The Grace of God, Communicated Through the Beauty of Race
An Excerpt from
Gracism: The Art of Inclusion
David A. Anderson with David Heiliger
Paperback: IVP Books, 2023
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(Adapted from the Introduction)
Excited about my opportunity to serve as an intern at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, I was looking forward to my first day on the job. After three years of Bible education in downtown Chicago at Moody Bible Institute, and two years of urban pastoral ministry in Cabrini Green, a poor black neighborhood replete with high-rise apartments fencing in humans like rats in a cage, I was now about to enter a completely different experience.
As a tall African American male, my new reality as a Willow employee placed me in a suburban context among a sea of white people. This context included beautifully designed mansions and shiny luxury vehicles that occupied multiple garages. The landscaped lawns were works of art religiously primped and usually cared for by Hispanic men who edged and mowed the well-manicured acreage. It was a far cry from the urine-stained elevators and graffiti-ridden projects of Cabrini.
I wasn’t raised in either extreme. I didn’t come from wealth or poverty. Both of my parents worked full-time jobs outside the home but made it home each night by dinnertime, when we all ate together. Our single-family home was a small brick Cape Cod with three bedrooms, one bathroom, a basement, and a yard surrounded by a chain link fence. My father worked for the federal government, while my mother worked for the state of Maryland; we four children attended public schools. During my elementary school years, I stayed with a neighborhood daycare provider after school until Mom came home from work.
Heading to Chicago was a big deal for me because I had seldom traveled beyond the Washington metropolitan area. My home metropolis was demographically diverse, and there, everyone seemed to work hard to hold down their jobs, pay their mortgages, and protect their families from the social ills of drugs and violence. Once I landed in Chicago, though, the extremes of racial existence were stark. It seemed as if the majority of whites were rich and educated, while the blacks were poor and uneducated. The Hispanics were in their own enclaves and the Asians were seemingly invisible except in Chinatown or Koreatown. For me as a minister in my twenties, my views about diversity, class distinctions, social conditioning, and racial reconciliation were challenging my vision for multicultural ministry amid the extremes of society.
Throughout my life, I had grown up conscious of race and was aware of how the racial issues that plagued our country affected me personally and systemically, but I had never felt as powerless as I did on my first day as an intern at Willow. The day was marked by a set of racially penetrating events now etched in my memory. As I commuted to the church that first morning in my rusted-out, blue Honda Civic, I noticed blue lights flashing in my rearview mirror. A police officer was signaling me to pull over. With my hands in clear view, I gave the officer my license and registration. He went back to his vehicle. I assumed he was checking my information on the computer and doing whatever else police officers do in their cars while the stopped driver sits in embarrassment along the side of the road as motorists pass and gawk. When the officer returned to my driver’s side window, he handed my license to me. I was dismissed.
“Before you leave, sir, can you tell me why I was pulled over?” I asked.
The officer responded, “You fit the description of someone we are looking for.”
I took him at his word.
Had that been my only experience of being pulled over that day, I would have believed that the inconvenience of mistaken identity could have happened to anyone. But a few hours later I drove off the church campus to get lunch; again I had the sinking feeling in my stomach that comes with the realization that one is being stopped by a police officer.
“What’s wrong now?” I said aloud to myself. Bad luck indeed, I thought.
Like it was déjà vu, I went through the same delay that made me late on my first day of work earlier that morning. I received from the second officer the same explanation given to me by the first cop who had stopped me. “You fit the description of someone we are looking for,” he said. At this point I thought it would be great if the officers could make a note in their system to let everyone know that David Anderson was not the guy they were looking for! I was upset. What made the day so memorable was not the orientation to one of the coolest megachurches I had been exposed to at the time or the grace with which the staff greeted me when I was introduced. What was most memorable was that I was tardy on my first day as an intern due to a delay from a police officer. The day is memorable because I was stopped again on my way to lunch. But if that were the end of the story, we could record this scenario as a minor inconvenience that all people in the suburbs of Chicago might have to endure on occasion. Unfortunately, on my way back from lunch, I was stopped by a third officer. Before the day was over, I had been stopped by four police officers. Three were male, one was female, and all were white. I never received a ticket or harsh treatment, thankfully.
Can you imagine the frustration, the anger, and even the self-questioning that were unearthed inside me? Years before this incident, I had become convinced that God had called me to reconciliation and multicultural ministry. I was a minister of the gospel and more importantly a Christ-follower. I cannot imagine the bitter attitudes and negative behaviors that would have come out of me had I not been tempered by the Holy Spirit living inside me at that young age of twenty-three. The Spirit’s presence did not relieve me of the deflated feelings I experienced that evening after my first day of work. But as I reflected on the day’s events, anger gave way to the comfort of the Holy Spirit. God reiterated in me that this was why my life must be committed to building bridges of reconciliation.
What I experienced that day was racism. What I envision is a world that can move from racism to gracism. Gracism, unlike racism, doesn’t focus on race for negative purposes such as discrimination. Gracism focuses on race for the purpose of positive ministry and service. When the grace of God can be communicated through the beauty of race, then you have gracism.
Adapted from Gracism by David A. Anderson with David Heiliger.
©2023 by David A. Anderson with David Heiliger.
Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com.
Katie Selby is Associate Editor of The Englewood Review of Books. Prior to her family‘s recent transition to the Englewood Christian Church community, Katie served various churches and organizations in Nebraska, East Tennessee, India, and Ethiopia. She is an M.Div. graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan University.
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