The Beauty of the Gospel
by Mischa McCray
When I moved to Mississippi in 2009, I didn’t have really any expectations for what I was getting myself into. I was young (22) and had never lived outside of Michigan. I had traveled minimally and most of what I “knew” of the South was a combination of what I had learned from reading books (To Kill A Mockingbird and Cold Sassy Tree were my favorites) or from stereotypical portrayals of southerners (I don’t have to expound on those – you already know them). People frequently ask me about the differences between life in the Midwest and the Deep South, and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to give a great answer. You see, in some ways living in Greenwood is no different than living in my hometown of Petoskey. Both are small towns in which you know most of your neighbors. They’re the types of towns where you don’t think you’ll ever need your ID to make a withdrawal from your bank account because you’ve known the tellers for years.
But there’s one major difference between Greenwood, MS, and Petoskey, MI. You see, Petoskey is about 95% white. In fact, the next largest ethnic group is native Americans (about 3.5%). I grew up in a bubble, which was compounded by the fact that I graduated from a small, Christian school and then went to a small, predominately white Christian college. By the time I graduated from college, I had spent 22 years in entirely white circles. Needless to say, I wasn’t the “wokest” of people in the world when I moved to Greenwood to teach algebra at the local high school.
In our current cultural climate, very few people think of themselves as “racist,” and I definitely wouldn’t have thought of myself as one when I was in college, but moving to Mississippi revealed the racism in my heart that I didn’t even know was there. I can remember one of the first moments I was convicted of it. It was fall of 2009 and I was sitting in the cafeteria on lunch duty, which 95% of the time meant I just ate my lunch at a table with some other teacher friends and monitored the students. The other 5% of the time, however, I had to help break up fights, something that was foreign to me as someone who had only seen one fight in all of my entire education up to that point (Josh Scibior punched Matt Chamberlain when I was in the 9th grade and I can still vividly remember it nearly 20 years later). Anyway, back to the Greenwood High cafeteria, where I was sitting one day in the fall of 2009 and suddenly a fight broke out. After helping calm things down, I remember thinking about how superior I was to the students at Greenwood High. I was a smart, productive citizen who was trying to improve the world. And if they could just be more like me, wouldn’t the world and their lives be such a better place?
You know that moment when the Holy Spirit convicts you of your sin? I had a big one when those thoughts (thoughts that I would never actually voice to anyone) ran through my head. I’d like to say in the next 11 years I’ve successfully overcome my racism, but if you were somehow able to read a transcript of my daily thoughts, you’d quickly realize that it’s still there. It’s not the I’ve joined the Klan or anything; rather, it’s subtle. It’s the quick assumptions I make toward a black person that I don’t make about a white person. It’s a case of “big brother” syndrome that Jesus describes in the parable of the prodigal son.
I don’t know if your Facebook feeds are as packed with personal commentaries regarding the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. I’ve had many books recommended to me for how to educate myself on issues of racism in America, but the best one I can think of is the Bible. In Galatians 2, Paul calls out Peter for refusing to sit with the Gentiles due to being afraid of how Jews will react to his seating choice. This is the same Peter who spent years learning from Jesus, who walked on water, and who Jesus declared would be the rock that the church was built upon. If that same Peter can turn his back on Gentiles after having watched Jesus love on prostitutes, Samaritans, and tax collectors, maybe it’s less surprising that I struggle to fully embrace those who are different than me.
The beauty of the Gospel, though, is that it’s a gift, given not because of how deserving I am but rather in spite of myself. Jesus died for big brothers too, and this big brother is grateful for that. That gift frees me to acknowledge my sins that I see and understand that I might not have it all right when it comes to this social justice stuff. My prayer for Westminster is that we can be a community that allows each of us to be open and vulnerable, that we can acknowledge our own shortcomings and understand that we probably have blind spots too. That we can listen to the stories of our black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ and encourage them as they struggle through things that we, as a predominately white congregation, might not understand. And that, more than anything, we can glorify Christ in the way that we love those around us.