For years I have believed that reconciliation is deeply rooted in the Gospel. I see four “R’s” in the Gospel message: Redemption, Regeneration, Reconciliation, and Restoration. L.O.V.E. is the Answer has sparked a renewed gratitude for Christ’s work on the cross and has confronted me with the sobering reality that both the message and the ministry of reconciliation have been entrusted to me and to each one of us who has placed his faith in Jesus Christ. The Walking While Black: L.O.V.E. is the Answer conference on improving police and community relations wasn’t just about addressing a disturbing social trend, it was a conference about reconciliation.
To ‘reconcile’ is, “to bring into agreement or harmony; to make compatible or consistent.” Communities marked by hatred, violence, brokenness, and despair are communities that need reconciliation.
The Gospel of Matthew records an amazing statement about Jesus. In two places, 4:23 and 9:35, Matthew tells us that Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages in Galilee, “...teaching in their synagogues…proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” Don’t miss the seemingly insignificant words, “all” and “every.” They’re what make the statement amazing. From what the ancient Jewish historian Josephus tells us, the population in those cities and villages at the time has been estimated to be as high as 1.5 million people. Jesus went through all of them.
Of these same passages, the great American theologian B.B. Warfield, concluded that the entire region of Galilee was free of disease and affliction of every kind during the years of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus’ message and ministry of reconciliation transformed villages and cities - people like us who live in our villages and cities today. Not all who heard him received His message. Not all who were healed believed. In fact many whose hearts were hard and whose wills were steeled, cried, “Crucify Him!” only months later.
In the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth he describes what Jesus did as God’s work of reconciling the world to Himself. One of the principles of Bible interpretation is that the epistles interpret the gospels and bring greater clarity and understanding of what Jesus did and taught. That same letter goes on to say that Jesus gave us that same ministry and message of reconciliation.
That’s my worldview. It’s why I do what I do because I value what I do. And I value what I do because I believe what I know to be true. As a follower of Jesus, I may not be able to heal as Jesus did, but I am an agent of His mercy and grace. We are to do good to all men, the Apostle Paul enlightens us in his letter to the church in Galatia. We are to be His ambassadors of reconciliation.
Part of My Story:
Until high school, Wanda Sterling was the only African American kid I knew. From kindergarten through the eighth grade we were schoolmates in a class of maybe twenty students. I never knew her well; but in the rural, western Michigan community we each called home, our lives intersected almost daily from the time we entered kindergarten together through high school. I don’t ever recall playing with Wanda. We were friends in the same way everyone in our class was a friend; but we never really talked except maybe in the same reading group or math group.
Girls and boys don’t really talk to each other much in grade school, so that was not unusual. It was the fall of my third grade year before I remember having fun playing with a girl (other than my cousins), and the spring of my sixth grade year before I began noticing them.
I do recall wondering, though, what it must be like to be the only person in our class whose skin was a different color than the rest of us. Maybe I wondered because in some ways, I was different, too. Our little town was at the intersection of the main highway that connected Grand Rapids with Holland, a city appropriately named by the Dutch who settled the area - blond haired, blue eyed, fair skinned people with last names that often began with Van or Vander and ended with Dyke or “stra” or the vowel “a”. My name neither began nor ended with those sounds. Neither did Wanda’s. We were both different in that way.
Wanda and I graduated from the same high school; and although there were a few more African American students in our graduating class of 350, it wasn’t a large number. The early June night our class marched into the auditorium to the fervent sound of Pomp and Circumstance was the last time I recall seeing Wanda Sterling. That night launched our lives on different trajectories that have continued to this day.
So, where did Wanda’s trajectory take her? And why is Wanda Sterling any different than the others in that class? In most ways, she isn’t. But in at least one significant way, she is. Wanda wasn’t just a classmate. She was the only classmate who was African American. There had to be times when being different was difficult for Wanda. I don’t recall being mean or saying things deliberately meant to hurt her. I don’t recall any of us doing that. But I never asked her what it felt like, either. I never even let her know that I wondered what it was like. Today, more than fifty years later, I wish I had.
I wonder how many stories like mine, as insignificant as it seems, are out there? Could it be that the aggregate of stories like mine is what propels the current racial divide in our country? Could it be that the NFL players who “take a knee” before Sunday games aren’t protesting the flag or politicizing their sport but are wanting to be heard? Could it be that simple? Could it be that all they really want is for others to understand what it feels like - that all they really want is to be understood? Could it be that those gladiators of our day who take the field before thousands of impassioned fans every week are inside still the boys that played on streets in neighborhoods palpable with denigration, fear and hopelessness? Could it be that they are waiting for someone to ask, what does it feel like?
Wanda Sterling isn’t the actual name of my old classmate, but Wanda is a real person. Where she is today, I don’t know. I have committed myself to making contact with her, though. She may no longer be alive, but I need to try. It is what I need to do as part of my commitment to racial reconciliation. I want to know - what did it feel like? That question is not just for my curiosity’s sake. It is for Wanda’s sake as well. I want her to know that someone noticed - that someone cared enough to ask, that one of her old classmates hasn’t forgotten her, and that she was and is as important to our class and to me as any of the rest.
Love is the answer to the things that divide us, to the injustice and inequities exposed in Walking While Black; but in a very real sense, so am I. So are you. The question is: will we be silent or will we become part of the answer as ambassadors of that love?
by Pastor Larry Taylor, October 2017