Editor’s Note: Today, we invited a local white pastor and friend of GRTS to reflect on his journey of coming to grips with the gospel’s implications on race and justice. Pastor Marcus Little is the senior pastor at Berean Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. He will participate in a pastoral panel discussion at our April 26 Talking Points conference on Justice + Unity: Toward the Healing of a Fractured Church. We asked him to share his story in advance of the conference. Many white Christians are on similar journeys of growing awareness and conviction and could share similar stories.
My family and I moved to West Michigan from Southern California almost exactly four years ago to accept the call to pastor Berean Baptist Church. We had never been to the Midwest before, so the past four years have been a learning experience on a number of levels as we have gotten to know our congregation and our city. We were told of the splendor of West Michigan’s beauty as the “other West Coast” and of all that Grand Rapids had to offer. We heard this is the best city in the country to raise children. In the last four years, that reputation has held up and we have loved our new lives in our adopted city. While we were enjoying our new lives here, I was unaware that this city was also the second worst city in the nation for African-Americans on many metrics (home ownership, graduation rates, unemployment). Becoming acquainted with that reality would be part of our learning curve.
Over the course of 2014-15, several highly publicized police shootings drew increased attention to issues regarding race in America. In the summer of 2016, five police officers were shot in Dallas, bringing an intensity to the situation that reverberated around the country and in Grand Rapids. I remember well the feelings of fear and anger that welled up in me and in others. Mayor Bliss, Police Chief Rahinsky and the local NAACP President Cle Jackson held a press conference in which Jackson called on communities of faith to be at the forefront of this issue, saying that we have access to the heart, which is where these problems originate. Within a day or two of that press conference, four students from Forest Hills High School were organizing a rally under the banner, “Am I Next?” They were clear that this was not designed to be a protest, but rather a demonstration of unity in the face of fear and uncertainty.
I knew how explosive this issue was, but I also knew that the gospel calls us to draw near to those who are suffering.
So I, along with a few members of my church attended the rally at Rosa Parks Circle on a sunny July day. At one point in the program, an ACLU attorney shared basic information for teens to follow in interactions with law enforcement. As he did, I realized that young people of color have to think about these things in ways I never did. Whether entirely justified or not, there is a real perception born of hard experience that a young person of color is not entirely safe in the presence of law enforcement and must be more careful than I would feel the need to be. As a parent, I tell my kids to seek out law enforcement if they are in trouble.
I realized in that moment that my experience in American society differs dramatically from that of parents in communities of color.
In subsequent weeks, I began an exploration of this issue in a more intentional way. This wasn’t about forming a political opinion or adopting an agenda. I began to sense that something critical to the gospel lay at the heart of this question of race relations in our country. The most important thing I was doing during this time (and what I am still doing) was listening sympathetically and generously. I wanted to hear the stories and experiences of my brothers and sisters which were so different from my own. I wanted to understand what lay behind them and as I did, I began to realize uncomfortable truths about myself.
For all my protestations that I was not “racist,” I realized that by not listening before, I had behaved in prejudicial ways. By saying, in effect, “there’s nothing to see here,” I was dismissing whole groups of people without a hearing. One place this hit home for me was in a CORR training where they talked about redlining in Detroit in the post-WW2 era. They particularly talked about the GI Bill® and how its benefits were not evenly available to black veterans due to this practice of grading certain neighborhoods based on the racial makeup of the area. I realized in that moment that my grandfather had been a vet and had gotten his start in part through GI benefits.
I am where I am today because of my grandfather and my father’s work and efforts. Change my grandfather’s skin color and my own story unfolds very differently. For the first time, I understood what they mean by “white privilege.”
The burden of such a revelation is that you can’t just leave it alone and walk away as though it didn’t happen. Now, Scripture came alive to me on this issue in ways it hadn’t before. In the Old Testament, where I had read an “Israel vs. the Nations” story I now saw that Egyptians left in the Exodus, too. I noted that the Canaanite Rahab and the Gibeonites are saved in Joshua. In Galatians, I see Paul say that the gospel is denied not only in words but just as heretically in practice—by refusing to share tables with our brothers and sisters because of ethnicity. And I saw my Savior weep over the city of Jerusalem, whose sins consisted of keeping people out based on these categories. I realized that I was in the position of always being on the “inside” of my society, and so I didn’t weep over my city the way Jesus did over His.
I’m writing this on Good Friday and it occurs to me that much of my resistance to engaging in this process over the years has been a thought that “I didn’t own slaves and I didn’t go to a segregated school, so this is not my problem.” Tonight, we celebrate the gospel of the crucifixion. The crucifixion points us back to the sin of Adam for which we are held accountable and which we all perpetuate. In the crucifixion, Jesus is held accountable for sins he did not commit. If any group on earth should be able to understand vicarious generational sin, it should be us.
The gospel allows us to bear one another’s burdens, fulfill the law of Christ and bring about the reconciliation He died to accomplish.
ABOUT PASTOR MARCUS
Marcus Little has loved being the pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Grand Rapids since 2014. He and his wife Kelsey have three kids (son Calvin, age 9, twin girls Eva and Zoe age 7) who keep them busy and humble. Marcus got an M.A. from Talbot Theological Seminary in southern California where he and Kelsey were born and raised. He spent time on the mission field with his parents in Romania in the mid-90s which gave him the unique perspective of a “third-culture kid” so that he feels at home everywhere and nowhere. He taught history at a Christian middle school for 10 years before becoming a pastor and has a passion to see the church of Christ united for the sake of the kingdom.