By Tolivar Wills
I think it is important to lay out a few caveats or presuppositions before I delve into addressing this mammoth topic called ‘Racial Reconciliation’. If I don’t, there is the huge possibility than I am going to be misunderstood because of my inability to communicate clearly via writing. With that said, here are a few ‘heads-ups’.
First, I come to the topic, in my humble opinion, with a little more confusion about the topic due to the fact that I am bi-racial. My father is black and my mother white. Staring at the previous phrase on the surface strikes me as insignificant considering where we are in our cultural awareness and norms. Nevertheless, despite being the product of a bi-racial relationship and being married to a lovely white woman for 23 years, which has brought forth 3 lovely bi-racial children, I am still stunned whenever I see other mixed couples. There are latent norms, ideas, identities, and much more which come from both sides of the cultural/racial divide, which underlie my understanding of race, identity, and my own personal experience, making interpretation of clear boundaries and definitions difficult. In one sense, I feel like the middle child of a family who perceives that they need to be the perpetual ‘peacemaker’; the one who is trying to take both sides into consideration, but never really being able to come down on one-side or the other. As such, I hope my article will help shed light on why I think there are issues that make racial reconciliation not only a little more confusing for people like me, but will provide a unique vantage point on which to think about the issue. (A perspective that I feel is often neglected, ignored, oversimplified, or glossed over in discussions, though not necessarily intentionally.
Second, I bring a good amount of frustration and emotional fatigue. This was never more apparent than in my preparation for MNA’s 2017 Reconciliation & Justice Conference in St. Louis, MO. Once on the road, I could literally feel the angst building throughout my body, finding its way up my throat, and out my mouth at an unexpected target: The driver and my wonderful white friend. He must have been confused as we headed up I-75, thinking this was going to be a great time of fellowship with his bi-racial pastor and of other mutual servants of Christ. Instead, he was lambasted by my emotion and distrust of everyone who would be talking about the topic. My hope is to delineate the points of my frustration that we discussed, repent where needed, an to possibly offer a different perspective on how we discuss and implement a pathway to ongoing reconciliation.
Third, despite my confusion and cynicism, it is very important that you understand that I do believe there is a biblical mandate for reconciliation and very much desire to see it increase in God’s church and world. My entire life and calling is the product of racial reconciliation. I am a bi-racial man who was raised by a white mother, whose immediate and extended family were from the very white and rural hollers of Southeast Kentucky; many of whom were very integrated in my daily life. I don’t know a person of color who has been loved and cared for more, by people who typically would not have anything to do with people of color. I am theirs. They are mine. My family is very proud of me and ask about my well-being on a consistent basis. I am a blessed man. In addition, I was raised in a small rural village in central Ohio, where I was the only person of color in a town of approximately 3,800 people. Yes, there were some prejudices and uncomfortable experiences, but by far, my life in the community was safe, kind, loving, strong, accountable, truthful, and many other positive characteristics. Despite the towns unfamiliarity with anyone outside of their race, most of them were able to see me as Tolivar. To this day, they see me as theirs and look forward to when I come home to visit; and just as important, they are mine. Most of them are like my extended family, who I have lived, played, fought, kissed, hugged, and much more, since I was three years old. And every single one of them were white.
Finally, I am a Christian and pastor today because of the reconciling endeavors of many believers, both white men and women, who have invested in my life for the sake of preparing and developing me for a lifetime of ministry. From my neighbors who led me to Christ and took me to church, to the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, to seminary at Gordon-Conwell, to my first pastoral position in a church in New Haven, I have been loved and developed for the sake of the kingdom of God by white people. In fact, it was by the influence of several white men, that the Lord implanted a desire for ministry to the poor and underserved communities; it was they who pointed me to my first African-American spiritual influences via various books, talks, people, training, and much more which ultimately led to me planting a multi-cultural church in the inner city of New Haven. Today, I have the privilege to help lead a multi-cultural church with a Vietnamese-American co-pastor, who is also in a mixed marriage. What I am conveying here is that the sovereign God of the universe has orchestrated my entire life to be at the center of His reconciliation project via the gospel and His Church. I am all in! So what is my problem? Why is talking about it and going to conferences to be a part of encouraging others to do the same so uncomfortable?…