“Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” (Proverbs 16:31)
A black man and a white man walk into a restaurant… and they talk.
My friend Cliff is an amazing man. He has raised a wonderful family in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. He is an engineer, a pastor, a civic leader and a member of my doctoral cohort.
We grew up in very different Americas. Mine was Illinois in a white neighborhood. His was Northern California (black neighborhoods, white schools) and Southern Oregon (white neighborhoods and schools). My dad was a businessman. Cliff’s was a lumberman and preacher. As Americans who are about the same age, we have a lot in common. But the eyes from which we gazed at our worlds looked upon very different topographies.
I was taught by my parents how to be polite. I was told there are third-rail issues that are not safe to talk about until you really know someone; things like race, politics and religion. Well… we are talking about them… a couple of gray-haired bulls engaged in a bit of bull. It is a safe place for us both to take off our masks; an intentional engagement in cross-cultural conversation. We spend time listening, reasoning, explaining and understanding one another from the broader perspectives of the cultures we represent.
I think it got started during our cohort classes in June of last year as a result of my insistence that the issues of the past were over and that it is time to move on and that opportunity fields were broad and open. He has challenged me to reconsider that from his perspective. We picked up again after he had a recent less-than-encouraging experience addressing a mostly white suburban audience. In areas that deal with poverty and injustice, we are learning that words mean different things to different people. We are helping one another to be better communicators of exactly what we mean.
It’s easy… even trendy… to say we are all colorblind. As our nation is becoming more diverse and our children are growing up surrounded by a mosaic of races and cultures, I believe it is even becoming true for them. I thought it was true for me, but I am learning that for me there was a lot more emphasis on the word blind. As a man who regards himself as fair to everyone, I have believed that the civil rights issues of a previous generation are mostly leftovers which some men simply refuse to let go. To be honest, I still have some of that going on in me. But Cliff has told stories of growing up in America that are very different from mine and make me reconsider the challenges he and men in his culture still face. He grew up believing that many doors were closed to him – and had it verified time and again. Even when those were forced open, there was often hostility behind them.
We would both say that listening is leading to understanding. It is also helping us see where we disagree so that we can present our differing perspectives and be heard. Nothing is as simple as I would like it to be. I wish I could say that with understanding comes clarity. Rather, it makes clear lines fade to gray. Gray softens hard edges. Through shadows, gray brings illuminated things into fuller dimension. Gray makes room for things to be unanswered while we continue wrestling with them. At a time when politicians and the media stir up racial divisions, I pray that the racial divide in America is closed, soon. There is too much to do together for us to let it continue. And there is a generation coming up that needs our leadership.
“So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.” (Psalm 71:18)