We are in a difficult time, faced by difficult issues. White America is confused and angry, wondering why they are back to discussing things that they feel were addressed in the sixties. People of color feel frustration that no one is listening and they area being marginalized. Most issues usually start with one side not understanding the other. Daniel Hill talks with EOF about his journey to understanding what it means to be white and to seeing the other side, in his new book White Awake.
EOF: Obviously, what we’re talking about is, White Awake: An honest look at what it means to be white, a new book just published through IVP. I got drawn into this book right at the very beginning. It didn’t take but a few seconds. The introduction’s story I thought was really interesting where you became aware that you even had a white culture. Maybe you could share that story with the reader.
Hill: One of the things I lament over the course of my life is that there are a lot of moments where I think God was probably stirring an awakening in me that I missed, but where it really first came to light was when I was in my early 20s and I was still pretty newly a pastor. I was working at Willow Creek Community Church, a large megachurch in the suburbs of Chicago, and one of the things that was newer for me as a minister was doing weddings, officiating weddings. I was officiating my first cross-cultural wedding, which didn’t really register until we were deep in it. The bride was white and the groom’s parents were from India and he was very rooted in Indian culture.
At the wedding rehearsal the night before the wedding, he told me beforehand that I was going to get a full immersion into south Indian culture and I did. The sights, the sounds, the music, the food were all really a special experience for me and when the night came to an end, I was feeling very filled by the experience so I went to him and gave him what I was intending to be a compliment. I said, “I’m so admiring of the fact that you have a culture and I think that’s such a special thing. As a white person, I’m don’t generally have a culture but I admire yours and I want to thank you for inviting me in to it.” He had been kind of laughing and caught in the mood of the night, but he suddenly got very serious, something he rarely did, he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “Daniel, not only do you have a culture, but when your culture comes into contact with other cultures, it always wins. It would be a really good idea if you would learn about your culture.” And then he walked off the dance floor and kind of left me there standing with a door wide open that I had no idea how to walk through. That was really where my journey began.
I’m sure that was, I don’t know if shocking is the right word since you probably didn’t even have a full understanding yet, but it was obviously eye opening for you.
Yes, it was. I was simultaneously defensive and intrigued. The jury was still out on which was going to win. Still, early in the book you start developing your first attempt at a multicultural Christian group and it sounds like it was actually very successful as far as growing, but what was less successful in that it wasn’t really multicultural and you ended up meeting several pastors in Chicago, if I remember correctly, that were working on racial restoration in the community.
I think what you discovered is probably not uncommon, really, for someone that is stepping into the pool for the first time but I got a chuckle at your expense. Perhaps you could discuss what they told you about your vision, and then maybe even more importantly, step forward to today and compare your hopes and ideas that you had at the end and then what you’ve experienced today.
As you know, Michael, what I do in the book is try to kind of walk through the different stages that seem to be common for white folks as they are wrestling with this and where the opening describes some of the earlier stages when a person is just for the very first time interacting with it. The story you are referring to is applicable to a lot of us for whom the lightbulb has gone on to some degree. We see race is a problem and trying to do something proactive, something helpful and intentions are good. For me, what that looked like was trying to branch out from Willow, with their blessing, to start a group in the city and that was, for us, a real central facet of it being multicultural, multiethnic. So, I wrote about it, I preached about it, I talked about it ad nauseam, under the assumption that is what was missing, that we weren’t talking about it enough. We started to evangelize and invite friends and, as you mentioned, it grew numerically but it was actually pretty shocking to me that even in the city and even in a ministry that had it stamped everywhere that it was a multicultural ministry, it still was almost exclusively white.
I was pretty disoriented and so there was an African-American gentleman who brought me to a circle of key leaders, which was a real privilege in and of its own, that I even had that kind of access. He made sure that there was one Latino-American pastor, one white pastor, one black pastor, one Asian pastor, and so I shared the vision of this ministry and what I wanted to do. And then one by one they went around this circle and just battered me hard at the moment, but for good. The Latino pastor started first and he said, “You seem to have a good heart, good intentions, but everything you say sounds so paternalistic it’s hard for me to even hear it.” I’m embarrassed to say that I had never even heard the word “paternalistic” before. I didn’t even know what it meant. It clearly wasn’t a good thing, but I had no idea what he was even talking about. So, I kind of just went with it. Then the white pastor went; he was one of the few white pastors that was already kind of doing this in the city, and he said, “If I had a dollar for every time a white person came to save the minorities of the city, I’d be a rich man right now. If you’re still here doing his in five years, I’ll be shocked.” The Asian-American pastor went third and he said, “When I hear you talk about it, all I heard you describe is black and white and doesn’t seem multicultural, so I guess I’m wondering if you have any knowledge whatsoever of the histories of Asian-American people and the diversity within that term and the different experiences. It doesn’t sound like you are even ready to engage with us.” Then the crowning blow was the African-American pastor who put his hand on my shoulder in what I thought was going to be a good thing, but he was just preparing me for the final blow when he said, “It’s noble what you’re trying to do, but not only do you have a lot of work to do, as you can tell from this meeting, but realistically black people probably wouldn’t go to church with a white pastor anyway. My own kids wouldn’t go to that and I talk about this stuff. I just think you would be better off just going back to your white community and talk about this stuff there. It’s probably a futile effort.” And so that was kind of like a body blow when I was early on in this stuff of trying to press forward and “make change” and just running into one wall after another.
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