When I was a senior in high school, I was part of something that I have been ashamed of ever since. I attended the same high school that my father and aunt had in the 1940’s. Then it was a mostly white school which drew students from the working and middle class neighborhoods around it. When I attended in the 1970’s, Grant High had been integrated by busing some students from nearby neighborhoods that were primarily African American. The reason for the segregation of the neighborhoods is a practice known as red-lining where banks, mortgage companies and realtors operated under a shared understanding that anyone who wasn’t white could only get loans and purchase property in certain areas designated by “red lines” on the map. Busing was an attempt to integrate students who might never otherwise come into regular contact with one another.
My parents taught me about red-lining. My father was a city planner and most of his work was in urban renewal in the very neighborhoods that had been set aside for people of color. My mother was an elementary teacher who taught in schools in the same neighborhoods. They supported public schools and integration and an end to some of the damaging, racist practices of the government and culture. They were also the beneficiaries of those damaging practices.
My father was able to purchase a home on the GI Bill in a white neighborhood with a great interest rate. GI’s who weren’t white were not provided the same benefit. I don’t know if my Dad was aware of that in 1969.
My Aunt, my Dad’s sister, was different. She married the middle son from a family whose patriarch had developed a heating oil and furnace business. They raised their family outside the inner city and their kids attended mostly white schools. They had more financial resources than my public-servant parents ever had. So my uncle gave me a job at his family’s company. I’d take the bus every day after school to work 3-4 hours doing a variety of clerical work.
One day my Uncle called me into his office. I was nervous when I saw how nervous he was. He hemmed and hawed but finally he made it clear that he was asking me if I knew any black female students who might be willing to work with me at the office. You see, there was not one black office worker in the entire business and affirmative action was just beginning to take effect. My Uncle and his entire family had no contact with African Americans. And so he asked me to find someone for him.
I don’t remember if I talked to more than one person, but Shelly was willing and they hired her right away. She and I would ride the bus to work after school and sit near one another doing menial clerical work. We were polite to one another, but we never became close friends. I don’t even remember how the job ended for either of us, but it was my final year and I was heading for college. I don’t know what Shelly did, but we never spoke to one another after that.
And I’m so ashamed. I’m ashamed that I never realized how awkward and horrible it must have been for her. I’m ashamed that I never stood up to my relatives who demeaned Shelly by seeing her as a way to get around a quota. I’m ashamed that I participated in a system that benefited me but not her. I’m ashamed of my privilege and my ignorance and my failure to truly see Shelly and to embrace her as a friend, even a sister.
Because that is what she really is to me. I became a Christian halfway through that senior year of high school. As I began to follow Jesus, my own family was ashamed, angry and confused. My family are atheists and my conversion created a lot of conflict. As I struggled with what it meant to love my family and to choose a different path than the one they had raised me with, other Christians were an amazing support for me.
They were family, too – a family that wasn’t created by blood or upbringing or even by similarity, but the family of God, the Body of Christ where we belonged to one another in a way that transcends race, background, language, political persuasion, and every other human distinction.
We get to catch glimpses of that reality in the stories of the early Christians, especially as we listen in on Paul’s short letter to a wealthy Christian leader, Philemon. Philemon and his wife Apphia were leaders of a house church and financial supporters of Paul. As many wealthy Romans of the time did, they owned slaves. Onesimus was a slave who at the very least ran away and possibly stole something of value in the process. He ended up as Paul’s companion. He converted to Christianity and became a supporter and partner to Paul when he was facing imprisonment.
The unjust system of slavery separated Philemon and Onesimus. Even worse, the required punishment for Onesimus would be terribly harsh if he were to return to his master. And yet, that is what Paul has suggested should happen. He is sending Onesimus back to that horrible situation, with the added possibility of a severe judgement for his desertion.
But Paul is hopeful that there is a force greater than slavery, greater than the self-interest of the powerful or an unjust system. What Paul is counting on is the transformative power of the gospel. He knows that the wealthy and powerful Philemon and the powerless and vulnerable runaway slave are also brothers in Christ. More than that, Paul is like a father to Onesimus. And Onesimus has become Paul’s heart.
Paul doesn’t deal with the unjust system or order Philemon to welcome Onesimus back. Instead he appeals to love, the greatest force in human relationships. He loves both Philemon and Onesimus and he hopes that they might live in love towards one another. Paul is willing to pay the price financially for whatever has been lost. He is willing to pay the price of his own reputation in standing up for Onesimus and risk the loss of Philemon’s support. He is even willing to give up Onesimus’s companionship so that the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus can be reconciled.
What Paul hopes and longs for is so radical that he even wonders if this whole situation came about for this very purpose, so that “Philemon might have Onesimus back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother, … both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
What would it be like if the transformative power of the gospel reached into the unjust systems in our society? What if illegal immigrants who work, raise families and participate in the community were given a path to citizenship rather than deported and walled away from the life they have here? What if drug users who are willing to try rehabilitation, could do so rather than be jailed? What if churches were no longer the most segregated public gathering places on Sunday mornings? What if we took the risks to love ALL of our neighbors as if they were brothers and sisters?
My life has been transformed by the love of Jesus and the amazing people who follow him. I have come a long way from the 16 year old who participated in an arrangement that failed to respect Shelly and treat her fairly and with dignity. I still fail daily to truly see each person as my brother or sister in Christ and to treat them accordingly. There’s much more to do and so much more to learn.
My 40th high school reunion is coming up next summer. This week I looked Shelly up on Facebook. Guess what? She loves Michelle Obama, animal rescue videos and Jesus. So do I! It breaks my heart that we are not friends. So I sent her a message. She probably doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. I wouldn’t blame her. But if she does respond, I’ve got some work to do, the real work of repentance and sorrow and the willingness to learn more about love and sacrifice for the sake of God’s beloved community.