By Jordan-Mary Bellamy ’20
“Each of us had something to learn from the others and something to teach in return. If any were away, we missed them with regret and gladly welcomed them when they came home. Such things as these are heartfelt tokens of affection between friends. They are signs to be read on the face and in the eyes, spoken by tongue and displayed in countless acts of kindness.” -St. Augustine, Confessions.
The events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia nearly three months ago had a profound and deeply saddening impact on me. These events led me, and I am sure many of you, to reflect on what an appropriate response should be, one that simultaneously exhorts and encourages, convicts and consoles our conscience and the consciences of those around us. It pains me that this country which I hold near and dear to my heart, is still struggling to reconcile its identity and history as it relates to racial divisions. I have come to the conclusion that as a Christian community seeking to engage in culture to promote justice and remedy the areas of injustice, we should be intentional about our pursuit of transformative friendships. As they are, perhaps, one of the most significant and impactful means of reflecting justice and the character of Christ.
When I was about sixteen years old. I attended a panel discussion lead by the Christian Legal Society (CLS-a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization) to discuss how Christians should respond to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. One of the themes during the conversation was on the role of transformative friendships and relationships with the hope of providing a sense of “understanding” racial injustice. Particularly poignant was a story shared by a panel member who was a former Klansman who during his imprisonment was converted by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. After his release, he met and over time, established friendships with persons such as Dr. John Perkins (spoke in Chapel in 2013) who allowed him to see the wrongs of his deeply embedded white supremacist beliefs, After the discussion, I asked this panel member to provide some insights into how one knows if a friendship is truly genuine. He replied that “friendship is a gift from God and that all gifts from God are genuine and good. However, it is our responsibility to nurture and care for these gifts that determine if generosity is expressed.” He further expanded his answer by indicating that his friendship with African-American and other minority brothers and sisters not only made him see the pain of racism, but stand inside that pain with them.
The second experience is more recent. At this year’s Homecoming, I was blessed to hear a panel discussion titled, “Racial Justice Post-Charlottesville: Where Do We Go from Here?” I asked a similar question to the one asked three years ago at the CLS panel. My question to this panel (Michael Emerson, Brenda Salter McNeil and Alvin Padilla) was centered around the role of friendship as a means of promoting justice. Of the many helpful answers of the panelists, Dr. McNeil’s response exposed a stark reality that I had not thought of in regards to friendship.
Dr. McNeil indicated that “she did not need any more friends.” Her response made me realize that we have reduced the meaning of friendship. She described how, by having one or two friends of different racial or ethnic backgrounds without seeking true understanding, standing with friends against injustices falls short. For example, we may have a person of color as our “friend” for the sake of making us feel good, but we may not necessarily truly understand the impact of institutional and historic racism and its accompanying pain on our friend.
Dr. McNeil’s honest response to my question helped me realize that we as a Christian community have a responsibility to redeem and restore dignity and sincerity to the meaning of friendship. Who are we talking to about Charlottesville? Are we having conversations across racial and ethnic groups? When we fail to engage in uncomfortable yet courageous conversations we remove the genuine character of friendship.
When dealing with polarizing views such as the reaction to the jarring events in Charlottesville, it can be uncomfortable to actively seek these transformative (not trophy) friendships with people who do not look like you; however, it is these cultural, ethnic, and racial differences that help us grow. When I reflect upon these two stories, I am struck between the tensions of friendship being a means for transformation and friendship being reduced to a shallow and transactional way of relating. Despite these tensions, I am filled with a pragmatic sense of hope. I have hope we are being encouraged and empowered as a body of believers to restore, repent and reconcile friendship with our Lord and each other.
Seeking sincere and genuine friendships will require the heart and guidance of Christ and His spirit, remembering that it is the heart of our heavenly Father that desires all of his children to be reconciled with himself and each other. As we pursue friendships with the “other”; I encourage Gordon to be as President Lindsay often states, “a lighthouse on a hill”. If we continue to redeem the meaning of friendship, what we do will be just!
“‘You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.’ The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all others.” -C.S. Lewis The Four Loves (89)