Brown People

I was raised in all white, Lutheran family, attended an all-white Lutheran church, and lived in an all white, non-Lutheran neighborhood. The public schools I attended were pretty much all white. Things changed little when I enrolled in a small all-white Lutheran college in Kansas and finished my undergraduate work at nearly-all-white Biola University in Southern California.

My parents were godly people, but they held racist notions. A few years ago, Marilyn and I hosted a foreign exchange student from Brazil. Claudia was with us for her full senior year in high school.

On a typically sunny Arizona day, we were in our van on our way to a family event. My mom was with us and was talking about being with a group of people. With some derision in her voice–and forgetting that Claudia was sitting behind her, she made a point of mentioning how many of those people were brown.

I cringed.

Later Claudia asked me if my mother liked her. “Of course she likes you, Claudia, “I replied. “She thinks your great. Why would you ask me that?”

Claudia answered me in subdued voice, “It was the way she was talking about brown people.”

Most people in my parents generation just didn’t know anything else. My folks were from northern Ohio, not the deep South, but feelings about racial differences ran deep in the north and Midwest, too. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, there were no teams in the South. He played at home for the Brooklyn Dodgers and on the road in other northern cities, where he endured extraordinary abuse.

I know it’s hard for many people to believe this today, but Sammy Davis Jr., who campaigned vigorously for presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, was not invited to his Inaugural Ball because he was married to a white woman.

Phil Austin, a good friend of mine, shared openly about his personal experiences growing up with racial discrimination. A civil rights attorney who made a commitment to Christ when I was pastor at Word of Grace, Phil has a comfortably Anglo name but an unmistakably Latino face. In fact, when he ran for the Mesa City Council recently, his campaign signs had no Phil Austin photo, because he was was a candidate in a predominantly Anglo community. He didn’t win.

Phil blew me away when he told me that, in the 50s and early 60s, Blacks and Hispanics could only swim in the Tempe public pool on Fridays. They cleaned it Friday night and only white people people could swim there on the weekend.

My journey into the inner city

I grew up in the 60s, but I was entirely shielded and consequently ignorant of the issues of the Civil Rights Movement. I remember only a family comment here and there that Martin Luther King was communist.

Then, in my early 30s I heard African-American John Perkins speak at a conference on faith and justice. (For more about John Perkins see Creaking and popping like the a rusty hinge, the door of my heart started to open to the pain and challenges of ethnic minorities and those who are much less fortunate.

I became the preaching pastor at Word of Grace in 1982 when the church was just two years old. I was thirty-three. Already at that time, our kids attended the most ethnically diverse elementary school in the East Valley. Less than half were white.

Our church was landlocked. We purchased the old Central Christian Church facility at 315 N. Hobson, just a half mile from downtown in Mesa. Our “new” church was a huge expansion for us: three small buildings on less than four acres. But within just three years after relocating our weekend attendance topped 2000.

What to do? After a lot of thoughtful prayer, we decided we would not relocate our church in the burbs, that God had put us right there to make difference in our neighborhood. So we bought adjacent properties, thirty-seven of them, and expanded our facilities right there in the hood. By 2000, we had 4000 families in the urban core of the East Valley.

What to do?

When we broke ground on our new worship center in 1995, our special guest at the event, Vice Mayor of Mesa Pat Gilbert, commended us for not abandoning “the core of Mesa,” as he put it. Now zip 85204 is the most depressed and dangerous area in the East Valley, and our church was (and still is) just blocks away, in 85203.

We chose a path that gave us no choice but to engage in our neighborhoods. Every year I did a preaching series we called “A Heart for Others,” a fall focus our new senior pastor, Terry Crist, has sustained. He calls it “A Heart for the City.” In the last several years I was senior pastor at Word of Grace we had over a thousand adults in our congregation doing volunteer work in already existing community agencies, some faith-based, some not.

We also received an annual five-figure “Love Our City” offering, often over $50,000, which we gave to community agencies. We were a conservative church with a social conscience, and that was before President George Bush’s call for “compassionate conservatism.”

Black people

Personally, I became involved with the Mesa Martin Luther King weekend events, and participated in the annual Monday prayer breakfast. At the first official Mesa city breakfast to honor Dr. King, I was stunned to see I was the only white clergyman in attendance. I’ve also attended conservative Christian events, significant events, where there were virtually no Blacks in attendance, and I’ve preached in African American churches where my wife and I were the only white faces.

I’m not ready, like so many, to scream racism every time I see these disparities, but I can tell you this: Navigating the rapids of racial difference and misunderstanding is extraordinarily difficult.

People, yes Christian people, people who love and follow Jesus, think so differently, and the way they think is shaped by their culture, their race. They don’t always understand one another, and often they don’t even try. It takes time, patience, and emotional effort to listen and learn, and most of us would rather stay in our own worlds, listen to our own people, and reaffirm what we already think.

So what do you think?

How do you think? What influences your thinking about others?

Does any of this have any application SB1070, Arizona’s controversial immigration law? What do you think about SB1070? Or are you too angry to think clearly?

A couple years ago I stepped into the muck of it all when a number of conservative Christian leaders decided that, somehow, we should be a voice for both law-and-order and compassion.

We decided to hold a news conference, wondering if anyone would show up. Well, dozens of reporters, flashing cameras, and television news teams filled the room. I was the spokesman.


I made the “mistake” of saying really controversial things, like: We need civil discourse, not civil war.

That quote made it on to the front page of the Arizona Republic, and when KJZZ/NPR asked me for a phone interview, I could not have imagined it would end up being the lead news story most of the day. I said something like: Conservative Christians have been known for their stand against abortion and for marriage as a union between a man and woman. These remain vital issues for us, but it’s time we broaden our concerns for other voiceless people, for the poor, and for compassion and justice.

We need Christians to pray for and to propose realistic and compassionate solutions to a terribly complex problem.

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