We were sitting around a large, oval table, talking about our recent experience visiting a resettlement farm for displaced campesinos outside of Barranquilla, Colombia. We’d spent a couple of days listening to stories of dozens of families illegally forced off of land they had farmed for a decade. Already, in preparation for the trip, I had read numerous stories about the civil war in Colombia that had lasted for over 50 years, resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocent people at the hands of guerillas, paramilitary groups, even the government. One of the human rights advocates who spoke to us pointed out the startling truth that an entire generation of Colombians had grown middle-aged never having experienced peace.
A delegation of us had travelled from Seattle to experience first-hand the harsh reality that our sisters and brothers in the Presbyterian Church of Colombia confront as the nation tries to reconcile those who have been at war for decades. After just two days in the country, I was overwhelmed with the difficulty the society, including Christian congregations, face trying to bring into intimate communion and love, persons who had murdered their mothers and sons, who had raped their daughters and wives, kidnapped their husbands. At the table with my brothers and sisters from Seattle, I shared my bewilderment. I said something along the lines of, “In the US, we’re just trying to figure out how to bring together people who disagree on politics. I can’t imagine the tremendous difficulty it will be for the Colombians to bring together those who have been mortal enemies.”
A little while after my comment, one of my brothers at the table began to speak animatedly about the reality that many in our own society in the US face. He rightly pointed out that, “We have displaced campesinos in our own country! Farmers have been forced out of business for years now! We have indigenous people who are denied legal rights! The Duwamish tribe can’t get official recognition even though they have lived on the land for centuries!” His words sparked synapses in my brain that had not made some of the clear connections that his had made. That alone was enough to bring a slight sense of shame that I hadn’t seen the truth he had. Unfortunately, that realization is not the worst of it.
As the conversation continued, the voices faded into the background of my own thoughts. My heart sank, and my face flushed in shame as I realized the significant error I had made in my earlier comment. I had said that “We” in the US church are trying to bring together in unity people who “just disagree on politics.” But it dawned on me that I had missed ENTIRELY the reality of the black experience in the US, of the Native American experience, of the experience of all sorts of people of color or minority status who were trying to reconcile with those of us like me, Anglo Americans, who had killed millions of their ancestors over centuries! We had forced people off lands they had inhabited for millennia, forced people into slavery, bought and sold them, shot them, hung them, burned them. And we are still killing their descendants.
All of these thoughts flooded through me in a wave of recognition, recognition of my own ignorance. What made the realization even more humbling was the fact that at the table with me was a person for whom this reality of trying to make peace with those who have been killing his ancestors is not an abstract construct. It is the reality that he experiences daily. It is as deep as the marrow in his bones and the blood coursing in his veins. The wave of reality broke on me again that people like me, here in the US, must try to be reconciled with peoples who have every right to fear and hate us. And I confess that I had originally completely missed this truth as I thought of the challenges faced by the church in the US. To his further credit, as I apologized to my brother for my significant lack of understanding, he noted why he had not just confronted me at the table right away, saying, “I just thought to myself, ‘It’s Doug. I’ll talk to him later.”
As we participate in Black History Month in the United States, I wish deeply that a specific designation wasn’t needed for the history of black people in the US. I wish that we would all know the fullness of history for all of us in this country. I wish that we all had an awareness and sensitivity to the lived experience of all people in our society, always. But clearly, it is precisely for people like me that education is still needed.