*Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of 3 of an honest conversation about race between 3 friends: Dr. Michael Patterson, Angel Maldonado, and Jim Lenahan. All three are ministers. The conversation took place on Sunday, June 7, at The Path Church in Atlanta, GA. Here is Part 2 and Part 3.
ANGEL: It has been an intense week in this country. I know you have felt it. I think just about everybody in this country has felt it. The unrest, the protests, the rioting, the looting, the injustice, the conflict. It’s been tough.
Today, we have an interview between a black man and a white man, both ministers. Both grew up in different parts of the country. Both grew up with a worldview on race and injustice. And in God’s wisdom and sovereignty, he brought these two men together to make an incredible impact in this city [Atlanta] and beyond.
Let me tell you: they’re going to get honest. They’re going to get real. I hope that it encourages you and that it helps us to see an example of what these conversations should be like, especially between Christians.
Mike and Jim, what was your worldview growing up with regard to race and injustice? Then how did it change when you became a Christian?
JIM: I grew up in a completely white environment. My parents had moved out of the city. Right when black people started moving in, we moved out. So all I knew were white kids. My high school had 4,000 white kids and actually had one black kid; a black Baptist preacher had somehow got his kid into an all-white Catholic school.
I was as white as wonder bread.
My worldview got shaped by the television. In Philadelphia, things were out of control when I was a kid. We would generally watch the news as a family. You would see black people killing black people and cops beating the junk out of these black guys. I concluded that black people are uneducated, they’re violent, and they’re poor. I only got to view that through the lens of TV and what was being portrayed to me.
The first time I actually went into the city of North Philly was when I was in college.
I was a freshman or sophomore, and my fraternity was part something called Operation Santa Claus. The idea was to bring gifts to kids in North Philly. I’ll never forget the impact that day because as we walked in the house, we realized it was dark except for a little light in the background. The kids had hardly any clothes on. I asked questions and found out that the city had shut off all their utilities and the only way they could keep warm was to light the stove and open the door. That’s how the whole house was being heated and lit. There was no lighting, no electricity.
For the first time, I felt like my heart was softening—like, wow, this is difficult.
About a year after that, I was on a run, which I often would do, and the run took me through an all-black neighborhood, which generally was pretty vacated. This one particular day, there were a lot of kids out. I’m like, why are these kids off from school? Before I came up with an answer, I was being chased down and taunted. They started throwing rocks at me and I came to find out the reason the kids were off school. They were celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday.
Something broke in me that day. Because all of a sudden, I had my first strong feelings of racism. Like, I don’t like these people.
They weren’t bothering me before and I felt sorry for them, but now they bothered me.
So you asked how did it change? When I became a Christian was about five years after that. I was converted in a church that was integrated. And I met black guys who didn’t fit the picture that I had of black people.
I knew that I had a lot of junk in my heart that was surely racist. But I’m like, these guys are different. I liked being around them and I liked their stories. And I thought: either I was wrong about black guys, or these guys are just kind of a unique batch that had been cleansed by the blood of Jesus.
Whatever the case, God was changing my heart.
I loved the change of heart and the walls of racism starting to come down as I got to know people, instead of just making judgments about them. I liked not being a racist. I loved connecting these guys to family and friends at church going, “I want you to meet these guys. These are incredible guys, guys like you.” So it changed considerably. It was a thrill.
ANGEL: Thank you so much for your honesty. I really appreciate that. Mike, from a black perspective, growing up in Tallahassee, Florida, what was it like?
MIKE: Interestingly, I was born in Los Angeles. My parents went out to the West coast in the late fifties and lived out there. My older brother and I were born out there, and we relocated to North Florida. As I grew up, I asked my mom, “Why did you leave California?” She said that living in LA, she could feel the racism. Although people were really nice, they weren’t sincere.
She said she’d rather live in a place where she knew people didn’t like them. So that’s how we ended up in North Florida.
My mother and dad taught us that people are people. And my mom especially taught me to hate injustice.
Some of the lessons I remember from my mom is to remember you are just as good as anyone else, so do not let anyone make you feel inferior. Also, do not let people take advantage of you, stand up for yourself, and be confident in who God has made you to be. Don’t be a pushover.
At the same time, she did not instill a hatred in us, even though she hated the way that black people have been treated. She just said that people are people.
I had applied to Florida state, but I didn’t have the GPA to get in. But a random teacher who happened to be white came to a musical I was in. She told me I needed to go to Florida state. She decided to set up an audition for me at the school of music. That’s how I got into Florida state.
Throughout my life before becoming a disciple, God would use random white people like that to remind me that you can’t get caught up in hating people because of their color, their skin.
At Florida State, I started taking this history course and the professor would talk about black history. He would say in class that black history is our history as Americans. We are Americans. Now this was a white dude with white hair. And he became a mentor even before we knew what that term was.
By the time I got invited to come to church and study the Bible, it was no big deal to hang around white folks. It just wasn’t. And then in the campus ministry, I can honestly say we had fun. We were just brothers and sisters. It was multi-racial and we would go on dates with each other and hang out. I would bring my Latino friends and my white friends and my black friends to Bible study.