May 23, 2014

Learning my Lesson: Reflections on my Experience in Uganda

In a recent reflection on the Donald Sterling controversy, Dr. Richard Land, executive editor of the Christian Post, both calls for personal forgiveness of Sterling and affirms the consequences imposed on him. Sure, sure – we know that as Christians we need to forgive, but take a second and think about the implications. In a culture that – I believe, rightly so – encourages diversity and despises racism, Jesus calls us to love Donald Sterling and offer forgiveness. Hear that? Jesus calls us to love one of the most hated men in America right now and act in a way that challenges our modern notions of “tolerance” and “diversity.”

Admittedly, I don’t think I could justify labeling my background as “diverse.” Both the elementary and middle school I attended in rural Western New York and the high school I attended in North Carolina consisted of almost an entirely white demographic. Even now, the small, Christian liberal arts college I attend consists of nearly 90 percent white men and women. I had a general sense that I needed to be thankful, but it wasn’t until I stepped outside of myself and the American culture last fall that I began to realize how much I have that I did not earn or deserve and how impactful our backgrounds can be on our social influence.

If you asked me a year ago why I felt the need to study abroad in Uganda, I don’t think I could have answered you apart from some vague spiritual-sounding language about how “God has something awesome in store.” Having spent nearly four months living and studying at Uganda Christian University in Mukono, Uganda, I can now share the answer with you. Finally, after months of anxiety and excitement leading up to my departure and months of confusion, bliss, and at times painful growth during my experience, I can begin to grasp why God called me to study abroad in Uganda. You ready?

Joy.

That’s right, joy. I’m not sure that three letters and one syllable have ever been so elusive to humanity. Be careful, now; I’m not equating joy with happiness. No, joy runs far deeper than an emotion. Joy is a lifestyle. At least twice, in Philippians 4 and 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul tells us to “Rejoice always.” Joy is a choice that requires both an awareness of God’s work and presence in all circumstances and a spirit of celebration and worship of God regardless of the circumstances.

The joy of studying in Uganda did not come from books or classrooms (I know…shocker). At the risk of sounding stereotypical, the joy came from the people around me. My two host families showed me hospitality unmatched even by my friends in the American South. My colleagues and peers at the University showed me the importance of relationships over grades and deadlines. My friends and host family taught me how to slow down and enjoy the simplicity of life free of iPhone alerts and to-do lists and full of beautiful people and places.

Joy did not only come from my positive experiences in the Pearl of Africa; in fact, my deepest joy emerged from the deepest pain. We spent ten days in Rwanda learning about the horrors of the 1994 genocide. For the first time in my life, I came face to face with a tremendous sense of entitlement – what some might call privilege – and my silent advocacy for white supremacy by not actively embracing equality. I could no longer hide in the majority – trust me; I stood out as a very large, very white male. You might wonder where the joy comes in, and for a while I did as well. I learned through these painful experiences that at the points of our deepest brokenness God awaits with even deeper love and grace.  I found joy in pain because I found God in pain.

Would it be fair to consider myself more “diverse” now? I connect better with a lot of the international students at my college than I do with many American students because of our shared experience. I still feel out of place or uncomfortable in many normal situations in America; it’s bizarre to walk into a building on a hot day and feel cold or walk into a grocery store and see more food from unknown origins than I could ever hope to eat awaiting consumption on shelves or in freezers. Uganda had a tremendous impact on my life, but does one diverse experience (or several) mean I have fully experienced diversity?

I could write for hours about my experience in Uganda, but that’s not why I write today. I can’t help but compare my own experience to the experiences of the United States. Despite an incredible variety of racial and ethnic groups in the United States, I find it difficult to say American culture has truly embraced diversity. Sports fans only need to hear the name, “Donald Sterling,” or hear more discussion about the NFL’s Washington DC franchise to understand the profound impact racism continues to have in today’s culture. Donna Brazile, vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee, shares her thoughts on education inequality in an editorial for CNN, saying, “Sixty years [after Brown v. Board], ‘separate and unequal’ is still alive.”

Here we find a difficulty in democracy: in a government system dependent on the equal treatment of all people, how do we include those who desire to exclude? How do we reconcile freedom of speech and thought with the equality of all people? Democracy requires the equal valuing of all participants; all other commitments must be secondary. Freedom of speech, religion, and other basic human rights must be protected insofar as they do not infringe on those rights of other people. Racist actions, beliefs, and thoughts contradict the very core of democratic action, and they clearly contradict the teachings of Jesus. As followers of Christ, we have a primary responsibility to love God and love others (See Matthew 22:37-40). From Christ’s example, we cannot distinguish between persons with regards to race, gender, or other socioeconomic divisions. We must also follow Billy Graham’s example, as he responded to questions about his presence at President Clinton’s second inauguration: “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.”

The Christian call includes not only loving the victims of racist actions, but the perpetrators as well. As Dr. Land contends, Justice and forgiveness work hand in hand, not in opposition. Our response as Christians cannot consist of a blanket condemnation of all apparent acts of racism as bigoted and outdated. We all need forgiveness as perpetrators and victims of racism and other sins. Instead, our focus, our pursuit, our destination must be joy. We must create an environment where in the midst of great pain, all people can join together in the fellowship of the church to worship God and experience His love, grace, and presence. We must offer space for pain to heal, broken relationships to reconcile, and hatred to be overcome by love. We cannot confuse our call to love and forgive with the necessary actions of reform, repentance, and, at times, restorative punishment.

Don’t get me wrong; the United States has taken major steps forward in terms of racial equality over the past sixty years. However, the mere presence of various groups of people does not diversity make. May God offer us grace as we continue to appreciate and stand for the equality of all created people as a part of His kingdom.

Thank you for hearing my story. I look forward to hearing yours.

Soli Deo Gloria

 


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