I learned about George Floyd’s death from my wife, Kelly, who called to tell me something terrible had happened in Minneapolis. I watched the video in abject horror, experiencing the gamut of emotions so many of us have felt in the past several days, from outrage to devastation.
How should the church respond? The racial reconciliation movement seems to have accomplished little in the way of true racial reconciliation. I believe that’s because the problem isn’t merely how one race regards another, but rather a deeply-seated heart problem. And heart problems are gospel problems. This is why Paul tackled the racism of his day by declaring, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The apostle Paul believed that the gospel is the unifying absolute that fundamentally changes hearts and allows them to be opened to understanding other people.
Recently, I sat down with our Staff Writer, Jeanne Harrison, to talk about racism. She shared her story with me, and I asked her if she’d be willing to share it with you, because I believe we need to let people talk about the truth of their experiences. And we need to listen. These stories are bridges to understanding one another, to a growing awareness, and to love that magnifies the gospel.
I was in fourth grade the first time I encountered racism in a personal way. My mom is Chinese, from Singapore, and my dad is American. They met as single missionaries in the Philippines, where I was later born and raised. Every three years we traveled to Singapore and to the US to visit family, friends, and financial supporters. Missionaries call these trips “furlough.”
Fourth grade was a furlough year. My siblings and I were enrolled in a private Christian school in the US. For me, the experience was fantastic. Those fourth graders welcomed me with open arms. For my sister, entering seventh grade, it was torturous.
One day, she came home in tears and told my mom that a group of girls had chased her all the way to the bathroom, where she locked herself in a stall. Together, they banged on the stall door and yelled, “Go back to China!” It was what they called her — “China girl” — despite the fact that she had never even visited China.
I was standing in the kitchen when I overheard her telling the story. Even now my stomach churns to remember it. My primary feeling as a ten-year-old girl wasn’t anger or even sadness. It was deep embarrassment. Shame. I slunk off to my room and pretended it never happened, because I wasn’t brave enough to face it. But that was the day I realized there was something intrinsic to my personhood that I could never shed, and it made me susceptible to hatred, rejection, and mockery. For the first time in my life — but certainly not the last — I wished I was white. Fully and completely white, just like my dad.
It’s a complicated thing to wrestle with your own race. It’s like floating, untethered, alienated from yourself. Your own enemy. For me, it was a burning secret, a private shame. I loved my mom. I wanted to be like her in every single way…except one. I didn’t want to be like her in the way that made people ignore her when they talked to my dad. Or tease him for “marrying a native.” Or ask him questions about my mom right in front of her, like she was a toddler, incapable of speaking, despite having majored in English and holding a Master’s degree in Christian leadership.
In high school I learned that there were Christians who withdrew their support of my parents’ ministry when my dad married my mom. They believed interracial marriage was sin because of a skewed interpretation of the Bible. I wondered if they thought I was a mistake. An unfortunate by-product of sin, who wouldn’t exist in a perfect world.
I started taking subtle steps to distance myself from my Chinese heritage. I got blonde highlights (disaster). Wore mascara to make my eyes look larger. Dated American guys. But inevitably there would be a reminder. A belittling joke. An off-handed comment like, “I like Asians, I would just never date one.” Or, on occasion, a downright racist remark that left me speechless.
As I grew in Christ, I came to love and celebrate my heritage more and more, but I’d be lying if I said I put the issue to bed a long time ago. When I watched footage of George Floyd begging for his life, something shattered inside of me. I sobbed like a ten-year-old girl, finally allowed to cry. In those quiet moments, God spoke to me. He whispered into my heart, “Jeanne, every time you felt degraded because of your race, I did too. They weren’t just rejecting you; they were rejecting Me. Because this whole idea of race — it’s My idea.”
No sooner had those words wrapped me in divine comfort, than they pierced me with painful conviction. Because the ugly truth is, I’m just as broken as every person who’s ever hurt my feelings. I devalue others in thought and deed. Put myself first. Feed my ego, cast judgment, make sweepingly unfair generalizations. I’ve wounded people with my insensitivity and not even realized it. In the words of Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, not even one,” and certainly not me.
When Pastor Mike invited me to tell my story, it struck me that I’ve never written about this before. “Would you be willing to share it?” He asked, and I surprised myself by saying, “I’d love to.” Because something inside me knew, it’s time. It’s time to have these conversations. To knock down walls and build bridges. And if we can leverage any bit of our brokenness for the sake of the gospel, we should. You know who taught me that? My Chinese mom — who rocked me all night when I was sick, who impassioned me to write, and whose love made me brave.