I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s on the near South Side of Milwaukee. Our city has since become known as possibly the most segregated city in America. Though my neighborhood is now home to Hispanic, Black, and Hmong families, when I lived there it was primarily Polish and German. I can’t say that I was raised with my “head in the sand” with regard to race, it’s just that it didn’t impact any aspect of my childhood years. I didn’t know or have experience of anyone who looked different from my family or neighbors until I entered high school. In my home, race wasn’t discussed. I didn’t hear any disparaging comments regarding people of color or any other ethnicities. It was almost as if we were on an island separate from the rest of society because we lived a very homogenous existence. I don’t even recall my family ever going north of the Menomonee Valley except maybe once to visit Wisconsin Avenue and downtown.
High school was the first time I had seen or talked to an African American in person. During those years I had yet to appreciate how one’s race affected any of us differently, because we all seemed to be on equal footing, new to high school and influenced by the dynamics that every new student encounters. (I expect some black students hadn’t yet known anyone white either). So while we were all placed in this melting pot of an environment, it was still removed from where we actually lived day to day. I didn’t see and therefore didn’t understand that there was actually any cultural difference in our homes or how people were treated differently in the larger society simply because of their ethnicity. Call me naïve, but that was the environment in which I was raised! After school it was always back home to 14th and Beecher not seeing anyone who wasn’t white until the next school day.
Not long after graduating high school, I got a job at Miller Brewing Company. This was at a time of workforce expansion in the plant and nearly half of the people who were hired were people of color. Even then, while I encountered other races daily, when I moved from my parents home it was to predominantly white communities. These included staying on the South Side, Greenfield, Pewaukee, the lower East Side and eventually Wauwatosa. I had friends from work who were black, but we all had parallel experiences through work and were economically equals. These relationships usually didn’t take place in our homes or in black or white communities, but on “neutral ground”, usually public settings such as restaurants, bars, or certain events. I didn’t really see how the “other half” lived.
Since retiring from Miller, I’ve taken a part time job at Miller Park where again, it’s a very integrated workplace. Individually I desire to get along with everyone I meet and not show partiality to anyone regardless of ethnicity, economic status or education. Still, like most people, I realize that my perception of race has been flavored by the dual influence of media and my upbringing. The result has been to be more comfortable and trusting of people of my own ethnicity and more suspicious, and guarded with people of color, (except my brothers and sisters in Christ of course).
As a Christian, I know that we are called to love one another as Christ has loved us, but only until relatively recently have I been made more personally aware of the cultural differences and disadvantages that people of color have, not only locally but internationally. I’m more aware of my white privilege within the majority culture, but also as an American, the resources we have which are unavailable to most of the rest of the world. I’ve had my eyes opened by a couple of significant events in my life which have revealed to me how privileged I am.
First, was a short-term mission trip I was honored to take to several countries in Africa. In South Africa, Mozambique and Malawi, I saw poverty such as I’d never experienced before. I saw the effects of disease like AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, but also how unemployment, corruption, and the ravages of the civil war in Rwanda had affected people. At this time I also became more aware of how our society has been blessed and cursed by affluence. I saw parallels in systemic injustice both in South Africa and the U.S. I came to recognize that it wasn’t only a feature of some far away place. Arriving back home three weeks before Christmas really opened my eyes to how materialistic our society is. A visit to the mall to buy presents nearly sickened me physically. In Africa I met Christians who had nothing materially, but because they had Christ they displayed more joy than anyone I knew in the States.
Second, another event that has helped me to recognize societal injustice was learning about the Imago Dei church plant and its vision to become a multicultural church that would seek to “serve the city” in the name of Christ.
In Christ, we need to nurture the same attitude as God toward one another (Gen. 1:26, 27; John 3:16; Deut. 10:17; Acts 10:34; Ro. 2:11; Eph. 6:9 and James 2:1-5). We need to reflect God’s love, compassion, and desire to bless others through His church, and need to put aside all forms of prejudice and partiality. God has gradually made me aware of the fact that I needed to repent of my “sin of omission”, which is knowing what I ought to do, and not doing it.
The events of the last few weeks and months in our nation and city have slowly awakened the possibility for change by putting a light on the underlying causes of unrest and distrust by our minority brothers and sisters toward the police and civic authorities. As we seek to understand the issues involved, I see a need for the white church to repent of turning a blind eye to the problems of minorities in our cities. The Church, both white and black, needs to join hands in addressing the injustice in our community “together”. It’s been said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. How sad! Hearing about the events around the Sherman Park area of late, it’s exciting to see how the need to change is beginning to be at least discussed by all sides. I just pray that the momentum isn’t lost with the next news cycle!
I don’t know how I personally can make a difference in the culture at large, but I know that as part of this community of faith that God has placed in this part of Milwaukee, we can start to listen and dialog with each other, start to build trust toward one another, work with one another and possibly, in time, learn to love one another. In the process, we will Glorify God who created each one of us in His image.