Wednesday, April 25, 2007

There's STILL Work to be Done!

Celebrations are fun. Work many times, is not. The pursuit of building understanding between people of different backgrounds and cultures can generate as much cause for celebration as it exposes the need for more work. This week in the news, I came across two stories - one that gives us cause to celebrate why it pays to be tenacious in breaking down barriers - the other gives us more understanding in just how much work remains for building cultural understanding and undoing damage from the past.

First, the cause for celebration. Thanks to the determination of the leadership of the Class of 2007, one Georgia High School is having the FIRST integrated prom in its history. The school itself has been integrated for many, many years, but up to this year, students have been content to keep their school relations strictly on a scholarly or athletic basis. Social contact just wasn't welcomed. The leaders of the Turner County High School Class of 2007, however, decided that enough was enough. Starting a grassroots movement for school unity, they began by convincing their fellow students that it was time to come together. Once they had the support of the student body and then the approval of administration, the school crowned its first solo Homecoming Queen in the Fall - there had previously been two queens crowned for each Homecoming, one Black and one White. This success naturally spawned the pursuit of a unified Prom. The development has become a source of hope and a much needed breath of fresh air to a community that has experienced hard times due to increasing economic difficulties. Though work remains to be done, one lingering vestige of a meaner, harsher era has come tumbling down due to refusal of a few dedicated student leaders to "let dead dogs lie."

Now for the work. A Black Canadian woman of West Indian origin was horrified when her elementary-aged daughter found an official tag stapled to the back of a new couch she had just had delivered to her home listed as "'n----r' brown!" Her child stated that she was familiar with brown, but had never heard that of that other color. When the woman confronted the Store Owner, he denied knowing about the description and himself being an immigrant, expressed ignorance of the meaning of the word. The supplier blamed the word on a computer error it said was traceable to China. Incredibly, the Chinese Company that manufactured the couch admitted that the description had come from an older bilingual dictionary that used the "N-word" to translate the term "dark Brown!" This is an amazing display of how deeply prejudices can effect even the other cultures with which we interact. If you think this story is outrageous and beyond belief, I have a personal story for you. Once,while serving in a severely economically depressed area in the Philippines I was greeted with a loving hug and a beaming smile by a young boy wished to express his thankfulness for my ministry efforts in terms I could understand. In his best American English he stepped back after hugging me, gave me a big thumbs up and said, "God bless you Mr. N-----r!" Talk about mixed emotions! Of course, I knew what he meant and I knew that he had no idea of the impact of the word he had just used and I lovingly accepted his heartfelt gesture. Nevertheless, I was somewhat troubled that in an area where the interactions with Americans were mostly with people involved in either missions or relief organizations - in other words, good and compassionate people who care about bringing people together - this word had emerged as the descriptive term for people who looked like me.

The Bible warns us that our "sin will find [us] out." In other words, the wrongs we fail to completely and thoroughly correct, will continue to annoy us until we do the exhaustive work of making things right. That is why when I am asked to participate in "reading days" in elementary schools, I pick a story written in English and Spanish, and when I speak to High School students, I mention that I was required to study other languages in Seminary - we have to learn about other cultures so that we can spread truth and correct error. This doesn't allow us to remain lazy and rely on stereotypes, but it forces us to get inside the heads of others and the ways they think, discovering both things we have in common and important, but not necessarily negative, differences.

My wife and I took some time to explain acceptable and unacceptable ways to describe Americans of African decent during our mission and I know I'm going to do some more research into just how Chinese dictionaries describe various shades of brown or black for English translation. Somewhere, there's some cultural bridge building work for you to do too. Maybe it's in an employment situation, among friends, family or acquaintances or with somebody who's trying to find out what this country's all about. Just keep working, keep celebrating and don't ever give up! In the end you'll make a difference and you'll have a reward from your Heavenly Father who is well pleased with this kind of effort! Until next time,


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