“I’m Simon Gingerich, and I’m a recovering racist,” said our speaker. He was an administrator of U.S. ministries with Mennonite Board of Missions during the height of the civil rights movement.
The way Simon introduced himself in chapel that day in 2011 caught my attention. Simon said, “I’ve come to kind of believe, though, that White racism in America is in at least one respect like alcoholism. You can declare that it isn’t me and then you can get some new insights about yourself and really make the changes that you know, but down deep, you’re still an alcoholic.”
I was intrigued by his analogy. I grew up in Elkhart County in Indiana. My congregation, my school community, my everyday activities included only White people. The rural church and community I grew up in continue to be mostly White.
I remember as a child whenever my parents went to the “big city” of Elkhart, we would lock our doors as we drove down Main Street and onto Prairie Street. We always locked our car doors when we went to Elkhart, yet we often left our home unlocked and certainly didn’t lock our car when going into the small town of Wakarusa.
It has been primarily through my work with the broader church that I’ve realized my own blindness to racism. Mennonite Mission Network and other Mennonite agencies have been working to become anti-racist. My eyes have been opened to systemic racism, and I can’t believe that I didn’t see it before.
Sometime after Simon shared in chapel, I saw the movie
Mississippi Burning. At the end of the movie, I found myself sobbing. Sobbing at the injustices and pain caused to the African-American people by White people. Sobbing because people could be so cruel to others without regard to life. But sobbing mostly because I realized that by virtue of my upbringing in a rural White community, I am part of a system of oppression and I didn’t even realize it. That night I owned my own ignorance and I suddenly saw why we locked the car doors when going to Elkhart but not when going into Wakarusa, and I grieve that I am part of the oppressive system.
I’m Sandy Miller, director of church relations for Mennonite Mission Network, and I’m a recovering racist. … I’m a recovering racist because every day I need to recommit to remove the blinders of White privilege that I grew up with. I was ignorant to the realities of oppression of African-American people, other than what I learned in school, and I accepted the negative stereotypes of people of color as if they were true. I am making a change in me, but I also want to change the systemic issues of racism. I need others to walk this journey with me. Without the power of an almighty Lord, the grace offered to me from my friends, Ann and Lefuarn, and my own desire to educate myself on oppression and abuse of power, I would continue to live in the ignorance and blindness of our societal system where people are born into caste-like privilege and oppression.
Romans 12:2 says, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (New Living Translation)
I’m grateful to God, who does the transformation. I’m also grateful to our brothers and sisters who make us aware that a transformation is needed. May our eyes continually be opened to where transformation needs to take place.