My son’s class had studied Dr. King that week, and my son had learned that King had been a pastor. His teachers, knowing that I am a pastor, gave him the opportunity to share with the other students what a pastor is. I think my son was a little shocked to have learned of the great importance of this man, and then to have found out that his mother did the same job. He made sure to let me know that he was probably going to hold me to a higher standard than he had before; he started by asking me what I had done to celebrate Martin Luther King Day. “I went to work at church,” I told him. He was less than satisfied.
Having once had a conversation with the leadership of my congregation about which was a more religious holiday, Martin Luther King Day or President’s Day (you will notice that I did not have Martin Luther King Day off), I thought I would take a moment to talk with him that night about why a pastor would do the things that Dr. King did.
This meant that I was going to have to explain to him about American slavery.We talked about how white people (who looked like us) used to own other people (who, incidentally, looked like his best friend) and how many Americans and many religious people fought for many years to change that. We even talked about Abraham Lincoln and how he was killed because of the things he did to help the slaves. We talked more then about how even after slavery African Americans were not able to vote or not allowed to vote. We talked about how Dr. King was killed for trying to teach the world that all people should be treated equally. We talked about how we believe that God created all people equal no matter the color of their skin. We talked about how special it is that even though there was a time when there was such horrible discrimination, we now have an African American President.
When I was done he had two very honest and painful reactions.
First, he worried that, like Lincoln, this President might also be killed, because people wouldn’t want him to be President. We talked about all the things they do to keep the President safe.
Second, he shared that he was relieved that he had white skin, and so would not have had to experience that kind of discrimination. What could I say to that?
While part of me was offended by his reaction, I would be lying to say that the same thought had never crossed my own mind. Thank goodness I don’t have to deal with this kind of discrimination. I could totally relate. And yet what I have learned in my life so far is that I do have to deal with it. I have an obligation to deal with it, as a human being and especially as a Christian. And so in that moment I realized that my task as his mother, and sometimes his pastor, is to teach him to try face issues of race as a white person in the world.
I don’t remember exactly what I said to him at that moment, but when it comes to an issue like this, our message must be unending.
What I hope I said to him, and what I hope I continue to say to him, is that, yes, it is important for him as a man and as a person of caucasian descent to always be mindful of who he is in the world: that he will be given privileges that he has not earned; that he will be extended grace that will be withheld from others; and that as a Christian it is his calling to always live a life of humility and courage in the face of racism.
So this is my prayer for my son today:
May the witness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continue to teach him what it means to be a person of faith in the world; may the example I set teach him what it means to act with love in the face of hate; may he grow to be a man of courage who might just be able to have a part in changing the world for the better. Amen.