The God Who Sees Us

A conversation with Patricia Raybon

The issue of race has been a hotter topic than usual in recent years. While news anchors and professors and politicians have not hesitated to engage in the conversation, many churches have been more than careful. From recognizing the forgiving power of God’s love, to not wanting to engage in partisan politics, to becoming aware of segregation within our own weekly meetings, Christians have struggled to find exactly what to say and when to say it. While churches try to find their place in the conversation, some individuals—realizing many of our brothers and sisters are unaware of the extent to which racism still exists—have started sharing their personal stories in hopes of initiating productive dialog.

Her visits to relatives in the Jim Crow South were enough to open her eyes to inequality not only there but back home as well.

Patricia Raybon first became aware of race when she was a child. Though she was growing up in Colorado, her visits to relatives in the Jim Crow South were enough to open her eyes to inequality not only there but back home as well. Since then, Patricia has raised her family and built her career as a writer; she has published several books, including Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace, which she co-wrote with her daughter. Because she’s a longtime contributor to In Touch Magazine, Patricia and our team have communicated by email many times in the past. But I recently had an opportunity to talk with her over the phone in what became an extended conversation about her story, being steadfast in faith, and maintaining contagious hope.

 

Aline Mello: We're in different generations, you and I, and because of technology, I think, there's a bigger difference between generations. So I'm wondering what the racial environment was like when—and where—you were growing up.

Patricia Raybon: I love the question because it allows us to speak to context: It was frightening, and it was traumatizing. And not just because of what was going on, but because of my age. I was 5 or 6 years old and I’d always hear somebody black was getting killed. The four little girls in the church bombing in Birmingham, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers. It was just a long list of people, and I could read, but I didn't have a way to articulate the terror. Because I couldn't say, “There's something wrong with this paradigm,” I internalized the racism, and said, “There must be something wrong with me.”

I internalized the racism, and said, “There must be something wrong with me.”

My mother grew up in North Carolina, so we would leave Colorado—where I grew up—every summer to visit her family. I would see these Jim Crow signs that said you can't drink the water, you can't eat in this restaurant, you can't enter this park, you can't sit in the first floor of this movie theater, you can't swim in this pool, you can't come in this library. It was this cultural announcement that you're the worst possible thing a person could be, and that is black. And so there was no way to escape it. You can't stay in your house all the time. And so even in Colorado, where there was not Jim Crow segregation but de facto segregation, it was impossible to escape the racial terror of that era.

I have spent most of my life clawing myself out of the psychological damage of that. I went to a high school where I was the only African-American in my high school class, and one of my teachers called me—her name for me was “nobody.” When I think about it, it's almost impossible for me to understand the level of hatred that someone would have to carry around in their heart to point it at a child, let alone a group of people.

When I think about my childhood, it’s all I can do not to cry because every interaction in those years sent the message that “you don’t count, you are nothing, you’re the worst,” and it was sort of like the drip, drip, drip of water. It was torture. It wouldn’t stop. The amazing thing to me is that many African-Americans still thrived, still broke through, and the saving grace was Jesus. Have you heard the phrase “running to Jesus”? Black people ran to Jesus, and even now in the U.S., African-Americans still have the highest church attendance of any ethnic group in the country.

AM: Speaking of now, what do you think are some of the biggest differences between the environment you grew up in as a little girl and the environment that you see now? Imagine there's another little girl named Patricia who’s five and six—what do you think she sees, and how different do you think it is?

PR: In the past couple years, it's almost felt as if we've gone back to that era. It breaks my heart to see young people of color fighting the same battles. The thing with bigotry and racism is that, not only is it exhausting to those who are targeted, but it's a huge distraction. All the other things you'd like to let yourself do—I love the home arts: cooking, and home design, and decorating; I love gardening—I do those sorts of things, but as a writer, I'm less likely to give myself permission to write about those things because I still see injustice, and I hear that call from the Lord. Maybe there will be an opportunity at some point to write about decorating, but I guess not yet.

AM: I want to go back to what you said, that the main thing keeping you going is knowing that God knows about injustice. How do you know He’s on your side?

PR: Well, first of all, I know that He knows because He was a target, too. And I also know because God is not a concept to me. God is my Father. He shows me daily that He hears me, He's listening, He knows me. I get excited about the Genesis story of Hagar. She says, “You are a God who sees.”

And so every day, despite whatever else is going on, God is faithful and merciful to show some small glimpse of Himself that says, “I'm still here. I understand. I know. I'm with you.” And so in my life, He has done that, time and time again. So on the worst days, I think, Wow, I'm going to have a long talk with Jesus. What was that all about? What was the point? We can wrestle with questions the way Job did with the Lord, but at the end of the day, God is God. God is still doing something with our hurts. They're not in vain. And we’re not here for nothing. So in all of this, I see God’s hand, and I accept my own very small role in the big story that God is writing, and the big story He’s writing is calling people back to Him.

AM: I think on my worst days it’s hard for me to remember or believe that He is on the side of the oppressed, because at least in Western society—or maybe just in the U.S., but I know plenty of Brazilian churches preach this, too—there isn't a theology of suffering anymore. I feel as if the preaching I hear a lot of times is about blessings and prosperity and goodness, and yes, those are good things, but then it makes the person who's suffering go, Wait a minute. So is this my fault, or has God abandoned me?

We can wrestle with questions the way Job did with the Lord, but at the end of the day, God is God. God is still doing something with our hurts.

PR: I think that's a prayer opportunity. You said, “Sometimes I doubt that God's on the side of the oppressed”; the psalms give us permission to talk to God just like that. Think about this, Aline: As the psalmist rages at God and God is gracious to hear it, the psalmist then begins to understand, “But God.” The psalmist has that “but God” moment. And so what do I do when I’m discouraged? Gratitude. I count my blessings. It's very hard. My husband has aggressive prostate cancer right now, and one of his doctors said, “Get up every day and think of three or four things you're grateful for,” and it invites us to turn from those discouragements and remember God. Recently, when I sign my books, I've been signing with Matthew 14:27 where Jesus says, “Take courage. It is I.” And so if you're discouraged, the antidote is to draw closer to Him. And I hope that doesn't sound like a platitude, but if you're asking me how I cope with discouragement, that is how.

Something that astounds me is that many people of faith walk away from the obvious and try everything else—on the phone, bending each other's ears, trying all manner of other tactics and strategies, when really opening the Word and talking to God never fails. He's real. There's a song that we sing in the black church that says, “Real, real. Jesus is real to me. Oh, yes. He gives me the victory. Some people doubt Him. I can't live without Him.” And the last line says, “That is why I love Him so. He's so real to me.” And if you Google that song, you'll find some black church on YouTube singing it. But that is my answer. And that's how generations of African-Americans survived in this country.

AM: I can definitely see that there's a stronger dependence on God, it seems, for marginalized groups just because there are fewer safeguards. So it's like, “What will I depend on other than God?”

PR: That's right. And that's not a bad thing. That's what I'm trying to say. The implication that there's something wrong with that, or that's somehow a sad excuse for faith, is completely wrong.

AM: People call it a crutch.

If you're discouraged, the antidote is to draw closer to Him.

PR: Right. And it’s not a crutch. It’s a victory. For example, when I hear my husband praying, with regard to his cancer, he thanks God, “Thank You, Lord, for healing me.” He has no doubt, and that's another song that we sing in the black church. So you're right. When people have not had anything else to depend on, the Lord has proven Himself faithful and real, and that's extraordinary.

One of the other questions you sent me was, “What's the sweetest memory you have—a moment you felt welcomed and loved by someone of another race?”

AM: Do you have one?

PR: For that question, this memory came up, and it's a fairly recent one. I was in the dentist’s office to repair a broken tooth. It turned out to be a long procedure, and the dentist’s assistant was off that day, so he had a substitute. It was a young Latino man, and he was so caring to me. He called me by my name, and as I was getting leery of the procedure, he at one point placed his hand on my arm and asked me if I was okay. And then when the dentist went away to do something, this young man took his hand and massaged my temples, near my jaw, because I had my jaw open. It was so loving, and I appreciated it so much. I felt as if he regarded me as he would a person of his own family. I hadn't thought of that until I saw your question on the paper. And it was a Jesus moment because there's a point where a leper comes to Jesus for healing, and the first thing Jesus does is reach out and touch him. The compassion in that is just so life-changing. There's another story. It's not mine, but I don't know if you've seen the classic image of the young people who were trying to integrate Little Rock Central High School.

AM: Uh-huh, with the sunglasses and the mob behind them.

Do something big, but also do something small.

PR: Yes, and Elizabeth Eckford is the young woman who's there. The story is that the students had agreed to go together to the high school, but her family didn't have a telephone, so she ended up going by herself. And this mob just assaulted her. People were saying, “Get the rope. Get the rope.” She’s only 15 years old. She made her way to a bus stop and sat down to wait for the bus so she could get home. And a white woman stepped out of the crowd and walked around and sat down with her and said, “I’ll wait with you.” One of your questions was, “How do you actively fight against racism in daily life?” That kind of one-on-one love—that's the answer. Some people are called to be social justice activists and work to make massive change for many people. But most of us, if we would just demonstrate one-on-one love, change would happen. And so that's another reason why I have hope—we all have those opportunities all day long. Hold the door open for somebody, hold the elevator. Kindness—the Lord works in that.

AM: I guess it's having the faith that God is enough on the side of the oppressed, that He is working on something, and He has a lot of people working on it, too. So then if you feel like, I'm not doing enough, then it's okay because everyone is doing something. There are a lot of people that God has recruited, and they are each doing their part together with God.

PR: Right. I have a talk that I do, and one of the last takeaways is to do something small. Do something big, but also do something small. So that woman who stepped out of the crowd and sat down with Elizabeth Eckford, that was something big. And God gives us each opportunities to do that, so if we heed the Spirit—that was my answer to the question, “Do you have any advice for people of the majority culture?”—heed the Spirit. If there's an issue that's particularly speaking to you, ask the Lord to illuminate where He wants you to go, what He wants you to do with it, and do the small things and the big things.

So the answer to your question, Aline, on what people can do to help: People can hear where God is, what God is saying to them. That means you have to take a minute and ask God, “Is there something You want me to do?” And God is faithful. He will shout. He will answer that question. That's a show-me question. “Lord, show me what You want me to do.” So it comes back to being in a relationship with the Lord, and the prayer lifestyle provides that.

 
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27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid."

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