Friday, February 2, 2018

A Black History Month tribute to my friends of color

How does it happen that a white guy with roots in the conservative Christian Reformed Church has over a thousand black friends?

“That’s easy,” is your response. “You have something they want.”

Your assumption is that these people are likely “fair weather friends,” right?  The black men and women in Michigan’s prison system with whom I have this relationship just say they like me because of the services we offer. Stop offering the services, and the friendship disappears, right? Not quite accurate. In fact, totally inaccurate!

After nearly 20 years in this business I’m finally figuring this out:  The assistance which HFP offers is not the magnet. The big draw is caring! Those behind bars are accustomed to labels like “misfits,” “trash,” “outcasts.” Many have lost close relationships and perhaps even personal contact with friends, relatives and loved ones.

HFP is pretty special this way. We don’t bother to look up the nature of the crime, or check the person's background. We’re not even sure if we can help, but we know that we can hold a hand, offer a cup of cool water. A friend told me a story the other day about how the various churches in her community developed a split over a home mission project. A fundamentalist group insisted that, if the cool water was offered, it had to be publicly stated this was “in the name of Jesus.” The more progressive group insisted that just offering the water was the message…the rest would take care of itself.

Well, if anyone asks, we do this in the name of Jesus. But we don’t post that tag on the gift we offer. We silently ask Jesus to bless what we’re doing.

Willie, who was denied parole, still calls me his friend, simply because I took the time to advocate for him in a Public Hearing. We didn’t win. He’s still in prison. But someone cared!

The list of similar stories out of this office is endless. And so is my list of names of black friends.

That’s the way it is with more than 1,500 women and men who sign their personal letters and email messages with the words, “your friend.” The interpretation, of course, is just the opposite: You are my friend!

I pay tribute to them all this month. Granted, there may be one or two “fair weather friends” in the bunch. But for the most part, they know I don’t have money or material goods. All I can give them is my friendship. They expect nothing in return.

“Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow
Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead
Walk beside me… just be my friend”
― Albert Camus

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