It’s been years now, but the memory-moment when I first saw her still runs deep. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, with pink sponge curlers in her hair, she looks up as I enter our college dorm room. Me, a middle-class white girl from the suburbs; she, a lower-class black girl born and raised in West Philadelphia. Our eyes meet for a split second and then both our heads drop silent.
I grew up in white privilege; she grew up among the working poor. We had a lot to discover about each other, and that we did. A critical juncture; a defining year that gave me a new perspective beyond my own safe little world.
Amazing how God arranges life experiences to add in the missing pieces. A divine appointment; a God set-up that added something needed, something of value, into the core of my identity.
My world got a whole lot bigger that year. And I will be forever grateful to my West Philly roomie whom I grew to love, honor and respect.
Fast forward to last weekend…
We enter the retreat center where I am one of three invited speakers. Seated beside the other speakers—all beautiful, strong and gifted African American women, I am feeling my “white-ness”. I’ve heard these women speak before, with incredible power and passion. They can raise the roof with their fiery-Pentecostal preaching. An expectation to conform and perform begins to emerge from within me.
Conform and perform—I’ve done it before. Not proud of it, but true. Caved to my own internal pressure and took on another’s identity to be approved and accepted. Yet in the process, I lost something invaluable—the gift of myself.
And then it hits me—my college roomie, this is the lesson we learned together. I can honor and celebrate these African American women without pretending to be one of them. By staying true to myself, I give room for others to stay true to themselves.
I quietly walk to the podium and begin sharing God’s love from my heart—in the way I do best, in the way I am designed. People are moved by the gentle power of love—tears flow and healing comes. I am a cool drink of water in the fiery heat of the day. Different, yet the same.
I am not color blind. God gave us color and the ability to distinguish between colors. It’s a gift that I plan to celebrate more. When we celebrate our differences by not pretending they do not exist, we celebrate the multi-faceted nature of God in whose image we all were created.
Different, yet the same. Hard to explain. A divine mystery from the heart of God that I one day hope to understand better.