”We must live together as brothers...or perish together as fools”
- Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
IT COULD HAVE BEEN ME! I’m 6’5”, in my late 40’s, African-American living in Minneapolis Minnesota…so was George Floyd. He was a man of God who loved people and was always there for others, the same could be said about me. Then there was Christian Cooper a successful Harvard educated man, successful writer and editor in New York City. I’m a college educated man who’s served in vocational ministry for over 25 years, building and leading multi-cultural ministries from the deep south to the upper Midwest ranging in size from 50 to over 5,000.
For all three of us, throughout our lives we have encountered people who didn’t see any of the good things that make us who we are, they just see black men who they perceived as threats and acted accordingly, the worst offense being the murder of George Floyd.
This is the core of the problem that we are facing. We fail to go beyond the surface and purpose to truly get to know those that are different from us. Whether it is a perceived threat to our existence or simple ignorance of those who look different, we choose not to see the whole person and focus on what we see. I have lived my whole life with people making assumptions about who I am based on my outward appearance. For those of us who have either played or enjoyed sports, we are used to sizing up others. I for years have wanted to make a t-shirt that will answer the top five questions that people ask of me. Allow me to answer them for you so we can get this out of the way;
1. I am 6'5"
2. I wear size 15 shoes
3. I do play basketball
4. I can dunk (yes at 48 i still can)
5. If you think you can, let's play!
Okay, so that was a bit of humor to illustrate something. We always have questions about people we see. Are they friend or foe? Are they someone I can get along with? Nothing wrong with asking these questions. The problem is when we choose not to seek the answer. I learned from an early age that if I want to truly get to know someone, I have to make the effort to get to know them. Being a naturally introvert that is hard but that is where sports has come in to help me. You see, sports can be a powerful tool for change. It can change society and it can change a person. It also can be the thing that brings people together who otherwise wouldn't connect.
Some of my greatest and deepest relationships that I have had came through sports. What I have learned through the years is that although people come from different places with different views and outlooks, when they find a common purpose or interest, it sets a foundation that a relationship can be built on.
A History Lesson
Over 35 years ago, I read a book that really left a lasting impression on me as a young man. “The Moves Make The Man” by Bruce Brooks is the story of two junior high teenagers in the early 60’s in Wilmington NC. During a time where black and white were at odds, two young men one black and one white forged a relationship that transcended the time they were in. At the root of their relationship was a shared love for sports. Allow me to share a little of their story.
Jerome who is African American, is a very sharp young man who is a skilled basketball player who is very confident in who he is and feels like he can handle anything. Things like growing up without a father who died when he was very young and being the first black kid in an all white school in the heat of the de-segregation. One day, he goes to watch a little league game where one of the teams from the white league came down to the park where the black leagues play. Watching the game he notices this white shortstop that really impressed him with his natural athletic ability and confidence, kinda reminded him of himself. It was a memory that would stick with him.
A short time later, he runs into that kid, whose name was Bix. Through a series of tragic circumstances the two boys find themselves in a home econ class. Instantly Jerome recognizes Bix as that killer athlete he saw play shortstop and has been his imaginary 1v1 opponent in his workouts ever since. They strike an instant friendship which goes well till one day the seemingly calm, confident and collected Bix freaks out in class and disappears from school.
They meet up again one day when Jerome goes out to play basketball at his favorite private court in the middle of the woods and he sees his friend playing some strange game with a basketball that looked nothing like the game he plays. Remembering what a great athlete he was, Jerome offers to teach Bix how to play the game the right way. Bix agrees and they embark on a journey that proves to be years beyond their time and leaves a lasting impression on Jerome that lasts a lifetime and is the reason he is telling this story in the book.
I won’t ruin the rest of the book for you, but I will tell you that it is a good easy read that tells a story that is still as relevant today as it was when it was written a couple decades ago. This book had a lasting impression on my life and basically formed part of my world view and is the reason why I do what I do.
Proverbs 27:17 “As iron sharpens iron, so does one man to another” is one of those foundational scriptures or life texts whose theme has ran through every part of my life. This book really is one of the best illustrations of the power of relationships to overcome many barriers that life can throw you.
On the surface, race should have been the barrier that would keep them from becoming friends but their shared love for athletics served as a foundation for their friendship. That day when Jerome saw him play baseball he bypassed the obvious and saw another great athlete like himself. It’s a level of respect that happens between athletes who understand and appreciate the pureness of good athleticism.
As for Bix, he responded to Jerome’s compassion towards him and his acceptance of him just as he was. Bix, though everything about his appearance would say he had his act together but it doesn’t take long to see that he beats to a different drum. Jerome wasn’t intimidated since he himself danced to his own tune. it’s easy to see why these two took a liking to each other.
“We must live together as brothers..or perish together as fools” -Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King was brilliant in his observation that living as brothers is necessary. In that speech he called on us to be more concerned with the breath of life as opposed to the length of life. This is where he called on us to look more at the content of one’s character than the color of his skin. It is this thought line that we find our two characters in the story.
Jerome and Bix saw the person wearing the skin. They were willing to go beyond surfaces and see the person for who they were. That provided the groundwork for them to build a relationship that in the beginning revolved around the game of basketball but progressed into something deeper where both allowed themselves to be vulnerable enough to learn about each other.
What can we learn from these two that may provide some keys towards overcoming racism? Here are three lessons we can take from them;
See the person wearing the skin. All too often we allow our pre-conceived ideas about an ethnic or social group shape how we see an individual. If we deliberately choose to see the personality and actions of that person, we might be surprised at what we find
Endeavor to live as brothers. Brotherhood is more than shared DNA, it’s sharing a bond that is inseparable. To live with others as brothers requires us to focus on the things what we share in common and less on differences. Whether it’s a situation or a love for the same activities or simply a shared perspective, when we find things we can agree on we allow room for growth in other areas where we differ. We’re able to learn together as we experience life together.
Step into their world. We have to be intentional and willing to step into the other person’s world. This happens best when we spend time doing life together. It can start with playing sports or participation in an activity together. Wherever yo choose to start, there’s something about laboring together that brings people together. The shared experience of reaching a common goal provides an excellent springboard for growth together.
A Personal Illustration
When I first read this book as a junior high student, I found myself identifying with both young men. Like Jerome, I had been a part of the movement to desegregate the schools in the town I lived in. The schools were already somewhat integrated but the district wanted to see more and my parents volunteered me to be sent to a predominately white school across town. Because of that, I had to learn how to navigate socially in an environment where I was the outsider. Making friends wasn’t easy as people didn’t know how to relate to me, and I didn’t know how to relate to them.
It wasn't until we moved to an “integrated“ neighborhood that I had the opportunity to do life with kids that looked different from me. It was one thing to go to school with other kids but this was different. It was the other two-thirds of life.....who am I gonna play with? What are we gonna do? The common bond we had in our corner of the world was basketball. This is where I related to Bix because I was the one learning the game.
His name was Tom and he was already in high school while I was still in elementary school. He didn’t care that I was the “little black kid” who lived next door, he just was interested in being my friend and teaching me the game. He was the initiator in the friendship just like Jerome was towards Bix. He became the closest thing I had to a big brother.
What I learned from him has stayed with me to this day. I learned to see the person wearing the different color skin. I also learned how to intentionally live as brothers and most of all I learned how to step into someone else’s world. Tom became a part of my family and I became a part of his. Birthdays, backyard bbq’s, hanging at the mall and ballin out in the driveway till our parents made us call it for the night. We just did what friends do.
When he went away to college and his family moved away, I was left with a wonderful set of experiences that still have influence on my life today. I held onto the lessons I learned through our friendship. Many of them drive a lot of how and why I do what I do. I’d say it’s why i’m so passionate when it comes to relationships and the power they have to change lives.
As much as we like to applaud the changes in our society over the last 50 years, the killing of George Floyd and others have shown us that race, ethnicity, socio-economic status are still issues that divide us. Systematic racism has always been there. It's going to take a lot to overcome it but in order to make it happen, we have to first get on the same page. We need a common cause. The murder of George Floyd is the banner that is currently flying not only here in Minneapolis where I live but around the world.
If you have played sports you know the power of sports to bring people together. A team doesn't start the season on the same page. There is an initial decision to come together under one banner. What happens next is that they begin to work things out by putting in work, competing and sweating it out together. There are some battles and some get intense. Conflicts happen but because they initially decided to get together to pursue a championship, they commit to working things out. The end result is a team that knows it's common goal, having taken each other's individual strengths, put together a plan and goes out to execute it. The only way that happens is when each of the individuals endeavor to learn about each other, work to understand the differences and how they fit together into achieving the common goal. In simple terms, it starts with relationship!
It not going to be some great program that will turn the tide, it will be accomplished one courageous relationship at a time. Just as Jerome and Bix were able to not allow the racially charged tone of their day to get in the way of meaningful relationship, today’s world could use a few more folks with the same mindset. It is what I do, it's who I am.
Many of my friends have been asking what can I do? My answer is start with investing in relationships that will educate, inspire and challenge you. Relationships with people who are different from you. Allow them to teach you things that you otherwise wouldn't have learned.
You have to start somewhere. Yes we need to vote and voice our opinions. Yes it's good that you use your social media to make posts expressing the need for change. But you have to go beyond a few social media posts and get into relationships that will help you grow. I'm challenging you to do something more. Get out of your comfort zone and take a look around you. See where you can invest in getting to know your friends of color on a real level. If you don't have friends of color, step out and introduce yourself to someone. Are you up for the challenge?
When you do remember these three things:
Will you take the time to see the person wearing the skin?
Will you endeavor to live as brothers?
Will you dare to step into their world?
It’s your move!
Stay Forever Strong!