Alliance News Feed – Navigating Race Issues

by Reggie Screen, assistant to the South Atlantic District superintendent/ministry development

“Mentor.” Merriam-Webster’s second definition defines mentor as “a trusted counselor or guide.” However, the first definition is “a friend of Odysseus entrusted with the education of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus.” This definition refers to the epic tale of the Odyssey by Homer. The Odyssey is a story of a man on a sea voyage that is thrown off course and must overcome many obstacles to return to his home where his wife and son await him.

I find that both the concept of “teacher” and the terms “counselor” or “guide” are equally accurate. I myself had been on a voyage in my career of full-time evangelical ministry for more than 20 years. A couple of years ago, the weight of personal experiences and the sudden flurry of violence in our nation overwhelmed me. These experiences, this violence, it all surrounded the issue of race. In particular, I grew increasingly disturbed by the response and attitude of the white evangelical church. Comments like, “Wait till all the facts come out, and you’ll understand why they had to die,” ate at me.

Reggie Screen is an assistant to the South Atlantic District superintendent/ministry development. (Photo courtesy of the author)

It all served to push me into waters I never set out to explore. I was not new to navigating race issues. However, something about the recent events and responses rattled me. I was ready to leave evangelicalism behind. Desperately, I reached out to the civil rights leader Dr. John Perkins. John had survived some egregious violence in the 1970s. He graciously agreed to meet with me. Over the course of two days, my life was changed.

Heart of Sin

During our first meeting, he started with a simple question. “So why did you reach out to me?”

“You have something I need,” I responded.

“Good,” John said, “now we can start.”

I was hoping for insight on this broken evangelical system. Instead, John came right at me.

“I’m not angry,” John continued. “Before you can do anything about this stuff, you can’t be angry.”

His words stung.

“Anger won’t enable you to address the problems. You have to lay anger aside.”

It took some time to let that message sink in; however, I was willing to consider any options he presented.

Reggie Screen (background) meets with John Perkins (right) and his daughter Elizabeth (left). “Anger won’t enable you to address the problems,” John said. “You have to lay anger aside.” (Photo courtesy of the author)

Next, John taught me about humility. He illustrated his point by relaying his experience in a rural Mississippi jail where he spent the night being bludgeoned mercilessly. He was jailed unjustly then beaten until he lost consciousness. The white officers would wake him up, make him mop up his own blood, and begin the process again. During one of the rounds of the beating, John recalled thinking, If I had an atomic hand grenade, I’d pull the pin right now and blow us all to eternity.

Immediately, as he was being beaten almost to death, he heard the Lord say, “Then you’re no better than they are. Your response is worse than what they’re doing to you.”

Humility. How humbling to accept that the sin in your own heart is worse than that of those who are committing sin against you?

Back on Course

On my last day, as I began to load my things into my truck, a stranger pulled up to John’s property. He had the classic good ole boy look and swagger about him. He jumped out of his truck like he owned the place. I had no desire to engage him, so I went back inside. Then John interacted with the man in the most awe-inspiring way. This stranger likely resembled the men who beat John in the past, yet he was so cordial to the guy. I watched as this friendly relationship developed between the two. After the man pulled away, John walked back up on the porch and smiled at me.

John Perkins is an American Christian minister, civil rights activist, Bible teacher, author, philosopher, and community developer. (Photo courtesy of the author)

“Your final lesson: dignity,” he said.

“I know, I know. You must give dignity to all men . . .” I said flippantly.

“No, no, no!” John said adamantly.

“You don’t understand! You must affirm the dignity in all men. You can’t give anyone dignity; God gives it. You must affirm what’s already there,” he insisted.

As the final lesson began to settle in my heart, I realized something. I came to a mentor seeking direction on how to deal with the broken system around me. Instead, he pointed out the broken system in me. Suddenly, my focus turned from the evangelical church to my own heart. It became apparent that confronting anything amiss in the world around me is pointless without addressing what is amiss in my own heart first.

I did not walk away from evangelicalism. Although there are still many areas of shortcomings in the evangelical church, I feel I am back on course. Everything changed for me because God used a great mentor to teach me the Father’s ways.

Source: Alliance News Feed – Navigating Race Issues

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