“Are you a football player?” I haven’t even settled in my airplane seat before I am peppered with smile-laced questions about my professional sports history. The question almost always comes from someone white, and genuinely nice—but the root of the sentiment is still the same: You’re in first class because you’re large and play sports.
It happens so often that I’ve prepared my answers, and my face, to disarm politely and redirect the conversation. I have learned that these are teachable moments, where I can push understanding into previously closed spaces.
Certainly, there are times when I want to scream, “Can a brother just be a business owner, or just maybe a successful stockbroker? Can I fly first class without being a sports icon?” Before a conversation begins, I am already something other than who I actually am. I have been labeled, categorized and valued, all based on physical characteristics.
And this isn’t only on a plane. This happens everywhere. Even church.
What people see when they see me is the fundamental question of my journey in manhood and ministry. You see, I am acutely aware that my color and my size are detriments in most segments of society, so I must constantly disarm the idea of the “hostile Black guy” in almost every setting.
“No, sir. I don’t play football. Never did. I played soccer.” I’ll explain that my mom never signed the permission slip for football, and that set me on a path to doing what I’m doing now: preaching the Gospel.
As far back as I can remember, I always had a heart to bring the races together. I guess I got that from my mom, who was one of a few successful Black women in the state of Ohio mental health hierarchy. She embraced that honor and fought to build bridges by working harder than anyone else and genuinely caring for everyone, no matter their color.
Jesus shows us in John 4 how to engage people from different backgrounds. Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well and starts a dialogue. The woman would not lose the significance of this. She knew that Jews and Samaritans were like the Hatfields and McCoys. But Jesus illustrated three principles we all can apply in order to disarm people and begin a dialogue that leads to healing: He was relational, relatable and relevant.
Healing from divides is found by the Body of Christ building bridges of understanding between races, cultures and backgrounds.
In a time when race, politics and fractious jurisprudence are all converging at the same time, Christians must stand up and declare that we are laying down our individual cultures and picking up the Kingdom. We are not a post-racial society and we shouldn’t strive to be one. We should strive to celebrate all cultures, but make the culture of the Kingdom primary in our lives.
I am not just a Black man. I am a Christian man. That’s how I wish to be seen—and ultimately defined. Anyone care to cross that bridge with me?
John W. Gray III is a pastor, author and speaker currently serving as an associate pastor at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas.