My story is common to those who exist on the margins — those who have gone unseen and been disregarded because they have not mattered enough to people who believe that being poor means that you are somehow less human and unworthy of the same love that we all seek. However, as everyone across the world reaches out for one another in a new climate of enforced physical distancing due to COVID-19, the cracks in our systems of care — the symptoms of our failure to care — are painfully evident for all to see, from people experiencing homelessness who find themselves without access to sinks in which to wash their hands and help protect themselves from the virus to the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on Black communities. We must ask ourselves, what will it take to bring about lasting change? True change will happen only when we can bravely begin to unlearn harmful attitudes that lead to injustice.
The changes I’m referring to are less about behavioral changes and more about improving the ways in which we view and understand people. They are not about adding tokenistic “acts of service” to our schedules but rather something that goes much deeper. They involve a change of heart: one that begs us to let go of believing that we’re superior to others in any way and to start confronting the ways in which we’ve previously ostracized people due to the color of their skin, which side of the border they find themselves on, or the amount of money that they have in their bank accounts. And that is just on a personal level.
This kind of unlearning forces us to confront things about ourselves that are unattractive. The word racism, for example, can often not even be uttered for fear that it will immediately shut down communication between the speaker and the hearer. The suggestion that someone might in fact be a racist or promote racist ideas by their inaction — personally, politically, or both — can stir feelings of intense personal shame which can lead to all-out denial for that person. This denial in turn adds to the racial trauma that a person of color has already experienced. On the other hand, when a person of the majority culture can acknowledge their own potential bias, listen without defensiveness, become educated on the experiences of people of color and begin to take actions that bring equity to a community that is not their own — this is extremely powerful. Recognizing the humanity in all and the inherent image of God in all is restorative work. But it takes an acknowledgment that we are not all — as of yet — treated the same. And we have not all — yet— engaged in the work of eliminating that reality.
Embrace A New Normal
We need to adopt an inclusive kind of living — one that invites people of all colors and economic statuses into the conversation, and asks them who they are and what they think. Jesus’ way calls for us all to undertake a radical rethink. Only when Jesus’ way of thinking — that everyone is worthy of our care — becomes the new normal will we be able to move forward from this moment in history that contains a global pandemic and a growing racial divide and say that we’re better for it. What a waste it would be not to learn from this historical season. What a waste it would be just to call this a “difficult time” that we went through without seizing it as a moment for change. The process of learning from this crisis will require real effort from everyone. And it means that the people who would call themselves “Christians” can no longer rest upon church attendance as a measure of their faithfulness to the call of God. A relationship with God must supersede our social contexts; we must begin to look more and more like Jesus in our behaviors and values in our day-to-day lives. This requires that we put our hands and feet to use within our communities, which need not only bring the message of hope that Jesus offers but his provision too. This is not the first time that people both inside and outside church congregations have found it difficult to get food into their homes or have been out of work. These things have been happening for centuries, and in neighborhoods that are close to all of us.
I dare you to pause right now and commit. Commit to changing the direction of your life or the direction of the organization that you are leading. You have the power, right now, to commit to unlearning unhealthy ways so that you can set the tone, from this day forward, for what you will do differently — both in yourself and in the context of an organization.
So what do you need to change? What patterns, ways and behaviors do you see in yourself or your organization that you wish were different? Have you been closing yourself off to people? Have you not really been trusting new leaders in your organization? Have you been angry toward others because of what has happened to you in the past?
Perhaps there are racist, sexist, or prejudiced ideas that need to be confronted within you or within your organization. If this is the case, a commitment to learning from those whose skin color and gender are different from yours is paramount. Let me be clear, though, that even if these are not issues for you, it is key that you expose yourself to content from those who differ from you racially, culturally, politically and in gender. If we read or listen to only those whose opinions match ours, all we’re doing is participating in confirmation bias and receiving a mental and emotional pat on the back for being “right.”
Additionally, we should ask ourselves what unconfessed or hidden struggles we might still be holding on to. Our unhealthy habits and ways of being can keep us unavailable for God’s use and can keep us from seeing how our contributions combined with others’ contributions can have an impact on those who need it. One of the first steps you can take to begin to face your secret struggles is to start making a list of them and then find a safe space in which to talk through them—perhaps with a counselor, or with your spouse, or with a leader in your organization. The Bible teaches us that there is power in confession and even more power in prayer.
Sometimes we cannot move forward until we have gone back — until we open up to talk about what we’ve been through in the past. You may be wrestling with the idea of involving yourself in any type of community because you’ve been hurt by people who made you feel unworthy or not valued within a particular group. Remember that you are made in God’s image and, as such, have inherent value. Healing from the wrongs done to us or that we have done to others can take time, but healing is necessary for our own peace and for our role in restoring dignity and peace to others. If God wants you to unlearn habits so that he might use you to your highest capacity to serve the world, what would you be willing to change?
Adapted from When We Stand by Terence Lester. Copyright (c) 2021 by Terence Brandon Lester. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Terence Lester is a minister, speaker, community activist, author, and founder of Love Beyond Walls, a not-for-profit organization focused on poverty awareness and community mobilization. His books include I See You, Getting Past Stuck, Simple Prayers for Hurting People, and Identity Theft and the forthcoming title When We Stand, releasing in May of 2021.