“Racism.” The word evokes feelings, emotions, strong opinions, even questions. It should. Apart from the COVID-19 crisis, nothing else has so galvanized our nation in recent months and forced us to contend with a sin that is pushing our nation to a breaking point, even a brewing race war.
You can hardly get a few minutes into a news segment before you are presented with yet another story about an incident of racial profiling allegations or heated exchanges about a racist tweet. We see conversations on race relations everywhere, from churches to city halls. These conversations on race generally involve Blacks and whites, and sometimes Latinos.
However, there are other segments of our communities who should be part of our conversations about racism: refugees and non-Latino immigrants. Like the term “racism,” the words “refugee” and “immigrant” evoke feelings, emotions, strong opinions and, yes, lots of questions.
When most Christians think of refugees and immigrants, they likely think of needing to defend these marginalized people from biases and prejudices as well as the systemic challenges facing them in our culture. My love for the marginalized is what God used to bring me into this area of ministry. Yet I have had to embrace the reality that they, too, can be enslaved to the horrendous sin of racism.
Racism and COVID-19 have this in common: neither respects borders and boundaries, classes and cultures or origins and immigration status.
One of my most recent experiences served as a sobering reminder that racism is a radical spiritual disease that must be dealt with like the coronavirus or it will destroy us and infect those around us. A few days into the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd, my husband and I began having transparent conversations with our Farsi-speaking congregation. We had a couple of Zoom Bible studies, a prayer vigil and a couple of sermons on racism.
“As an Iranian-American Episcopal priest who is married to an African-American, I have gained an increased awareness of racism.”
As an Iranian-American Episcopal priest who is married to an African-American, I have gained an increased awareness of racism. However, I cannot say I was prepared for what came from one of the Bible studies.
A couple of people who are known to be very engaged in every study, regardless of how little they may know about the topic, were silent. There was even a bit of resistance to the reality of racism from a couple of others. One of them texted this message to me following a Bible study on racism, “I don’t like Blacks, and I see them as ugly and bad. I feel like God is mad at me, but I can’t help it. Before coming to the U.S., I did not have this feeling toward Blacks, but then I saw they are not normal and now I dislike all of them, except for the Christian ones!”
I was speechless! I did not know whether I should be glad for his willingness to confess to the sin of racism or mad at his audacity to verbalize such horrific words, knowing that I am married to a Black man.
One of the few painful experiences I have on a somewhat regular basis is the racial overtones or even overtly racist comments I hear from refugees. On a few occasions, refugees have described the apartment complex where they were resettled in very negative terms because of the “Black people.” One immigrant who is in the market for a house described the neighborhood where he was house hunting as, “very nice, all white people.”
These experiences and the racially supercharged environment of our nation have me giving serious examination to how some refugees and immigrants come to be racist. One of the contributors is quite obvious by today’s examination. Like people in various cultures, these refugees were being primed to be racist by the negative images of other people groups through media.
I was reminded of the Hollywood films I watched as a child growing up in Iran. The fairy or lead character with the blonde flowing hair was always the good witch, Cinderella or hero. The evil character wore black, had darker skin and black hair. These images permeated our very limited view into the Western world. This explains why my family and friends envied my cousin, who had straight, light brown hair. Another primer to racism in Iran, as an example, is found in the last five days of the Persian New Year. The celebration concludes with a satire that portrays the rule of a black-faced serf. The folklore goes back to the Mesopotamian deity of agriculture and flock.
I lead a ministry that mobilizes the church to reach refugees. When I started the ministry, I spent a lot of time answering questions about refugees. With regard to a few questions, my answers always centered on the fact that although refugees had faced some unimaginable circumstances, they are people with the same cares and concerns, hopes and dreams. They are subject to the same human responses to biases, prejudices and experiences. And unfortunately for some, they too fall victim to the snare of racism.
“Loving unconditionally sometimes requires loving confrontation.”
This spiritual disease known as racism does what few others do — it profanes the creative genius of God when it presumes to assign an illegitimate valuation of an individual or entire group. It disavows their Creator when it falsely assumes authority to name. A refugee, like anyone, can be stricken with the illness when he or she has a wrong view of Creator God. That leads to a wrong view of self, which intrinsically establishes a wrong view of others. Rescue from that spiraling darkness starts with a renewed heart and transformed mind. Until or unless God is allowed to give us a spiritual makeover, the American-born or a refugee can be asymptomatic, never recognizing their failing spiritual health.
I realize tackling racism with refugees and immigrants can be distressing, especially when working through language barriers. I certainly know how uncomfortable a task it is to confront hard issues with people who themselves are subjected to prejudices and at times, hatred. But what I have learned is that loving unconditionally sometimes requires loving confrontation. We must love enough to speak hard truths, have uncomfortable conversations and not let the enemy steal what God has for the refugee and immigrant.
If you or your church serve refugees and immigrants, remember that God wants them to experience healing and wholeness. That cannot happen until the recognition and repentance of sin, and that includes racism. Please invite your refugee or immigrant friend to participate in the conversation. If you believe they belong to the community, they also belong in the conversation.