I was thinking the other day about how our early experiences so often will influence the way we believe and behave for the rest of our lives. I have a friend, for example, whose father left her family when she was very young, and she never met him again until she was in her mid forties. Because of that she has always had trouble referring to God as "Father." When someone puts the words "God" and "Father" together she thinks of a man who beats his wife and abandons his kids. Somehow that doesn't work too well as a concept for God. She says that while her father thought he was simply abandoning a family and gaining his freedom, in actual fact he was helping create a social liberal and religious feminist.
You never know how God is going to use the things that happen to us for purposes that you would never have expected.
A couple of years ago I was at a national meeting of the global economic justice organization "Jubilee USA." They are the ones who campaign to get international financial institutions to cancel some of the crushing debts that are crippling the economies of poor countries. We were sharing some of the early influences that influenced us to be involved with this kind of campaign. I thought and thought and finally told the story of a time when I was a kid back in Oklahoma City, when African Americans were moving into our middle class white neighborhood. My parents were angry and they decided that we had to get out of there to protect our property values. So we moved across town to a new (and better protected) middle class white neighborhood and I stayed there until I graduated from high school.
Now, I was just a kid and didn't know much about racism. But I did know that moving away from my friends was awful. There was a cute black girl in my home room who flirted with me and made me blush and I missed her. And there was a great guy in my shop class who was also black and who could always make a better lamp than I could.
I didn't have any complicated philosophy of race and class in those days. I just missed my friends, and I was furious that I had been ripped from my home and turned into a stranger in a new school so that we could maintain our pure race and our high property values. And now fifty years late I found myself at a national meeting studying how to keep poor farmers in developing countries from being ripped from their homes and turned into immigrants, rebels, or sweat shop workers so that we in the US could maintain our high standards of living. I had never told that story before, but as I told it now, I realized that it had had a tremendous impact on me for the rest of my life.
We went around the room with each person adding their story until at the very end our group leader shared hers. She was an African American teacher, who leads these groups as a "ministry." Her story took place when she was growing up in an all-white neighborhood in another state. One day she was playing with one of her blond-haired dolls in her front yard when a car stopped suddenly in the street and a man got out and ran up to her and jerked the doll out of her hands and yelled at her. He said "What's a N— girl like you doing playing with a white baby like that?" Then he looked in his hands and realized that he was holding a doll. It just looked like a white baby. He was humiliated at the mistake and he stormed angrily back to his car and drove away. She broke into tears. It was the first time that this little girl, now our adult group leader, had ever realized that she could be judged for her race, and the image stuck with her for all these years. It became one of the central powerful images of her life. It's funny how the events of our childhood can drive us into all sorts of opinions and vocations many years later when we are adults. That man in the car thought he was teaching a lesson to a little black girl about her rightful place in God's racial hierarchy. But instead he was helping create an intentional, progressive woman who spends all of her waking hours helping people recognize and overcome their own racism.
Just then something seemed very strange about her story. I said, "where are you from? Originally." She said, "Oklahoma City." I said, "What part?" She said "The Northeast section. The 'colored' section." She smiled embarrassedly at describing it that way. I stood up and looked at her very closely. "Did I ever have you in Home Room in the seventh grade?"
It's funny how the things that happen to us at an early age can stay with us, and effect us, and return to us, for the rest of our entire lives.