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Some lines are not meant to be crossed, but there are always people willing to challenge societal norms. Soon after the election of President Obama, some believed America had made great strides towards improving race relations, but have we? In his groundbreaking book, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B Du Bois stated, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” By color line Du Bois was referring to the extreme divide between Whites and people of color. The line which Du Bois saw in 1903 is still visible in 2016. As an African American minister, concerned with the future of my race and country, I dared to cross the line.

Crossing Over

In the late 1940s, an African-American student named G.K. Offult sat outside a classroom at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY and listened to his professor’s lecture. The Kentucky “Day Lay” made it illegal for him to sit in class with Whites students. Offult would go on to earn the Doctor of Theology degree in 1948, yet he was not allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony.

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is one of the largest seminaries in the world, and the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention. To refer to the seminary as Christian and conservative would be an understatement. Southern Seminary is where I decided to pursue my doctorate.

Having attended an all-black Bible College and a Historically Black University for Divinity School, some were shocked, others appalled that I decided to attend a primarily white and conservative institution like Southern Seminary. When I shared with some young African-American ministers that I planned to attend Southern Seminary they asked, “Why in the world would you go to that white racist school?”

They did not care that my pastor had attended there, and I viewed him as one of the smartest preachers I’d ever met, or that I agreed with the theology of the school. For many, my decision to attend Southern Seminary was crossing the line. Having just completed my first semester at Southern Seminary, there have been several times when I wondered if they were right.

A New Environment

I arrived on Southern Seminary’s campus at midnight, and felt a bit of ease because most people were asleep and they were not able to notice I had crossed the line. The next morning, I arrived to class early, determined not to be the late African-American. As class began to fill with eighteen new doctoral students, I counted the number of blacks. There were four of us, and I wondered if they too felt as if they had crossed a line. We acknowledged each other’s presence without expressing words; we knew that we were in a different environment.

While the introductory class did not provide opportunity for in-depth cultural dialogue, my living arrangements did. As a commuter student, present on campus for no more than two weeks, I had the option of staying in the hotel on campus or commuter housing. I chose commuter housing because it was cheaper and I found the conversations to be richer.

One night, I lay in bed typing a paper and listening to the conversation of those around me. One person stated if Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election, Christianity in America would die. As if on cue, another student shared his view on how President Obama won his second term by using “cloud seeding” to create Hurricane Sandy, which brought torrential rain to the east coast. At this point, I knew I had crossed the color line, but I wasn’t sure others in the room noticed me as an intruder. In an effort to remain unseen, I used every ounce of my human will to refrain from laughing at the statement.

A Challenging Conversation

After a few short minutes, the “cloud seeding” student left the room and headed to the common area to watch television. My moment had arrived. I climbed out of bed, grabbed a book and made my way to the common area. I sat next to him and sparked up a conversation. I asked him to share with me what he thought it meant to live as a Christian. He gladly shared his perspective of life as a Christian.

Cautious not to pounce too soon, I asked him if his understanding of living Christ-like involved the radical nature of Christ. He admitted part of being Christian was to be willing to challenge the status quo. He had taken the bait and I decided it was time to reel him in.

I shared with him that I too identify as an Evangelical, but at times, I don’t feel as if the larger community would welcome me. I shared I had a lot in common with white evangelicals, but their silence to cultural issues seemed to be non-Christian. It seemed evangelicals are very vocal on social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but when racial issues plague our country, white Evangelicals are often silent. I shared with him that’s what the African-American author, Ralph Ellision would call being “invisible.” I wanted him to see that African Americans are often treated as invisible by the dominant culture.

To provide him with a practical example of racial blindness, I asked if he had read anything by the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He eagerly responded, “Yes, I love Bonhoeffer.” I shared that I also had read Bonhoeffer and liked his writing. I then shared that Bonhoeffer was a German theologian, with a Ph.D in theology and that he was killed at age 39 by Hitler.

I asked if he had read anything by an American Theologian with a Ph.D in theology, one who had made a tremendous impact in America and was also killed at age 39. His name was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He sheepishly responded, “No, I didn’t know he had written books.” To my surprise, he was genuinely embarrassed that in all of his theological training, he wasn’t even aware Dr. King had written books. He reviled his lack of exposure. Our conversation carried on for over an hour, and I began to see what reconciliation looked like.

Crossing the color line is important, not so we can bash each other, but because we are forced to truly see each other. While I was eager to challenge his view of what it meant to be Christian, I was also aware of both his and my need for exposure to other races and cultures. This conversation revealed to me that sometimes our cultural differences in America does not come from hate, but from lack of exposure. If the color line in America is going to be removed, it will require that more people be brave enough to cross the color line to engage conversations, and foster reconciliation. Christians in America could do more together if we would simply dare to cross the color line.

In what ways can we create moments of reconciliation in our daily lives?

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