By Mark Vander Vennen
On September 15, 2020, Shalem staff spent a day together—face to face. It was our first full non-virtual staff gathering since February, and what a joy it was to be together. We focused the day on systemic racism and our own unconscious bias, following up on Shalem’s Statement on Systemic Racism. At Shalem we have committed to confess, listen, lament, and change.
We were ably led by Pastor Tim Tang, Director of the Tyndale InterCultural Ministries Centre at Tyndale University, into some of the challenging conversations that we need to have. The day included sobering reflections about racism and privilege, leading to a lot of self-exploration about our own personal stories and participation in racism. One story (among many) from my own childhood bubbled up for me, and I would like to share it.
I grew up in Chicago, where my family and I got a front row seat at the tremendous social unrest and upheaval of the 1960s. The 1968 Democratic National Convention riots felt like they were happening in our back yard. I remember Eugene McCarthy, one of the two main Democratic candidates, weeping on national television because he had just seen the shocking police brutality that took place in those riots, overlooking Grant Park from his hotel window. My class at Chicago Christian High School was the last all-white class at that school; there were six black kids who came in the class behind me and the racism that they had to endure at that Christian school was unbelievable.
In 1966 my dad took a three-week trip to Nigeria and Liberia. The details aren’t important, but essentially he came back with a young African student from Liberia to study at Trinity Christian College. My Dad was a chemistry professor at Trinity and the Academic Dean. The Liberian student was a young man named Peter. Peter began his time at Trinity by living with us.
This was 1966 in Chicago. While Peter was living with us my parents learned of a threat by a neighbour up the street that if Peter didn’t move out they would burn our house down.
If you were not in the United States in the 1960s—in Chicago, in Detroit where my cousins lived, or in any of the US cities—it is virtually impossible to describe or understand the climate, especially around race and Black Americans. The city was on fire—literally. Just months later the city of Detroit exploded in a conflagration of fire and rage that lasted for several days. Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song about it. Just a few months after this threat to my parents’ home Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. A few months after that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
This was the time of what was called “White flight” in Chicago. When Black families started moving out from the inner part of the city towards the suburbs, the Whites fled and moved further out into the suburbs. Michelle Obama writes about this in her memoir; she grew up about five miles from me. This was a time when each suburb had its own volunteer fire department, and in the suburbs immediately adjoining ours, where a few Black families lived, if a fire started in a house where a black family resided the fire department would simply not show up. They would let the house burn down to the ground instead.
All of this is to say that this threat from a neighbour to burn our house down unless Peter moved out was not an idle threat. It was a credible threat. My parents had three young children. I was 10 years old and had two younger siblings. What would my parents do? What would I do today if I were in their shoes?
It is to my parents’ everlasting credit that they did not back down. Peter stayed, and our house did not burn down.
Now let me describe what became of Peter. Peter did study at Trinity and finished his undergrad at the University of Chicago. He then got a Ph.D from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He married a white woman from there and they went back to live in Liberia. Peter then became a cabinet minister in several successive Liberian governments, starting with the Charles Taylor government.
Charles Taylor was a brutal dictator and Liberia became submerged in a horrifically violent civil war. But Peter was known as a peacemaker. He was once described as the Liberian Ghandi. There is a particularly dramatic story where, as a Cabinet Minister in the Taylor government, he walked unarmed and unaccompanied, at great risk to himself, directly into the rebel camp, in order to begin a dialogue. He was accepted and a dialogue began. He won the trust of all of the different factions in that civil war. He was then a cabinet minister in each successive Liberian government. Not long before he died about nine years ago, he was second in command to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
My mother will say it’s fair to say that some of what Peter did in Liberia was formed around our kitchen table in Chicago.
Peter had four children, and about eight years ago my parents had an emotional meeting with Peter’s youngest daughter, who lives in Michigan. My mom gave her a quite precious locket that Peter had given her back in Chicago. Peter’s daughter immediately burst into tears, because her dad had given her the pair of earrings that matched the locket. They had been a set. She knew there was a matching locket somewhere, but she didn’t know where.
So the lesson for me in this story is this: never underestimate the impact that a small, hidden act of courage can have, in the face of hate.
We live today in an age of an upsurge of racism that begins to rival the racism of the sixties, and even the thirties. Xenophobia, white nationalism with all of its violent effects, hatred of refugees and of people who are Muslims, Jews and of other faiths, or people in the LGBTQ+ community, of people who are “other”, are on the rise.
Today, in the context of Black Lives Matter, the lesson of my parents’ story for me is, never underestimate the power and impact of small acts of nonviolent love in the face of hate.
My parents never tell this story, ever. I would be surprised if they have ever told it to anyone outside of our immediate family. But I do. I tell it. And I am honoured to be able to share it with you.
Healing and change only happen when we begin to tell our stories, even if they are negative or carry shame. What stories, positive or negative, do you have about race? I invite you to share them.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network