My second conversion: how I started caring about racial justice

December 2014. The one holding "M" is yours truly.

December 2014. The one holding "M" is yours truly.

 I am thirteen years old.

Before this point in my life, I have had little to no experience with people who are not white. I am vaguely aware they exist, but in my white bubble of Chicago suburbia, black and latino people live in cities fifteen miles away, where people break into gas stations and wearing your hat sideways is a gang sign. I have never had a friend or acquaintance who was not white.

I have talked my parents into joining a volunteer foster care program, where we receive children from 0-18 years old whose parents only want to give them up temporarily without losing legal custody. I have always wanted a younger sibling, and I see this as my opportunity to have the experience.

Our first placement is a four-year-old boy and a one-year-old girl. They are siblings, and speak very little English. Their mother is an immigrant from Mexico. We have them for one week before we return them to their mother, who lives in a trailer park in the southwest side of Chicago. After we drop them off, my mother cries the whole way home.

I am fifteen years old.

By now we are on our second placement, a beautiful little boy who would live with us on and off for the next four years. His laugh is deep like an old man with a beer belly, and he has thigh rolls the size of donuts. He loves bananas and dancing. He is the third of five children. When I tell some friends this, one says, “Hasn’t she ever heard of birth control?” And the others murmur in agreement. I know this is wrong, but I don’t know why, so I don’t correct her.

I am seventeen years old.

I have recently discovered feminism, and the more I learn about continued injustices in the U.S. towards women, the more angry I feel. I fall in love with Maya Angelou. I hear about the death of Trayvon Martin in an echo, the whispering of mothers as they sew costumes for the musical I am in, discussions overheard at sleepovers between parents of friends.

“Break my heart for what breaks yours” becomes my daily whisper to God, a plea. I have no idea what I am asking for.

I am nineteen years old.

I am starting my sophomore year of college when I see my Facebook newsfeed flooded with news of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. I don’t know what to say. I see photos of men with their hands up in front of police, who are wearing helmets and holding shields, armed for battle. I go on Twitter and see story after story of attacks, tears, bruises. People of color are screaming to be heard. I realize that I cannot call myself a Christian if I look away.

So I start reading. It begins with a google search, “what white people need to know about race”, and expands to essays by Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Malcolm X. I follow new people on Twitter: Austin ChanningLuvvie AjayiA’Driane NievesBroderick GreerKathy Khang. I am in a class titled “History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement”, and I learn about the names that made the Civil Rights Movement possible—Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Ella Baker. I photograph a Black Lives Matter protest in Indianapolis so I can attend without fear of judgment. Everyone chants as we walk, but I walk in silence, too afraid to say the words—”no justice, no peace.” I am there with two of my friends, and we look at each other and think in unison—we must bring this back to our community.

So we hold up our sign at Silent Night that says “Black Lives Matter”. And in that moment, I am convinced that we are doing God-honoring work in our community.

Author and social psychologist Christena Cleveland once called this discovery for Christians a “second conversion“. It is our eyes being opened, the scales falling from our eyes, a realization of what we’ve done and what we’ve been a part of.

We do not need to rescue people of color from racism—we must rescue ourselves from the sin we are trapped in. We are poisoned by the generational sin we are bound by. By freeing ourselves, we free those who are wounded by us.

I don’t have a great vision for a country that will look different—I only have an imagination for how my life can look different. And I try to practice the discipline of continuity—that what I believe affects how I live—as much as I can. I cannot change the world but, piece by piece, I can be a good steward of the gifts God has laid before me.

I am twenty-two years old.

I ask a professor to tell his story about growing up in Apartheid South Africa. And then I realize that we need each other’s stories, so that we can learn from one another’s experiences. So we can learn why it’s so important not to repeat the past. So we can have examples of how to climb out of our pitfalls.

And so I decide it’s time to tell my story.