This post is the first in a new series called Journeys. A journey can be an actual trip or it can be a pathway to spiritual or emotional growth.It can be a life-story passed down to children or grandchildren. A journey can detail the change of a relationship, the sharing or ending of a marriage, the details of a career, the recognition of a calling. It can describe the faithfulness of God’s work in a life or the dark night of a soul in that same life. It can even describe our paradigm shifts, the changes in thinking and the unlearning we go we have to do throughout our lives. Several guest bloggers will be featured in this series. Join us as we share the journeys of our hearts.
1214 S. KEDZIE ST.*
I remember clearly the hot June day in 1964 when I was dropped off in front of a narrow row house on the south side of Chicago. Another college student and I would be living with the Richards family for the summer and helping out with the children’s programs at a nearby church. Jane and I were the only white people for miles around—except for the pastor of the church and a few other college students on the summer mission team. Marvin and Bernice Richards welcomed us warmly and took us upstairs to the small bedroom we would share. Because we were to be using one of the three bedrooms in the small house, the four youngest children would sleep downstairs on a pullout bed in the living room. The Richards had nine children, but three were out of the home and living on their own.
We soon grew to love the family and to relish the delicious meals we shared with them. They had moved to Chicago from Mississippi, and we enjoyed Mrs. Richards’ southern cooking. It was wonderful to feel so much a part of their family. In fact, I made the decision to come back the next year and lived with them again during the summer of 1965.
Living at 1214 S. Kedzie was the beginning of a very long journey in my feelings, understanding, and convictions about racial equality. Having grown up in an all-white neighborhood, school, and church, I had no experiences with other cultures other than hearing missionaries come and show their slides at church about their work in Africa or some other faraway land. My father had come home from serving as an officer in WWII and talked about the black men always being the ones who went AWOL. He also owned several rental houses, and it seemed to him that the black people often disappeared while owing several months’ rent or left the houses in a mess. My early conditioning was dramatically confronted and challenged by my summers in Chicago. Were my father’s experiences reality or only his perceptions?
It was while living in Chicago that I began to become aware of the concept of “backstories.” If the black people were sitting out on the front porch, it wasn’t that they were lazy. It just happened to be a bit cooler there than in the house with no air conditioning and no breeze because the houses were less than five feet apart. If a family were able to own a car, it often was an older large car which had room for many people and was able to provide a brief respite away from the crowded neighborhood. They most likely could not afford a newer, more fuel-efficient car.
I also became aware of the difficult life of a child of one white parent and one black parent back in the ‘60’s. Next door to the Richards family lived a woman who in that day was referred to as a mulatto, and she confided to me that she did not feel accepted by either black or white people. She was desperately lonely and opened the door to another new reality to me.
Coming home after each summer experience meant many long discussions bordering on arguments with my parents about my “new ideas” regarding the ugly reality of racial inequality. While in Chicago, I had been privileged to hear Dr. Martin Luther King speak in Grant Park on a Sunday afternoon, and I became convicted about the sin of racism. Although I returned to my mostly white college, part of my heart and my brain were forever altered by my time in the Richards’ home and neighborhood. Those experiences have made me sensitive to backstories and have convinced me often to be an advocate for those who struggle on the margins. There have been many ups and downs in my journey away from racism, and I am still guilty at times of unspoken fears in certain situations or of allowing previous impressions to affect my attempts at objectivity.
I have been forever blessed by my lasting friendship with the Richards family. Mr. Richards died a few years ago, and Mrs. Richards has moved back to Mississippi where we have had the opportunity to visit her. Among her children are a school principal, a Chicago fireman (who still lives in the Kedzie St. house), a truck driver, a policewoman, and some who have already retired and are caring for grandchildren. In the ‘60’s, the Chicago neighborhood school was so intolerable that Mrs. Richards learned to drive a bus so she could transport children to a Christian school 45 minutes away. There was a much closer Christian school, but it was in “lily-white Cicero,” and her dear children and those of her friends and neighbors were not allowed to attend there.
What to do with all of these stories, childhood conditioning, additional reading and study, and personal experiences, then and since, has made for a complicated journey to my life today. I am grateful that my children were able to grow up in a more racially balanced environment and that they in turn can teach their children about the importance and the beauty of all God’s children walking through life together and sharing equally in His good gifts.
*All identifying information has been altered to insure anonymity.