“Where have you been? Why haven’t you helped us?” Mavis shouted at us. Over twenty years ago my husband and I found ourselves in the British city of Birmingham, the second most populous urban area in the United Kingdom and home to a large number of Jamaican residents.
We had been traveling in England for three weeks with a group of African American seminarians and church leaders. It was exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. We lectured on issues pertaining to the black church in classrooms, preached in churches, dialogued with police, gave radio interviews, talked with civic and community leaders — all in partnership with the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.
I had really been looking forward to this particular part of our trip. I thought this meeting in the Jamaican community would be the place where we would receive our warmest welcome. We were going to be with other black people! It would be a chance to rest, rejuvenate and let down our guard. I had imagined that we would be laughing and relaxing together in no time over good food and good music.
We pulled up at the church building in our rundown van, and a large group of Jamaican young people were waiting for us outside. But after we filed into the church and sat through some brief introductions, a young woman stood up and literally began shouting at us.
Why didn’t you come sooner?
Didn’t you know what we were going through?
We sat in complete silence, dumbfounded. We honestly had had no idea of their struggle and no sense of their expectations coming into this gathering. So we just listened as this passionate Christian woman educated us on the history and the plight of the black British people.
We learned from Mavis that after World War II, the British government had encouraged mass immigration from the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth to fill the shortages in England’s labor market. Many Jamaicans and West Indians came with the hope of making a better life for themselves and a brighter future for their children. However, instead of being embraced and received as equal members of society, as was promised by the 1948 British Nationality Act, the Jamaicans and other immigrants found that they were relegated to a low status in the economic and racial class system of England, with no hope of ever being fully accepted as “British.”
Even as their children grew, married and started families of their own, they were essentially foreigners in their own land. And to add insult to injury, being born and raised in England meant that they were considered foreigners in Jamaica as well. Can you imagine the frustration that would fester from this lack of identity? Coupled with the injustice of economic deprivation and racial discrimination, this frustration led to violence when young Jamaicans took to the streets to protest in 1981. The status quo unfortunately persisted, however, and a second riot had erupted in 1985, just a year before our visit.
We showed up at their church in 1986, and here was Mavis demanding to know what had taken us so long! Why hadn’t we come sooner to lend our voices and raise awareness about the conditions they were facing? Were we indifferent to their suffering? Our silence was deafening to them.
Honestly, it was awkward in the church that day, and none of us had any answers for Mavis. We had been absolutely clueless. We were aware of the social realities in the United States. We were aware of the racial tensions and inequality in our own country, but we hadn’t realized that there were people in other countries around the world who needed us. We were uninformed about the racial, social and political plight of our black brothers and sisters in Britain. And to tell you the embarrassing truth, I hadn’t taken any interest before that day.
Their news had yet to break through into our circles in the United States. We didn’t see ourselves as global citizens, nor did we strongly identify with others of the African Diaspora. We were just beginning to reap the benefits of the sacrifices made by the generations before us in the United States. We were just starting to enjoy some economic stability, increased access to educational opportunities and greater political and social influence. We hadn’t even considered looking outward. Our knowledge of the rest of the world was woefully underdeveloped.
Mavis’ questions disturbed us. They indicted us. But they also allowed us to see ourselves through her eyes. These young “black Brits” were in the midst of their own civil rights movement, and they felt abandoned by us. They felt abandoned by the black American church.
We learned such a valuable lesson that day. We learned that our story was part of their story. We learned that we were part of a larger global narrative and that people needed us. I think we all returned home with a new understanding of ourselves as global citizens. At least I did. I came home with the knowledge that I could no longer think of reconciliation in merely nationalistic terms. The world was changing, and I needed some new tools so that I could support folks like Mavis and her friends.
Based on her extensive consulting experience with churches, colleges and organizations, Brenda Salter McNeil provides a practical roadmap to racial reconciliation. She guides us through common topics of discussion and past the bumpy social terrain and political boundaries that arise.
This excerpt from “Roadmap to Reconciliation” © 2015 by Brenda Salter McNeil is used with permission of InterVarsity Press. Order at IVPress.com.