As important as listening, sharing stories, and education are to healing racism the most important element is engagement. We need to reach out and engage with people of color to develop relationships that will allow us to know them as children of God and have them lead us down the road that will heal racism. For many of us, myself included, this is not something that presents itself easily in our day to day lives especially if we live in the predominantly white suburbs of the Twin Cities.
Yes, we can go to the family shelter or Loaves and Fishes and volunteer. These are good first steps, but I find that while it feels good to help people you do not have the opportunity to really develop anything deeper than a very surface encounter. Being an overnight volunteer for many years at St. Stephens homeless shelter in Minneapolis gave me more time and frequency to develop a little deeper relationships with some of the men that were frequent shelter guests. This allowed me to understand much better what it was to be homeless and the struggles of the men who were homeless. Even these were not the personal relationships that are required to truly walk in somebody else’s shoes and learn from them.
Working in the research laboratories at 3M allowed me opportunities to work with and develop close relationships with many coworkers of different countries, cultures, and color. I was blessed to be a summer intern supervisor for engineers of color that were studying engineering in college. It was a good opportunity for me to have daily interaction and discussions with two bright young men over 5 summers. All my work relationships were great opportunities to get and know many people on a very personal basis. If you have the chance to participate in such programs in your company I would encourage you to take them.
Another way I have been able to develop relationships with young people of color has been by being a mentor for the Harding Robotics Team. Many people have asked me through the years, why are you a mentor for Harding? Don’t you feel unsafe there? My response has been twofold. One is that frankly, the Harding Robotics Team called and asked me and that I also feel that the richer and whiter suburban teams have plenty of parents and mentors helping them. Secondly, over the 10 years I have been going to Harding to help with the team I have been treated with nothing but respect and kindness from the team and the general student body of the school. Being a mentor or tutor gives you time to develop a relationship with students of color and get to know their wishes, desires, and struggles. It has been great to see many of the students go to top-notch colleges and get engineering or science degrees. It has also been hard to see students with great potential not be able to continue on due to many different reasons that would not be an issue for a student of noncolor. I would encourage you to pursue opportunities to be a mentor or tutor at an elementary, junior, or high school on the east side of St Paul.
Most importantly is to take every opportunity to reach out to neighbors of color. Our neighborhood in South Maplewood has been increasing in the number of families of color. This can either be a source of resentment or a great opportunity to really engage and get to know your neighbors and talk about some of the current news and seek their opinion on the current state of affairs.
To see a beautiful collage of the diversity on the East Side I would encourage you to walk some evening in Battle Creek Park just south of the 3M headquarters. Julie and I bicycle through this area often and I am always overjoyed to see so many people of color from so many different parts of the world out enjoying the summer weather. A simple way to start engaging is through a joyful and cheerful greeting of those we meet as we walk in public. Our world is in desperate need of this common courtesy and it is a simple way we can spread the joy of Christ in our world.
Where do we shop? Do we go to the suburbs to be with people that are like us? Maybe we need to purposely shop in areas that are more diverse, like East St Paul. It always strikes me the difference between shopping at Target, Cub, Aldi on the East Side versus 5 miles away in Woodbury. Personally I enjoy the more “real” feel of the East Side stores. We can also seek out opportunities to support stores that are owned and run by people of color.
There are so many ways to engage with others. But it takes time and an openness to learning new ways and opinions. This is not always easy but I have found them rewarding encounters and relationships.
I wanted to leave you with a wonderful experience and observation I had this Fourth of July. We were blessed when our friends and neighbors of 27 years sold their house and moved to have a wonderful young family move in. Cheng and Kajsiab are both second-generation Hmong Americans with both their parents immigrating to the United States from Laos. For the Fourth of July, Cheng and Kajsiab had a family gathering and when it got dark they gathered around to watch many fountain fireworks. When they were finished watching the fireworks, I heard them play God Bless the U.S.A. and sing along with it. Seeing them celebrate the Fourth of July as a family and sing a patriotic song reminded me that what makes this country great is the melding of people from many different countries, cultures, religions to enjoy the freedom of the American dream. It does not matter if we came from Europe, Africa, Asia, Canada, Latin America, India, the Middle East, or were Indigenous to the Americas. No matter what, we have a wonderful opportunity to learn from each other and continue to build something that is much greater than the parts. To do this we need to break down the barriers that separate and divide us, especially racism!
Peace, blessings, and prayers