A White Guy for Civil Rights

My talk at the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Acts faith celebration at historic Tanner Chapel in downtown Phoenix.

Gary here.

Do I have to tell you? I’m a white guy.

I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, where today the population is 90% African-American. But we lived in white Lakewood, and we moved here to Arizona when I was in second grade. I attended Maryland Elementary and Washington High School, virtually all white institutions.

My family never talked seriously about race issues. I had no clue that, at that time, the Tempe public pool was open to Blacks and Mexicans on Fridays. They cleaned it Friday night and opened it to the white community on the weekend.

In the 1960s I attended high school and two small colleges, one in Kansas and the other in Southern California, and I’m ashamed to say that the Civil Rights Movement blew right by me. I mean, for me it was just one more dark headline in the upheavals of that decade.

Things began to change for me when I heard Dr. John Perkins, an African-American pastor and activist from Jackson, Mississippi. He spoke here in Phoenix about poverty and its systemic causes.

It wasn’t long after this that Evan Mecham was elected governor of Arizona.

He immediately rescinded an executive order by Bruce Babbitt, the previous governor, to create a Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday.

As a consequence, nearly twenty-five years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, we had our own civil rights movement here in Arizona, to get the MLK Holiday back on the calendar.

That’s when I heard about a man by the name of Dr. Warren Stewart who led the successful effort to restore the holiday. I’m blessed and honored that he’s become my dear friend!

Over the last couple decades of my life, I’ve had the rich experience of becoming good friends with Asian Americans, Latinos, African-Americans, Jews and very white Gentiles. These friendships have changed my perspectives. They’ve changed me.

When I was lead pastor at City of Grace, where I served for twenty-five years, I had many people of color speak to our congregation, including an African-American every MLK weekend. I’d tell them, “Share your life. Share your heart. Share your pain. Talk about racism and justice. Don’t hold back.”

Another dear friend, Tony Reed, an African-American and a consummately successful business consultant, was chairman of our board of elders.

I have to mention one other person who has valued me, affirmed me, and spoken deeply into my life: Jannah Scott. At her invitation, urging, and recommendation, I became the Chairman of Governor Napolitano’s Council on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

My extended family exemplifies the dramatic and traumatic social changes of the last 50 years. I have all white Gentile cousins from an all-white Gentile family. Four of my cousins now have children with spouses who are Jewish, Sri Lankan, Central American and African-American. One of the children has Down’s Syndrome, another is autistic, and still another is hearing impaired. And my daughter-in-law’s brother, her only sibling, died of AIDS.

My family? We are the world!

I believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

I believe that God so loves the world that everyone matters to him, so everyone should matter to us.

Dr. King believed this. Dr. King was supremely inclusive, but there is no denying he and others were champions of civil rights because their convictions were deeply rooted in the Bible. Sadly, it’s not commonly recognized that the Civil Rights Movement in the United States has been essentially Christian.

Yes, it’s just as sad that many Christians have opposed the Movement, just as many Christians had, for centuries, allowed and embraced slavery because of commonly accepted teachings in the Bible. Others, however, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Dr. King, have seen a higher way in the Scriptures, a way of freedom and equality.

It’s why the Apostle Paul wrote these transcendent words,

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. [Who’s your daddy? Therefore] …. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul wrote this too, in his letter to the Ephesians,

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away [separated from one another] have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility [not the dividing wall of difference, but he dividing wall of hostility over our differences].

…. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

We’ve come a long way. We have a long way to go. The upside of the Civil Rights Act is that equality is now the law. The downside is that laws don’t change people. Only God can make that happen.

Our dream today, our prayer is that Americans will not only celebrate and respect civil rights laws in America, but that God will write his laws of justice and mercy in every heart.

America was born in a revolution over just laws. It’s been our obsession ever since. But people of faith are praying for a spiritual revolution, personal transformation, and a love for what the Apostle called “the whole counsel of God.”

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD.”

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