Rev. Penny Ellwood is the Campus Pastor at Resurrection Blue Springs.
God loves even those who seem unlovable. This is the radical nature of God. Jesus saw in every man, woman and child a child of God. He made it a habit to go out of his way to engage people that others would see as unlovable, and he calls us to do the same.
I read a great article last week in the Washington Post by Eli Saslow that I shared with our congregation on Sunday. I’ve summarized the story from this Washington Post article. (You may click here to read the full article.)
Derek Black is the son of a former Alabama Klan leader who runs the largest racist internet forum. He raised Derek to believe in white supremacy. As a teen, Derek added a children’s page that promoted white supremacist values to his father’s website. He was interviewed about this hate speech on Nickelodeon, daytime talk shows, HBO and in USA Today. The white nationalists began to see him as the heir apparent to their cause.
Derek chose to attend a liberal college in Florida with a great history program, which he wanted to study. After attending diversity training at the start of school year, he decided it best to keep his background quiet. He would still slip away to tape his daily radio show, continuing to espouse his views and feature racist guests.
After one semester, Derek went to study in Germany. An upperclassman who had been researching terrorist groups stumbled across his face online. He sent a post to all the students on the college’s online forum, “Derek Black: white supremacist, radio host…new college student??? How do we as a community respond?” By the time Derek returned to campus for the next semester, more than a thousand responses had been written to that post.
Derek asked to live off campus. Some of his former friends emailed to say they felt betrayed. Most students just gave him a wide berth.The posts motivated Derek to plan a conference for white nationalists in Tennessee. Another student saw this, and posted details on the forum.
Yet gradually another way of thinking began to emerge among the students. One realized that ostracizing Derek wouldn’t accomplish anything; another suggested they try to be activists seeking to change Derek’s mind. One of his acquaintances began reading the website and listening to his talk show. A month later he invited Derek to dinner.
This student, Matthew Stevenson, had started hosting weekly Shabbat dinners at his campus apartment shortly after enrolling. He was the only Orthodox Jew at the school, so he cooked for a small group of students at his apartment every Friday night. He drank from a kiddush cup and said the traditional Jewish prayers, but most of his guests were Christian, atheist, black or Hispanic. Matthew invited Derek to join this group knowing that Jews were one of the groups Derek wanted to see gone from America.
He decided his best chance to affect Derek was not to ignore him or confront him, but simply to include him. “Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before,” he thought. It was the only social invitation Derek had received since returning to campus, so he agreed to go. The Shabbat meals had sometimes included eight or 10 students, but only a few showed up this time. Matthew instructed his guests to try to treat him like anyone else.
That first meal, nobody mentioned white nationalism or the school’s forum. Derek was quiet and polite, and he came back the next week and then the next. After a few months he was a regular, and nobody felt all that threatened. The Shabbat group grew back to its original size. When Derek added to the conversation he came across as smart and curious, but mostly he listened to the diverse group at the dinners. Derek and Matthew also began hanging out occasionally, although they were still a bit suspicious of one another.
Eventually these Shabbat friends began to ask Derek about his views, challenging him to clarify his stance to the other students on campus. His final year at New College, Derek decided to respond to the other students on the college forum. In each draft he wrote, he found his ideology softening. The truth was he was now confused–his Shabbat friends were dismantling his former logic. He didn’t know what he believed anymore.
During that summer he continued to process. He finally resolved that he could no longer support a movement that tells you who you can or can’t be friends with, that requires you to think of people from other races in a certain suspicious way. Derek finally wrote a public apology for the damage he’d done to people of color, people of Jewish descent, or activists working for opportunity and fairness for all. He emailed it to an organization that had been a former adversary. Since then he has distanced himself from his past, immersed himself in travel in order to experience different cultures and is trying to interact with others without prejudice or judgment.
Matthew Stevenson, despite his fears, invited Derek into a relationship that was instrumental in changing the trajectory of Derek’s life. Who knows the full effect of removing this “heir apparent” from the white nationalists’ hate-filled, oppressive cause? Galatians 6:1 reminds us that if someone else has wronged you, be careful not to accuse or attack them, but seek to restore them in a spirit of gentleness, remembering that you, too, are a sinner.
Every person is important and valuable to God. Jesus never avoided anyone, but willingly met those we might avoid and ignore. Who are the people in your life you may be avoiding? God invites us to get comfortable in our discomfort and reach across the lines that divide us. The types of people we avoid and ignore may by the very ones God is most interested in reaching out through us to befriend and love.
Return to the GPS Guide to read today’s scripture and reflection questions.