing kind words about King until after his assassination. 

King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial moved me, but I hadn’t internalized its message. Nor did I connect his work with my own kinship to Southern whites trying to keep Air Force veteran James Meredith from enrolling as the University of Mississippi’s first Black student; he needed police escorts for weeks. After all, Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves; the North had won the Civil War. Northerners were the good guys. Governors Orville Faubus, Lester Maddox, and George Wallace were the bad guys, along with Birmingham’s public safety commissioner Bull Connor and his dogs attacking demonstrators. 

Learning and Growing

In September 1965 I met two Black students at Calvin College. They told of walking Grand Rapids’ streets and enduring evil name-calling. Their stories stirred up my soul’s muck of shame. I’d used those names; that was how we talked in the kind, racist community where I grew up. I hadn’t really known such guilt until I was 18.

With friends like these men, painful yet healing lightning struck and made me see—the opposite of St. Paul’s Damascus Road theophany. The flashes burned into my deep racism. Images from Revelation 7 lit up a hopeful future. That “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” is what Christ’s church should look like.

In 1969, my family moved to a new subdivision built in suburban Oak Forest over fertile farmland. Between 1967 and 1969, all four Christian Reformed churches in Roseland and two of three Reformed churches sold their buildings and fled south and west. Gradually my heart’s long disobedience in one racist direction lessened. Almost two years in the U.S. Army taught me to live, eat, sleep, and work with Black and Hispanic people. A Black draftee I knew lived a few blocks from where I was raised. 

In basic training the two of us spent evening hours together. I described the hatred and flight of us white Christians to the suburbs. He didn’t get angry, held no grudges. After our discharge, we visited regularly. He became an award-winning teacher in Chicago’s public schools. Later I worked with Resonate Global Mission alongside Guatemalan Mayan pastors. Still today gracious Asian, African, and Latin American colleagues help scour and nurture my soul. They look and sound like Revelation 7. 

Although racism now rides more lightly on my soul’s back, those many names are still the first words that roar through my mind when I see Black people. In a long microsecond I have to repent, push them down, and turn my mind to respect. Every day, though, I marvel at the miracle of God’s forgiveness that is still changing me and the communities of my youth. And it’s all because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Lamb of God, a brown-skinned man who spent some of his formative years in Africa.


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