Michael Wright is the pastor of True Freedom Cornerstone in Oak Park, Illinois. Matt Woodley is the Missions Pastor at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. On a cold Tuesday in Chicago, they shared a plate of Irish beef stew and talked openly about race in their lives, America, and the church.
Matt Woodley: In some ways, Michael, we came from different worlds. I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis that at the time was about 99 percent white. Honestly, I probably didn’t have a real conversation with a person of color until my junior year in college. But you and I also have some things in common. Like you, I loved sports, and like you, I was called into pastoral ministry at a young age.
Michael Wright: I grew up in Maywood, a predominately black neighborhood west of Chicago. I didn’t interact with white people until I turned 11, when we moved to Bellwood, the next town over, which at the time was about 95 percent white (now it’s about 75 percent black). That’s when I experienced racial prejudice firsthand. Kids called me names, mocked me, beat me up, literally walked on me. Then I went to college in Louisiana at an all-black state school so I could play Division 1 baseball. I quickly noticed the funding differential between the black state school and the largely white state school across town.
Matt: You know, Michael, in the white suburb where I grew up, we’d basically say, “Me, a racist? We’re nice people. We think racism is mean.” Of course we didn’t actually know black people and probably carried suspicions towards them, especially young black males.
I didn’t interact with white people until I turned 11, when we moved to the next town over. That’s when I experienced racial prejudice firsthand.
Michael: Yeah, I almost never hear a racist call himself a racist. I guess that makes racism like any other sin. A lot of my white friends like the idea of racial reconciliation. They often imply, “Why can’t we just be friends? I know our forebears cheated you, but let’s just start the game over.” But it’s not that simple. My white friends often don’t understand the legacy of racism in this country. How do you “just be friends” after 400 years of systemic racism—chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and racial profiling? Even though whites can’t change the past and didn’t personally participate in slavery or Jim Crow discrimination, there needs to be at least a heart to want to restore to the African-American what was lost.
Matt: As a white guy, my life has been so different from yours. I think of racism and I assume that kind of stuff happened somewhere else in the early- to mid-1900s. But I hear you saying, “No, man, this is my life. This is today.” For instance, I’ve never experienced racial profiling. My three sons have never been profiled. How about you?
Michael: Recently, I was driving to church to lead a Bible study and got pulled over. Two police officers thought I was a drug dealer. They told me to get out of my car and put my hands on the hood. I said, “I’m a pastor. Search my car and you’ll find a Bible and a worship service bulletin with my name on it.” Eventually they believed me and let me go.
Matt: I have three sons—aged 29, 27, and 24—and you have two sons—aged 17 and 15. I’ve never had a conversation with my sons about how to handle a situation like that. Have you?
Michael: Of course. I’ve given both my sons detailed instructions: Do what they ask, keep your hands visible at all times, ask permission to get something. Every black man I know has a story like mine. We understand that it’s just part of life. But it’s offensive when our white friends don’t believe this still happens.
In the white suburb where I grew up, we’d basically say, “Me, a racist? We’re nice people. We think racism is mean.”
Matt: Honestly, it’s taken me a long time to see that I’ve lived with a lot of privileges. For instance, about 90 percent of the kids in my high school went on to college. From birth we were put on a track and told, “You will go to college. You will get a good job. You deserve certain privileges. That’s the American dream, so get on the track.”
Michael: Wow! 90 percent went to college? So you were put on the train that ran on the track. Did you build the track?
Michael: You just rode the train?
Matt: I just rode the train.
Michael: It’s like you had a lot of train stops in your neighborhood, a lot of places to board the train that led to a good life. The train came every hour. But in my neighborhood, the train stopped maybe once a year, and if you missed it …
Matt: Tough luck.
Michael: Yep, start walking.
Matt: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
Michael: Yep. Don’t get me wrong. Some black folks are lazy—just like some white folks are lazy. But let’s say we took all the people from your home suburb and put them in the West Side of Chicago. Give those folks the bad schools, the drugs, the mind-numbing poverty, the crime, and see if they all pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Sure, by the grace of God some will, but it’s not just the lack of privileges; it’s the deficits that often accompany “passive racism.”
Every black man I know has a story like mine. But it’s offensive when our white friends don’t believe this still happens.
Matt: Let’s talk about a subject that most politicians seem to avoid—fatherlessness in the African-American community.
Michael: First, I think black people have to take responsibility. Period.
Matt: Just like white people need to take responsibility.
Michael: Yes. I’ll tell you the two biggest problems in the African-American community—fatherlessness and sex outside of marriage. Two biblical issues, right? As African-American men, we can’t blame anyone else for these problems in our communities. Sex is sacred to the Lord, not a plaything. A child needs a dad, and the best way to create that relationship is through marriage, then sex. When we ignore that biblical pattern, when we treat God and His Word with contempt, we’re putting our children in an even deeper hole.
Matt: When you preached a sermon at our mostly white church, you said there’s only one way to heal the racial divide in this country—revival. I don’t hear many politicians from either party talking about revival. How will revival heal our racial divide?
Michael: Laws and politicians and legislation can’t change one human heart. You can’t legislate love. The Spirit of God has to break into our lives and flood our hearts with love. That’s the only way we’re going to love like Jesus—freely and sacrificially. God has to show us how to be one in Christ.
Matt: Yeah, otherwise it’s white folks worshipping here and black folks worshipping over there. But Jesus prayed, Father, make them one (John 17:21).
Michael: We need to be the answer to Jesus’ prayer for unity in the body of Christ. But that doesn’t mean we suddenly have all homogeneous churches. That’s not unity. Christ-centered unity involves bringing all of our differences together, allowing them to blossom into something beautiful for God. The problem is that all-white or all-black churches tend to overlook or even look down on people from a different race or culture. But our differences in themselves are okay.
Matt: Yeah, I remember the first time I went to an African-American church. I’m used to people sitting quietly during the sermon. But at this church, folks were standing to face the preacher, yelling, waving, laughing, talking back. I had no clue what was happening. As I sat and listened politely to the sermon, an older black gentleman standing behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Son, it’s alright for you to stand and shout too.”
Michael: Ha! But white people are so engaged when I preach. It’s almost nerve-racking the way you guys stare and lean forward. Your eyeballs are on fire with intensity.
Matt: Yeah sure, we try hard! But in another sense, do you think white people try too hard around their black friends? They’re trying too hard to be nice, to not be racist?
Michael: Definitely. I tell my white friends, “Just be you. Be genuine.”
Matt: By the way, I hope you didn’t think I was trying too hard by making you Irish beef stew.
Michael: No, man, I am at peace with you making me Irish stew any day.
Matt: I heard you might even be part Irish.
Michael: Seriously, though, sometimes white people smile way too much when they’re working on racial reconciliation. I say, “Do you smile like that around your white friends? Or are you wearing that smile because you don’t want to offend me?” You know, some white people should feel guilty about how they’ve viewed or treated blacks. But once you’ve been forgiven in Christ, you’re a new creature. Condemnation comes from the enemy. Conviction comes from the Holy Spirit.
Christ-centered unity involves bringing all of our differences together, allowing them to blossom into something beautiful for God.
Matt: You and your church from Chicago’s West Side and our church from the suburbs have formed a partnership that you call “Walk Across the Street.”
Michael: And it’s been great. We don’t need another program or initiative. Instead, we need to bring blacks and whites together for worship. We want a relationship, a genuine friendship, with our white brothers and sisters. As I like to say, we don’t need a handout; we just need a hand. We need you and you need us. Jesus didn’t just give a handout. He became flesh and moved into our neighborhood. (See John 1:14.)
Matt: I like the simple genius of that—just start worshipping together, and then see what happens.
Michael: It’s been pretty amazing. There’s nothing like worshipping together to bring down the walls of suspicion and coldness. When my people see people driving in from the suburbs to join our little church for worship, and then these brothers and sisters are raising their hands, getting engaged in worship, it brings down the walls. My people say, “Wow, they are one of us.”
Matt: I love the vision of revival in the Book of Acts—people from different languages and ethnic groups getting filled with the Holy Spirit, worshipping the same Lord Jesus. Although you and I came from such different worlds and still minister in different contexts, as a white pastor and a black pastor, I know that vision captivates both of us.
Michael: I urge both my black and my white brothers and sisters: Don’t be intimidated by each other. We have one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We believe Jesus died for our sins. When the world sees the church loving each other across racial lines, that love will become contagious. It will spread like wildfire. People will come to Christ in droves. Blacks and whites worshipping together—that’s what supernatural love looks like, and people are dying for that real love.
Illustrations by Daniël Roozendaal