January 20, 2009

I Have No Story!
By Pastor George Van Alstine

One of the creative things being done in preparation for our February 15 Black History Celebration is the production of a video based on interviews with more than thirty ABC members about any formative interracial encounters they have had. I believe I was the last person interviewed.

I thought this would be a piece of cake. I’ve dedicated much of myself over the past forty years to being at the center of a thoroughly interracial experience—in the church, in my family, and in all my community activities. I had plenty to say, and I couldn’t wait for the camera to start rolling.

But when interviewer Deborah Cook asked her first question, I felt very inadequate and exposed. The question was, “Is there a time period or situation that impacted your life, where you began to define yourself in terms of racial or cultural relationships?”

In trying to answer this question, I found myself traveling back, through my years of activism and engagement, to my childhood in Hawthorne, New Jersey. On camera, I mentioned that in those years Hawthorne had zero African-American residents, while just across the Passaic River was the major concentration of African-Americans in Paterson, New Jersey. The truth is, we hardly ever encountered each other.

Our high school Sunday School teacher thought it would be good for us to learn how to witness and give public testimony about the Lord. He would occasional take us to that section of Paterson to hold street-corner meetings, with singing, witnessing, and some preaching. I remember that the people in the small crowd who gathered were respectful, but unenthusiastic about our ministry. One time a man started in on an angry outburst, which puzzled me. Now I understand his anger. When we came back from such an outreach, I remember feeling kind of like a missionary returning from a foreign country. I think the angry man sensed that we had come with that aloof, condescending attitude.

That’s about it—until my college experience, when I slowly built up a few interracial friendships. In my earlier years, it had been possible for me to grow up in Hawthorne, New Jersey and be virtually untouched by the negative effects of segregation and racism in our society.

This video interview left me feeling a bit unsettled. Afterwards, I discussed my feelings with some friends. I said, “I just discovered that I have no story.” What I meant was that, while the African-American ABCers interviewed all had stories to tell, incidents of their own encounters with racism as they were growing up, there was no parallel in my life. I was insulated from any practical consequences of America’s divided society.

Later in the interview, I said that, with what I’ve experienced in being part of an interracial church, community and family, I’d never want to live again in the cultural isolation of my youth. It was then that I realized that there indeed had been some “practical consequences” of segregation that impacted me. During my growing-up years I was missing out on some of the richness of African-American life.

Specifically, I never knew how to worship when I was in an exclusively “white” environment. We called it worship, but I was aware that a lot was missing from what worship ought to be.

And I’ve learned much about the power of family by being embraced in the open arms of some African-American families around me. During my childhood, my nuclear and extended family were certainly bonded by love, but no one knew how to express it very well. By contrast, African-American families know how to love so there’s no doubt! I really like that.

So, my own personal need for a yearly in-depth exposure to Black History is great. There’s a lot I missed out on, and I’m trying to catch up.