Moving Towards Understanding: A Conversation About Diversity and Community
February is Black History Month. At Rooted, we’re asking ourselves: How can we equip parents and other leaders of youth to help their teens foster authentic interracial relationships, as part of God’s design for his kingdom? We thought we’d begin this journey by taking the posture, first and foremost, of listening. What follows is a conversational interview between Rooted Parent Editor Anna Meade Harris and Rooted contributor Ben Sciacca. You will find recent articles about race and the gospel here and here.
Ben Sciacca is the Executive Director of Restoration Academy in Fairfield, Alabama. He, his wife Sara, and their four children live in the neighborhood where he serves. Ben and his family are white; their community is 95% African American. He is also the author of Meals from Mars: A Parable of Prejudice and Providence (www.mealsfrommars.com).
ANNA: Ben, as I understand it, you and your family made some big changes early in your career at Restoration Academy in Fairfield, Alabama, where you now serve as executive director. Could you tell me about your family’s move?
BEN: My wife and I moved to the Fairfield community over 16 years ago when we were pregnant with our firstborn. At that point we were in our early 20s and probably a bit naive and overly enthusiastic. Some of our other friends at RA had already moved into the neighborhood and so there was the pragmatic side of building community with folks that we worked with and liked. We also knew that this was an affordable option for us. Buying a house in a lower-income neighborhood was practical financially because we were hardly making any money at that time
The first night that we moved in I remember lying wide awake in bed trying to soak up the fact that we had actually left the cozy suburbs behind. I’ll be honest that I was a little scared at first. Early on I was convinced that we would be a real blessing to the neighborhood. I think I falsely believed that we had something special to offer and that the neighborhood actually needed a family like us. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Over the last 16 years, my family has emerged as the true beneficiaries of living in Fairfield.
ANNA: If you would, describe Fairfield. What have you enjoyed about living there? What challenges have you and your wife and kids faced?
Ben: Most days Fairfield feels a lot like Mayberry. There are good and hard working people. There are large and beautiful homes. During the spring it’s a gorgeous community as a variety of old trees come into blossom. We have been blessed with great neighbors. It has been an absolute joy for our children to literally grow up with our next door neighbors. They attend school together and play outside together in the evenings. My wife and I are grateful that our children can grow up in a diverse neighborhood. My wife had the privilege of growing up in the Philippines as a missionary kid, but I grew up in a homogenous middle class white neighborhood. I think all of us have enjoyed being the minorities in the community and experiencing the warmth and generous hearts of our neighbors
A lot of urban communities get overly stereotyped and blighted by the news. It’s rare that there is positive coverage for communities like ours despite the fact that good things are happening. I have talked with people who have physical fear about coming to visit our school or our neighborhood. So much of this fear is unfounded. The most dangerous part of coming to Fairfield from the suburbs is the commute in getting here. I have a greater fear of the traffic on highway 280 than I do my neighborhood. With that said, over the 16 years that we have been here there have been some hardships. My car has been broken into twice, and our home was broken into about ten years ago. But a lot of people have had their cars broken into or their homes invaded in suburban communities. If anything stands out to me as unique, it’s the gun shots. It’s fairly common to hear some in the evening. More often than not this is young people firing off their guns into the air for no reason. But we have had some murders near the house. These have been few and far between over the last decade and a half but they make you aware that there are some violent and desperate people in neighborhoods characterized by poverty.
One of the things that Jesus taught us early on is that when you move into a neighborhood you need to simultaneously embrace the blessings and the burdens that come along with that decision. I would say that the blessings of living in our neighborhood far outweigh the burdens. But it is unreasonable to think that some of the hardships that people have to endure in your community won’t eventually impact you or your family at some point as well. Jesus incarnated the earth knowing that this fallen world would hurt and eventually kill Him. Yet He didn’t flee from this reality. He embraced it.
ANNA: According to 2010 census information, the town of Fairfield was 95% African American, and about 4% white. As a man who grew up in a predominately white suburb, what does that feel like for you? What have you learned from being in the minority?
BEN: At first the move to the neighborhood was very unique. I grew up in the white suburbs and was not used to seeing too many people of color in my community. My schools and my church were almost all white. It was very eye-opening to be the lone white family on our block. When we went to the local Wal-mart or gas station we clearly stood out. Some folks looked at us a little strange because they may not have expected to see a white family in the community.
Many of my minority brothers and sisters have shared the challenges of what it’s like to be black in white spaces. I think that many of us who are white lose sight of this all the time. We don’t necessarily think of ourselves as having a “white culture.” We simply assume that our culture is just normal. We don’t mind having minorities come into our spaces, neighborhoods, and churches but we usually expect them to assimilate to what is “normal.” This might include the way they dress, speak, and even worship. So it was a bit of a challenge but also so beneficial to be in a community where what I thought was “normal” was no longer seen as normal. My white culture was not the predominant culture any longer and I was the one that clearly felt out of place. If anything it gave me a small taste of understanding of what most minorities have had to experience for centuries in this country as it pertains to entering into majority culture white spaces.
ANNA: What have you learned worshipping in faith communities with your African American neighbors? How has your faith been challenged and deepened?
I think to answer this question I’d like to lean on something that I recently learned from Andy Crouch. He talked about how God made us unique – both male and female. There is something about our “maleness” and our “femaleness” that reveals the distinct intricacies of God to one another. Women and men need each other to experience unique aspects of the character and person of God. In the same way He outsourced His image bearing qualities to distinct cultural groups and ethnicities. These distinctives are equally valuable and equally important to reveal aspects of God that would be missing if we did not have those cultures present in our lives.
I say all of that to say that living and worshipping in a diverse faith community has been incredibly enriching. I value my predominantly white upbringing and church life. But living in a diverse community has assisted my faith in so many ways. Even the very styles of preaching, prayer, and worship have benefitted me. They have revealed truths and incredible things about the person and people of God that I had been missing for almost half of my life.
ANNA: I am a parent who grew up in a largely white community, though my high school had great ethnic diversity. I have raised my children in a predominantly white community. My children have encountered African American kids in two ways: competing (in sports and debate), and when they have gone with their (white) youth groups to do community service projects. Competition can lead to new friendships, when there is downtime to hang out after. However, I worry that service can perpetuate a sense of inequality. Other than moving to another community, as you have done, what can a parent like me do to foster diverse friendships for her kids? (For more on white privilege, see here.)
BEN: I think we need to approach the issue of diversity with children delicately. We need to avoid trying to force it upon them. Sometimes we can approach it in ways that are bit canned or coercive. There is a mindset even within some of our short term urban mission projects that the ones living in the suburbs have a lot to offer for those living in poverty. There can be a paternalistic mindset that pops up in which the “have nots” are blessed by the “haves.” We need to guard our young people from this mentality at all costs.
One of the most remarkable things about Jesus is that He never trampled on the dignity of those He came to help. If anything He elevated their dignity. If we are engaged in a service project we need to somehow help our young people see that the community and the residents have something to give us. It might be their resilience and courage of living in poverty. It could be their wisdom gained from following Christ or just their life experiences. Jesus asked a marginalized woman for a drink of water. She had something to offer Him. He came to show her love, but His request from her showed her that she too had value and something to offer Him as well. Sometimes we miss that.
If we live in a homogenous neighborhood it is very tough to create diversity for our kids. It may start by incorporating literature from or about diverse people. We may need to listen to sermons or music from diverse people. We want our kids to understand that diverse people are made in the image of God and that they have as much to teach, to show, and to give to us as anyone else. It is important for our children to grasp this at a young age. Where possible I think it is always wonderful to break bread with diverse people. We need to have one another in each other’s homes and break bread. So many wonderful things happen around the dinner table. Some of Jesus greatest teaching and greatest displays of love took place over a meal. He invited us to His table. We should invite others to ours.
Lastly, I think it’s crucial that our children immerse themselves in more minority history. Growing up almost 95% of my American history lessons were about white people. Minority involvement in US history was a side note. This is tragic. America is a diverse nation built from the beginning by diverse people. When we ignore or undermine these other contributions, we stifle the truth and utterly disrespect other image bearers of God. Part of building diverse relationships entails building a robust and diverse understanding our own history as a nation. A lot of it isn’t pretty, but it helps us understand more about where we came from and hopefully informs us on where we can go in the future by Christ’s grace.
In observance of Black History Month, Rooted is honored to share a conversational interview in three parts between our editor-in-chief, Charlotte Getz, and African American Rooted contributor, Isaiah Brooms. You can access those here, here, and here.