1.2 | living with elephants
1 I PREAMBLE
I’m 35 years old as of writing this. I was born at Charlton Methodist Hospital in south Dallas. Growing up, my dad was an evangelist, motivational speaker, and itinerant minister. I grew up traveling with him, my mom, and my two sisters all over the world. We spent most of our time driving across the United States in a conversion van. We would go to glamorous locales like Boise, Idaho; Eldorado, Kansas; and Fayetteville, Arkansas.
From a young age, I was exposed to all kinds of different cultures and walks of life. Most of my memories and friendships growing up were all over the United States. I was homeschooled until 7th grade because of our travel schedule. When we weren’t travelling, we called Lancaster, Texas home. I also went to elementary school briefly in Cedar Hill, Texas, and spent much of my time I had in Lancaster’s surrounding cities; DeSoto, Duncanville and Ovilla.
When I was in 7th grade, my parents started Celebration Covenant Church in Frisco, Texas, and we moved from Lancaster to Carrollton and then from Carrollton to Frisco. I was raised in a home where we “didn’t see color.” To say that today, or to call myself “colorblind,” is considered a microaggression that makes me a “racial identity denier.” But that’s not what that means to me. Being “colorblind” meant to me growing up that I was taught not to value or denigrate any person on any basis—race, color, gender, culture, socioeconomic status, etc.
When I was traveling with my family, it was easy to realize the vastly different perspectives and experiences that make up what it means to live in America.
Lancaster, Texas, where we lived until I was 13, is 70% Black, 20% White and 17% Latino.
Cedar Hill, where I went to church, is 51% Black, 25% White and 18% Latino.
Carrollton, where I went to junior high and high school, is 63% White, 30% Latino, and 8% Black.
Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I went to college, is 62% White, 15% Black, and 14% Latino.
Why the statistics? To show that, by the nature of my upbringing, I have been exposed to a diverse group of people and cultures. Does this make me the perfect ally? Hardly. Just simple exposure to a culture doesn’t mean that I value it or learn from it. That takes intentionality. Where I was raised was not my choice; that was my parents’ decision. My parents also decided how much we valued and spent time with people who weren’t “like us”—whatever that meant. My parents would talk to me, from a young age, about how God created all of us as unique and special. They raised me with humility, with the perspective that I am not more exceptional than any person I go to school with or see at the grocery store.
I feel that because of the cultures I had the privilege to experience at a young age, as well as the way my parents raised me, I was given the chance not to be prejudiced or bigoted. This is meant not to establish my merit to discuss the issues contained in this book but to show clearly how I have wrestled – and continue to wrestle – with them in my own life.
Fast-forward to college. My sophomore year, a friend of mine – who is black – and I go to the Woodland Hills mall in Tulsa. We walk into a store and go in different directions. As I’m walking around the store, I notice a woman who works in the store begin to not so subtly follow my friend around. Pretty quickly I go from shopping to observing. My friend seems to be completely unaware of this person following him. Neither of us buy anything and we leave the store. I ask my friend, “Did you notice that lady following you?” He replies, “This happens to me almost daily.” This was a revelational moment for me. I had heard of this kind of thing happening but never observed it for myself. I had heard about the different experiences of people of color in America. And though I had grown up in cities that were predominantly black, I had not experienced something that seemed to be a system of prejudice based solely on skin color.
The next year, my junior year, was 2008. Barack Obama is elected president. Now, before I finish this story, I have to warn you. You may read this, close the book, and never pick it up again. You might read this story and think, based on my response to the situation I am about to describe, that I am completely unqualified to talk about any form of prejudice that exists in society. This is understandable. I am the villain in this story, but because this has been a part of my journey with the elephants in the room, I think you need to hear it.
President Obama’s election was truly a historic moment. Unfortunately, the significance of it was lost on me. I thought we had solved racism already. That makes me look ignorant. Actually, worse than ignorant. It makes me look downright stupid, but what 20-year-old male isn’t?
On the campus of Oral Roberts University, many people – of all colors – were celebrating and excited about what this meant for America. My RA was one of those. We were friends; he had been my RA my freshman year and was again this year. While we were watching the election results, he came to our floor and was over-the-top elated to see Obama win. He walked into the common room euphoric. And I, being sarcastic, cynical, and also – don’t forget – stupid, decided that he was more happy that I thought was necessary. If you know a person who is stupid, sarcastic and cynical, you know they have a special ability to ruin great moments. I looked at my RA, my friend, with a dumb smile and said, “Why don’t you chill out or I’ll remind you what your ancestors felt like.” Remember when I said I was stupid? What other words could we use? Imbecile. Addled. Sub-human.
I have no defense for the words I used that day. My friend looked at me, instantly sorrowful. We didn’t have a fist fight; he didn’t attack me. Without saying a word, he walked away. What I had said was an insult of the highest order. I had wounded my friend deeply. I followed him and apologized profusely, but our relationship was changed forever by my moment of stupid and callous derision.
As I said, that story may cause you to stop reading this book. I can understand that. Was I ignorant? Absolutely. Was I stupid? I think that’s clear. But ignorance and stupidity are curable. At that point in my life, I believed that because I grew up around all different kinds of people, because some of my best friends were of all different races and cultures than me, I therefore understood their cultural experiences and was free to be as flippant about them as I wanted. After all, this is America, and everyone has it good. Or so I thought.
Then came 2020. A banner year, and not in a good way. I, along with many others, witnessed the killing of George Floyd, the shooting of Jacob Blake, and the innumerable other injustices and unrest that preceded and followed them. I found myself wrestling once again with the oppression that so many people seemed to face in a country that many see as the greatest in the history of the world. I posted a black square on Instagram, and like many white people seeking to be “allies,” I was determined to be a part of the social change that so needed to happen.
I’m in my 30s, but my dad is still my mentor, much more to me than just a dad. As I was wrestling with these things, I began to discuss them with my dad. He disagreed with the cultural solutions that I felt were worthy of consideration. I truly believed that I was practicing empathy and seeking to understand. As you’ve seen, I had my own moment – and many others – with a distinct lack of empathy, and I wanted to make sure I never contributed to that kind of ignorance again. Throughout 2020, we had at least five conversations lasting at least four hours about these issues and how he and I were so far apart. These conversations were much bigger than politics or religion. We discussed the essence of what it means to live a good life, to make a difference in the world.
My argument looked a lot like this: we’re not just Christians, we’re pastors. In Matthew 22, Jesus gives us the “Great Commandment” to love our neighbor as ourselves. Shouldn’t we respond to these obvious continued, systemic, oppressive acts towards any minority with empathy, grace and mercy? Shouldn’t we understand our privilege and problematic behavior? Shouldn’t we come to terms with the injustices we have created or contributed to so that the world can become more like Jesus wants it to be? Why can’t we be honest about our intersectionality and positionality and engage that way?
I was persistent in my efforts to change my dad and everyone around me, to make them realize how truly bigoted, unjust and evil our actions are and continue to be. Our final pivotal conversation came in August 2020, just after the shooting of Jacob Blake, when my dad gave me a great gift. He told me to learn.
The conversation went something like this:
Dad: “You know what, son? I am convicted in my response to these things. In my heart, I know the response of the Kingdom [read the Church] is not to bend to culture but to establish Kingdom culture.”
Me: “I understand that, but Kingdom culture requires following the Great Commandment. It requires empathy, it requires compassion and laying down of personal politics for the sake of love.”
Dad: “This may seem political to you because I am a conservative, but I am not preaching a conservative gospel. I may communicate or feel strongly, but I am doing my best to live, teach and model my convictions as a Christ-follower.”
Me: “Well, it seems like we’re cherry-picking Scripture because we don’t want to admit that everything needs to change.”
Dad: “Ok, son, here’s what I want you to do. You’re smart [some time had passed since my 20s]. I want you to get every bit of information you can. Study it, distill it. And come back and talk to me about it. If I’m wrong, then I’ll apologize to our church and we’ll go the right direction.”
Thus began a journey for me. For the next 9 months, I devoured everything I could on social justice, antiracism, Critical Theory, Black Lives Matter, and more. I watched films and documentaries including:
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Uncle Tom (2020)
Fruitvale Station (2013)
The Central Park Five (2012)
When They See Us (2019)
The Hate U Give (2018)
If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)
Just Mercy (2019)
I also put together a reading list combining sources from all the reading lists I could find:
How to Be an Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi
Critical Race Theory: An Introduction – Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
Is Everyone Really Equal? – Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo
White Fragility – Robin DiAngelo
Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice – Maurianne Adams et al.
Encyclopedia of Social Justice – Sherwood Thompson
The 1619 Project – New York Times
Cynical Theories – Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay
Discrimination and Disparities – Thomas Sowell
The Quest for Cosmic Justice – Thomas Sowell
How to Fight Racism – Jemar Tisby
Fault Lines – Voddie Baucham
Be the Bridge – Latasha Morrison
Homosexuality and the Christian – Mark Yarhouse
Why Social Justice Is Not Biblical Justice – Scott David Allen
I did not set out to write a book about this journey. But I'll spend the rest of this book talking about what I discovered, how I contextualize that, and how I think we can move forward. I encourage you to read all these books and to watch these films and more. I also wanted to share my own story and experiences first. As I shared, I have had to wrestle more than once or twice with my own ignorance. I readily admit that I will continue to do so. My disqualifications are clear.
My goal is not to be “better than” or “less prejudiced than” another person. My intention is to demystify what we see happening in culture, which can be perplexing. It is also to de-escalate the conflict attached to these things and speak about them in a logical, empathetic, and understanding way.
There is so much potential for anger, strife, and division when we talk about these topics. I believe there is a way forward that is filled with empathy, unity and lasting change. We’re all ignorant, and we need help to become less so. I am a big part of the problem, and so are you, no matter your skin color, your culture, or your identity. You and me and the state of our hearts is the real issue. Until we fix that, the world never gets better.
The way forward that I propose throughout this book is not something of my own creation. It is not my idea or a presentation of my research related to how we finally fix all forms of oppression. I believe that there is an ancient path God designed long ago. If we can find it, we will find a way to move forward and love the elephants – and the people – God brings into our room.