Part 1: The Confederate Flag

You know it's serious when I don't even have a sarcastic or fun, happy-clappy title for you.

The first time I encountered the Confederate flag face to face I was a grown woman of 32 years old. I was welcoming a southern presbyterian college group from a state that could be classified as the "Deep South." Many of the participants in the program I helped facilitate were from a college ministry of the Presbyterian church and many of them hailed from the South. I loved experiencing a taste of southern culture through the students, interns and campus pastors. We had many groups from all over the country, but hands down my favorite teams were usually from this specific denomination and college ministry that was so prevalent in the southern part of our country.

**I clicked so well with leaders and students from this denomination, that when Mike and I relocated totally unexpectedly to the South from Chicago we had peace and joy about joining a church from that denomination- although it wasn't the church we were affiliated with back home.

It was a bustling, full week at our ministry. We had over 100 students and pastors there to spend time with us and unpack hard issues like how to view race and class through the lens of the Gospel and Jesus and how to serve people who might have material and financial need while considering the importance of their dignity.

On the first night, all the groups were arriving after long van rides and I was meeting people for the first time and also welcoming back previous participants. In the far corner of the room I noticed a heated conversation happening and drifted over to make sure things were cool.

A campus pastor and a young male college student were locked in a conversation while several other students had circled around and looked a bit bewildered. As I walked up, the pastor turned to me exasperated and a bit red in the face and said, "Sarah, will you PLEASE tell him he can't wear that hat and belt buckle here?" I looked at this young, white man who looked equally as exasperated and red in the face and I immediately took harsh note of his brightly colored red and blue confederate hat and buckle sitting at his waist. My stomach clenched at the brazen red background and unabashed blue X dotted with crisp pointed white stars and honestly, I was speechless.

Im not sure what my face communicated at that moment, but the Holy Spirit is real.

The encircling group was leaned forward, and staring expectantly wide eyed- they were literally on the edge of their toes listening for how I was going to resolve this.

I looked Into this young man's face and was almost searching.
For what.....Im still not sure.
He began to speak fast and explain in an offhanded but audacious manner that it's not about slavery or racism, its about southern pride and heritage and he was proud to be from the south and this was who he was. He seemed angry, but I was humbled and found the grace to see he was feeling embarrassed at this situation and felt misunderstood.

I took a minute, and stood there looking alternately at him and the pastor.

It was an awkward tension filled silence.

I took a deep breath and told the campus pastor that I couldn't tell him to not wear his hat. We didn't have a formal dress code for the week, and I wasn't sure I should make special rules even if I really wanted to. That didn't feel just to me, even if I disagreed vehemently with his clothing and accessory choices. The pastor just open mouth stared at me incredulously.

Then, I lost myself for a minute and indulged my frustration by turning and snarkily and sarcastically telling the college student that he can wear whatever he wants, but I was going to rescind the blanket assurance of safety for him that I offered the rest of the groups for the week at our ministry if he chose to wear such an offensive symbol and walk around our 99% African American neighborhood.

**(People often times had an overinflated and false sense of danger upon coming to the south side neighborhood in Chicago. We told them on the first night, and then all week long that they were no less safe here than at their homes. White people coming into our neighborhood and suddenly experiencing minority status often worried or had heard "stories" that made them think they were compromising their safety -  when the opposite is true. While I could never guarantee anyone would survive the week with us because Im not God, I assured them that their fears were not grounded in reality. In fact, I joked a few times with the southern pastors that they had a much better chance of someone off-ing their whole group in a road rage incident due to their unhurried, leisurely S-L-O-W driving on the Kennedy expressway rather than being a victim to some sort of targeted violence in our neighborhood.)**

The student's reaction was enough to tell me that I had just been a spiritual and professional failure so I recovered quickly and rose to maturity enough to explain, "Im sorry. Look, when you wear that and I, or any of the black people in our neighborhood, see that then they do not interpret that as Southern pride or heritage in a good way. They aren't understanding that you love your family and your town and your college and are trying to express that." I went on to tell him that it communicates to others that he is racist, that he doesn't value African American people. They are reminded of the legacy of slavery when they see that symbol. The generational, long lasting and still lingering, brutal, murderous, legal systematic attempt at ownership of people that looked like them. I told him that our neighborhood specifically, but also the whole south side of Chicago, had deep roots in the South. Many of them could trace their family right back to Mississippi, and also a few back to Alabama or Louisiana. I explained that when they see that red and blue symbol, they see vile hatred of them and their family, their friends, their community, and their Blackness.  Whatever that Confederate flag stood for to him, it did not mean that to entire communities of people who had a painful, lingering history of being abused by people that looked like him. That symbol perched atop his head and adorning his mid-section would hurt people's feelings and make them angry and it would be an enormous impasse and stumbling block between him and anyone he met that week should he choose to stand by his ability to wear that.

Then I asked him if he was a Christian. He said he was, and then I reminded him that in Phil. 2:3 we are encouraged by Paul to not do anything in our selfish ambition but, in humility, we are to value others as more important. I said He could hold on to his symbols, that was his choice, but that choice would be placing himself above the pain and struggle of others. Jesus said he was sent here to bind up wounds/comfort the brokenhearted (Is.61:1), and if he is seeking to emulate Christ then that symbol he is identifying with would not be a comforting, loving welcome mat for people with a heart broken by past and current racial injustices and offenses against them. I said that the Bible speaks about oppression and that God cares for the oppressed with a deep love and we are admonished to work to end oppression. I explained that his hat served as a symbol of further oppression to a group of people who feel held back by our country's history and lasting institutional vestiges of that system. I had seventeen million other scriptures I wanted to lay out and emphatically proclaim but I didn't want overwhelm him. I just said, "Loving your neighbor looks a whole lot like not upsetting them by wearing that." I smiled and smacked him on the arm in a happy, playful way and walked away to start the orientation for the week.

A few minutes later he came to the orientation without his hat or his belt buckle.

You know......I don't know if his heart was changed, but his outfit was and that was enough for me that night. However now, Im wanting more.

The week was busy and I didn't ever get to connect with this student personally again. Ill never forget that day or that conversation or how my stomach clenched so tightly to see for the first time that flag displayed with resolute pride.


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