Voices: I never knew I was Black

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EDITOR’S NOTE: “Justice looks like …” is a special series in the Voices column. Readers will have the opportunity to consider justice from numerous viewpoints. The series is based on each writer’s understanding of Scripture and relationship with Jesus Christ. Writers present their own views independent of any institution, unless otherwise noted in their bios.

You are encouraged to listen to each writer without prejudgment. Then, engage in conversation with others around you about what justice looks like to you.

Click here for more information about the series. Click here to read the full “Justice looks like…” series.

I never knew I was Black until I came to America. Growing up in the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, “Black” was how my grandfather likes his coffee. In a country where everyone looks like me, my skin tone never mattered.

My culture did not prepare me for what to expect once we touched down at DFW Airport.

I always will remember my confusion on that first day of school, watching my dad fill in the section marked “race.” Why was the color of my skin important? Why didn’t it ask where I was from?

My parents tried to warn me: “We are new here. Don’t be talkative. Listen, and don’t ask questions.”

So, I never asked; I never spoke. Instead, when asked every year at enrollment what my race was, I checked “other” as a form of silent protest.

Regardless of what I checked, America had no interest in my identity. I was Black.

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Black in America is not a color

Black in America is not a color. It is a brand that defines where you fit in American culture. It defines what type of music you supposedly listen to or what kind of lifestyle you’re assumed to live.

Black is the neighborhood you didn’t want to live in, because it is deemed “unsafe.”

Black is not a color. Black is an expectation of mediocrity.

That lesson was taught in schools with more regularity than my math courses. Report card day always came with a bit of shock from administrators who began to see me as an exception to being Black.

To be Black implied aggression in everyday situations. I remember staring into the eyes of my principal after trying to convince her I wasn’t fighting with another student. She responded by saying she couldn’t contradict what a veteran teacher told her. She already had reached her decision.

Church history in America

If you study American history, slavery and racism didn’t just influence American culture, economics or politics. It defined this nation for generations.

History tells us the American church often found itself to be a silent bystander, or worse, an active participant in the atrocities.

The first slaves were beaten six days a week and told to worship the God of their masters on the seventh. Forced into Christianity, and on the receiving end of an evil racial divide, the Black church came into existence. Not by choice, but out of survival and faith in Christ.

The white American church was unable to recognize the imago Dei—the image of God in every living human, including in Black bodies—and therefore persecuted generations of Black Christians.

The political and racial segregation mirrored the spiritual segregation of America. Over hundreds of years, white and Black churches evolved to become completely separate bodies of believers.

Now, here I am, an Ethiopian-American living in the 21st century, expected to attend a Black church. This is what it means to be a Black believer in America.

Sadly, I don’t believe the American church looks any different today than it did in 1850. Every Sunday morning, you can expect Black to mean a multitude of things, but especially a description of where someone should gather with other Christians.

Hope for unity in the church

How can a country be won for Christ by a church that looks as divided as the society it lives in?

The biblical path to justice I see and pray for begins within the church. My hope is every pastor and elder of a predominately white church will look across their city and reconcile with the Black churches around them—gathering and praising Christ together, uplifting one another in perfect love.

My hope and prayer is they will recognize the imago Dei of every Black body and resist the negative adjectives and prejudicial definitions of Black ascribed by the history of America.

There is nothing under heaven that can’t be changed by a unified and transformed church.

Would you begin praying for that today? Would you ask the Lord to make a way for us to unite?

Then, if you are a member of a local church, may I ask you for one more thing? Ask your pastors, elders or other leaders to do the same.

Levi Bedilu is an experienced finance analyst who has worked with multiple Fortune 100 companies. Outside of working in corporate finance, he is driven to proclaim Christ with his wife wherever Christ takes them. They love to serve and speak in multi-ethnic churches and spaces. He is the son of Pastor Bedilu Yirga, senior pastor of Ethiopian Evangelical Baptist Church in Garland. The views expressed are those solely of the author.

Click here to read the full “Justice looks like…” series.

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If we achieved our goal—or didn’t—we’d love to hear from you. Send an email to Eric Black, our editor. Maximum length for publication is 250 words.

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