"Out of many, One People", my country's motto and our way of living. Don’t get me wrong, there is division amongst us, but even in our differences and trials we laugh at problems, dance when our issues arise and keep on moving.
Two months ago I travelled to my college town in Louisiana. I had lived there for seven years, loved the people, the food and the music and was excited to return. While waiting on my flight at Sangtser’s International Airport in Jamaica - a city where tourists are prevalent - the strangest thing happened.
I was uncertain if I was at the correct gate and needed to ask someone. I turned to ask the black woman to my left, but she had on headphones and a "please don't bother me" type of facial expression. So I turned to my right to ask the couple seated beside me and there it was - a hesitancy. Why? Because they were white.
What is this?
This was the beginning of a series of observations that both floored me and challenged me.
I began to notice that I avoided eye contact in the plane. I noticed how self-conscious I became when the same couple moved forward in the check-in line when I got close . I became conscious of my hesitation to smile at another white couple in front of me at the Dallas airport. I was perplexed at the thoughts in my mind. "Will they shun me?" "Will they turn up their noses at me?" “Do they see me as a problem?”
When I landed in Louisiana the gnawing feeling did not go away. There was a dissonance because I had never experienced racism but I was responding as if I had. I told my Jamaican friend, now resident of the United States how I was feeling and asked how it was for them. My friend was the most social, outgoing well loved person and race never seemed to bother them.
They too had changed. They told me of being stopped by a police who accused them of being a criminal. They told me that now they were still friendly but “fake friendly” and suspicious of "whites"... "them"... "Caucasians”.
I couldn't stand it.
Without answers and still pondering what was happening to me emotionally I went to watch BlacKKKlansman. I was disheartened by the hatred on both sides. One from ignorance and the other from the pain experienced by ignorance. I was sad to see what was done in the name of hate. I was also sad that though this movies' purpose was to enlighten and educate it brought along with it a dangerous rhetoric.
A rhetoric that without warning hit me in in ways I didn't expect. A rhetoric that made me pause when I exited my uncle’s car while in Texas before I entered a local restaurant to use the bathroom. A rhetoric that influenced behaviours like scanning to see what races were in there to know if I would be welcome. It made me - a friendly, confident, Caribbean woman, look down when a white person passed. It made the joyful smile of a Caribbean national turn to a stern face when around strangers when I came to America.
I second- guessed, distanced, and became suspicious of people I never thought twice about all from the vitriol shared on social media by my "people", the movies made to enlighten, and the songs that "share the struggle". The pictures of injustice and hate shared in outrage and disgust only made me fearful. I was not empowered. Instead I slunked away wanting to be invisible.
I over analyzed every action and reaction of others. And I hated it. I wanted to go back to a place of responding to people, not based on how I perceived them, or how I perceived they perceived me, or how they treat me in any given moment, but from love.
Then I met Ms. Sherry. I barely noticed her at first. Truthfully, I had turned around to bypass her in the shopping aisle. I came around the corner our baskets were facing each other and as I scanned the tops she exclaimed, "I wish I was that thin!"
I looked up at this elderly woman who was pleasant faced, gray haired, and friendly. I politely smiled and went back to scanning the tops when I heard her say, "I used to be that thin, you know but now I am old and all the weight sticks to me." My momma raised a decent child so I looked up smiled again, not knowing what to say, but this acknowledgement fueled further discussion.
A discussion that went from marriage to ministry as this woman encouraged me, spoke a word of knowledge over me and who cried as I prayed for her. This sweet woman who I initially tried to dismiss and get away from half because my friends were waiting and half because I couldn't be bothered, provided such a healing encounter. A healing encounter with a pleasant faced, gray haired friendly, white woman.
In that moment race didn’t matter, age didn’t matter, nationality didn’t matter. All that mattered was our shared bond in Jesus. This encounter I would have missed if I had allowed my fear and the rhetoric of others fuel my actions.
In his poem "The New Woke Christian", poet Preston Perry says, "My soul shivers into an upwards prayer for some of you. I see how Satan has used the anger of black grief to snuff the love out of some of our hearts in the name of "black awakening". Love- the very opposite of fear.
Please don't think I am advocating that we don't educate or speak up on injustice. My dilemma is one of a Christian whose identity is that of a daughter of a king, who is aware of and broken by the suffering of a minority but saddened by the fear and hate being ‘woke’ can bring.
As an activist against human trafficking I am aware of the balance of "faith and fight" as Preston Perry goes on to say. I am frequently nudged by the Holy Spirit to not let awareness stir up hatred for the offenders. When I minister on the streets my team is cognizant and intentional about engaging the pimps and Johns as well as the prostitutes.
Love for the Oppressor
God's love is not just for the victim. If ever a day my activism should stir up hate, if I make this an "us versus them" rhetoric, I should leave this ministry and return to the foot of the cross to learn again the gospel message. A message that says Christ died for sinners whose mind and spirit were hostile to God and to the law. (Romans 8:7).
A message of a payment for our sins with His blood because nothing else would do. A message of humility that came down from a place of glory to be amongst us and to empathise with our weakness. He who knew no sin, became sin so that we can become righteous (2 Corinthians chapter 5:21). There is no place for hate and fear in that.
I return home in a few hours and I remember Ms. Sherry, and all the other Ms. Sherry's many may miss out on on because of hatred. I am saddened that injustice is being used by Satan to divide. I am challenged to balance standing up for the oppressed and loving the oppressor, being mindful of what I watch and how much I read. I am choosing to know God’s love is more powerful than the sin of racism so I must not fear but still be the Caribbean extrovert.
Stacy-Ann Smith is a young writer from the West Indies and the 2017 International Young Writer Theology Award and 2018 International Basil Sellers joint winner.