As many of you know, a few months ago I invited my long time friend and erstwhile fellow-student at Moody Bible Institute, Robin Jones, to write a some posts for the blog. Robin continues to be an evangelical Christian and is deeply committed to important social issues that I think just about all of us are also concerned about: hunger, homelessness, suffering, and justice.
Here now is her third and final post. I hope you find it both interesting and inspiring:
Who doesn’t love a good story?
Stories embody our humanity in a way few other things do.
Some of you may be familiar with the radio commentator Paul Harvey who was famous for telling how an unknown twist of fate catapulted someone into a totally different life story or created a completely unexpected conclusion. After giving the surprise ending, he would famously conclude with “and that’s the rest of the story.”
While Paul Harvey was indeed a great storyteller, I propose that the master at that craft was Jesus. He told stories not just for the entertainment value (although they were entertaining), and not only to offer teaching points (although they were full of life lessons), but more importantly to communicate truth about this world, about life itself, and about God. His stories challenged and often surprised his audiences.
Familiar to almost everyone, whether they know Jesus as the author or not, is the story of the prodigal son whose disdain for his father was scandalous for its time. The cultural expectation of the day would be to disown such a son, but Jesus shocks his listeners by ending his story with the father running to welcome his much-loved son home and throwing a party for him. And the equally famous story of the Good Samaritan. As a despised ethnic group, no Jewish listener would have expected any “good” to be associated with the name Samaritan. Yet Jesus’ surprise twist to this story of extraordinary kindness and generosity to an enemy was that it was done by a Samaritan. Unthinkable.
As you may know, Bart kindly asked me several months ago to submit a trilogy of blog posts that would highlight some of the unheralded things that Christians are doing in order to perhaps give his readers a surprising glimpse of the rest of the Christian story.
And so, as my third and final submission here is one more story and it is about telling stories. Some might not think of stories as a means of changing the world but there is a group of Christians in Oklahoma City who are doing exactly that. Their stories cover a lot of ground, are presented in a variety of venues, are focused on racial disparity, and most importantly are planting seeds of change in their community.
Take John, a TV station general manager and Clarence, a businessman turned pastor. John is white. Clarence is black. The year was 2014 and the story that connected these two was Ferguson, Mo. With just that bit of information most of us can fill in the rest of the story.
A few months after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, and with the country still electrified and polarized, the movie Selma premiered centering around Martin Luther King’s historic march for voting rights for black Americans. For the first time in many years, conversations on the often-unspoken racial tensions that still exist in modern day America were taking place all over the country. Spurred by these two-events Clarence decided to host a community dinner. Black and white guests were invited. The goal of the evening was not to “solve” racial problems, but rather to simply begin sharing stories related to racism, injustice, and reconciliation in the hopes of increasing awareness.
The atmosphere that evening mirrored the emotions of much of the country, intense, earnest, and humble.
John was one of the attendees invited by Clarence. After listening to the issues and discussions that night John left the dinner feeling that he needed to help bring about change. He decided to leverage his professional relationships by partnering with the local media to provide a bigger platform for stories like those he’d heard that evening, stories both disturbing and hopeful.
Eventually John and Clarence, two men from different backgrounds and with different spheres of influence, partnered with a handful of others to create United Voice Oklahoma (UVO).
Their vision was to bring together a multi-ethnic group of committed Christian men and women to help shift perceptions and local culture by telling stories of grace, kindness, and restitution.
Today the UVO team and community contributors, along with their media partners, discover stories which otherwise may not receive coverage and provide them to all of the Oklahoma City media outlets including radio, publications, and television. These outlets then weave the stories into their news coverage. To their knowledge it is the first time that competing media have partnered together to address racial reconciliation. In the last year-and-a-half alone they have shared more than 160 stories and have created a community “stage” for encouraging hard and healing conversations. They also host a podcast of in-depth conversations and stories on race relations seeking to practice the art of kindness, civil discourse, and authenticity.
One such story is that of Nate, the first black policeman in Moore, Oklahoma in the 1970s. As a committed Christian and a dedicated police officer Nate often found himself challenged because of the badge he wore and the faith he professed.
One day while responding to one of his first home calls he was taken aback when the homeowner phoned the police station to report a black man was impersonating an officer. Even after being told that Nate was the officer sent in response to his call the homeowner still asked to have a white officer sent.
During Nate’s time in Moore, it was not uncommon for the police station to receive calls reporting that a police car had been stolen simply because the caller saw Nate driving it.
In black communities too his reception was far from warm, often being told he was “too black to be blue and too blue to be black.”
One of Nate’s more memorable experiences however, was the night he responded to a disturbance call and found a white man lying on the floor of his apartment with a serious head wound. The victim, Johnny, was well-known in the community as the Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon. In spite of this Nate tended to him with compassion and professionalism.
As it turned out Nate’s tenderness toward this hate filled KKK leader would be what Johnny would later credit as the first time in his life he had ever experienced someone display the love of God. He was deeply impacted.
Nate’s unexpected response to Johnny planted the seed for him to think differently about all the things he had believed about blacks. It also spurred a growing desire to change, but he had no idea how to until one day he happened to see a Bible laying on a table and randomly opened it. Landing on the story of the prodigal son, about a squandered life being redeemed and made right, he understood the answer lay outside of himself. Over time Johnny decided that God alone could change his life and make him a different man.
Years later he would write Nate saying “even though you knew I was in the Klan and had plenty of reasons to do otherwise you never once harassed me or treated me unkindly. You had many an opportunity, but you never did. You were always polite and never showed any hostility or resentment.”
But you may rightfully ask, these are just stories, what difference has United Voice really made? Well as with all seeds, given time and careful tending to, small buds of change emerge. And change is occurring all over the city.
Take for instance Justin, an attorney who was awakened to what he calls his white privilege when he heard one of the UVO storytellers talk about his black experience. As a result, he decided to bring together people in his sphere of influence to honestly discuss their perceptions of race. Through a monthly Speakers Series where a diverse group of community leaders tell their stories and faith journeys, and “Donuts & Coffee” gatherings where a mix of people connect to share their lives, literally hundreds of conversations have taken place. Conversations that have generated an awareness of the need to walk a mile in another’s shoes before making judgments or casting aspersions.
And then there’s Clay, an influential leader of a financial management firm and NBA team owner who has become a significant leader of criminal justice reform, especially as it relates to the Oklahoma County Jail. Clay would often see the jail during his business day, but the fact that it was considered one of the worst jails in the country was of virtually no concern to him. But as the country began to awaken to the issues of racial inequity Clay began to realize how the criminal justice system was a part of the problem. He could no longer just let the jail be a visual backdrop in his life. Although criminal justice reform is not a traditional business issue, he wanted to get involved in helping change a system he believed wasted Oklahoma City’s most precious resource – its people. In partnership with the Oklahoma City Chamber, he became one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council, whose purpose is to work toward a fairer and more efficient justice system.
Lastly, let me tell you about Tim, the executive director of the Oklahoma County Criminal Justice Advisory Council. Because of the stories Tim heard he determined to “unnarrow” his worldview and build relationships with some of the people who belonged to those stories. The catalyst for him began the day he realized that he had never worried about his son being pulled over by the police, but that most black fathers have. In fact, most have a very specific talk with their sons in preparation for a possible police encounter. His “ah-ha” moment came when he was asked how often he thought about being white, (which was almost never) and learned that blacks have to think about their race all the time. He realized that being a white husband and father in America is quite different from being a black husband and father. These new insights have shifted his day-to-day perceptions and reactions to the events in our country, as well as increased his effectiveness at a job that requires both empathy and goodwill.
The apostle John tells us in his gospel that the stories he told about the life and ministry of Jesus are just a few of the many he could have written. So too these are just a few of the stories that could be told about this group of modern-day disciples who, like those first followers of Christ, come from different backgrounds, social strata and political perspectives, but who’s love of God compels them to make a difference in their world. Together, one story at a time, these Christians are igniting a community and helping to reimagine a tomorrow where Christ’s command to love one another as he has loved us will become a reality.
And now allow me to complete this writing assignment on a personal note. Thank you, my friend Bart, for trusting me to share my world with your readers and color in some of the rest of the Christian story. I remain grateful to have you in my story.