After I quit working my janitorial job at the school at 4:30 p.m., I usually worked on homework by my locker until about 6:00 p.m., and then I walked home. On one particular night in February of 1983, however, I was waiting for a guy named Mark to pick me up at the school sometime after 6:00 p.m. He told me that he had just bought a new red car. I had not seen it before, and thus I didn't know what it looked like. I just knew that I had to look for a red car. Mark was quite a bit late. At 6:40 p.m., a red car drove up to the school. I didn't know if it was Mark because I couldn't see who was in the car. It was already dark outside because the sun had set shortly after 6:00 p.m. However, I knew that I was looking for a red car, so I walked to the car and looked into the front passenger window. All the doors of the car suddenly opened and four black teen-agers got out of the car.
"What are you looking at?" one of them said in a rather angry tone.
"I'm waiting for someone," I told them. "I didn't know if you were him because it's dark outside."
"Well, it's dark inside, too!" he shot back.
I couldn't figure out why they were so upset. I thought that they were just being cocky, and so I decided to be cocky in response. "That's not my problem!" I shot back.
All of them suddenly became extremely angry. They all came after me with the obvious intent of doing bodily harm to me. I backed into the street to get away from them. As I backed into the street, a red car drove up beside me and a door swung open. It was Mark, and I quickly jumped into the car and he drove off.
Word of what happened spread. Most of the white people who heard the story responded in a very racist way. They saw it as a "blacks attacking the whites" sort of thing. I very quickly stopped wanting to answer people's questions about what happened because I was upset about the way that whites were twisting things to fit their racist mentalities. They saw it as an incident where a bunch of black guys were attacking a defenseless white guy for no other reason than to attack a white guy. I began to deliberately avoid talking about the incident because of this attitude that I heard coming from white people.
I, however, refused to buy into this point of view. I knew that there had to be a reason for what happened, and I was determined to figure it out. I began to think through the sequence of events in my mind, and it gradually began to make sense. Their statement of "It's dark inside, too!" was a statement about their race! They thought that I was looking into their window because four "dark" guys were coming into my "white" neighborhood! Suddenly I felt very bad as I realized that this was a racial misunderstanding! I then realized that I had increased the misunderstanding by responding with an arrogant and cocky statement like "That's not my problem!" which was interpreted as "It's not my problem that your skin is dark!" I suddenly felt very ashamed and embarrassed. I was angry at myself for responding in a very un-Christ-like way. I was embarrassed because they thought that I was a racist. Everything in me wanted to find these four teen-agers and tell them that I was sorry. I wanted there to be understanding and unity between us. This incident would bother me for years. I was never angry at them. I knew about the problems that blacks had from whites in society, and I really didn't blame them for misunderstanding my actions (although this by no means excused their reaction to me).
Everyone was at fault in this encounter. The four black teen-agers were very immature in assuming that I was looking into their car because they were black. I didn't even know who was in the car. They had experienced so much racism in their lives that they couldn't even tell the difference between true racism and a misunderstanding. And even worse than that, they didn't even attempt to discern what my reasons for looking into their car were. The white people I knew were very racist in believing that this was an incident of "a bunch of black guys attacking a defenseless white guy." White society, I have learned, is dominated by a racist mentality. We whites come from a centuries-long legacy of practiced racism and we seem unwilling or unable to shake it from our lives. We are taught to be racist. Oh, we are not all extremists burning crosses in people's yards and beating blacks, but almost all of us, if not all of us, have at least some subtle attitudes about black people. I was also very much at fault in this incident, as I was sinful in my arrogant response to them. I failed to respond to them in the way that Christ would have wanted me to. I should have been loving and peaceful. There are some who would argue that even if I had done this, the misunderstanding still wouldn't have been cleared up. This may be true. The white people thought what they wanted to think no matter what I said, and so it is possible that the black teen-agers would have thought what they wanted to as well. We humans are all the same. We are all sinners fallen from the grace of God.
Creating racial unity and understanding can be a difficult task. This was a hard lesson for me to learn.
There were other hard lessons that I learned about racism. One of the hardest was facing the fact that I had racist attitudes of my own. This became clear to me one Wednesday night when two black teen-agers came to my church's youth meeting. Both of these teen-agers were very out-going in their personalities, and they would often talk loudly during the meeting, which created a distraction from what was going on. When the offering plate was passed, one of the black teen-agers asked if he could be the one to pass the offering place from aisle to aisle. "Brother" Mark agreed to let him do it. As the teen-ager passed the offering plate, I actually prayed in my mind, "God, I pray that he won't steal any of the money." A few seconds later, I was suddenly hit with the realization that I had just prayed a prayer that manifested a racist attitude! I realized that if that person had been white, I never would have prayed that prayer! I was stereotyping these black teen-agers as potential thieves simply because they were black and loud! I was suddenly overwhelmed with embarrassment and shame! I dropped my head, and silently prayed, "Oh, God, forgive me for thinking like that! I'm so sorry! How could I think something like that! God, please forgive me! I'm so sorry!" I was glad that no one else knew what I had thought. I was extremely ashamed that I could even think such a thing. I suddenly realized that even though I angrily and strongly condemned the racism that I saw going around me, I had somehow picked up racist attitudes of my own that were a lot more subtle than the blatant racism that I had seen in Grand Rapids when I was younger. I learned that it was not enough to strongly condemn the racism that was going on around me in society! I needed to confront my own racism! I would remember this incident for years, as it would constantly remind me that I needed to closely examine every stereotypical thought that entered my mind.
Let's move on to something else. My older sister Robbin was married to a man named Mike during February 1983. Her wedding was rather interesting. Robbin was married by a preacher named Reverend Pell in Pell's home. Reverend Pell was an elderly gentleman. It was a small wedding. Somehow Reverend Pell got the names mixed up and he started calling Mike "Robbin" and he started calling Robbin "Michelle." It got rather funny after awhile.
Reverend Pell said to Mike, "Repeat after me. 'I Robbin take you Michelle.'"
Obviously, Mike was confused. "What?" he said with a tone of perplexity in his voice.
"I Robbin take you Michelle," Reverend Pell repeated.
Mike started, "I Robbin take you Miche... No wait!"
Reverend Pell said slower, "I... Robbin ... take... you... Michelle..."
"Do you really want me to say that?" Mike said.
"Can't you say that?" Reverend Pell asked.
Everyone present started to laugh.
"No, I think you got it mixed up!" Mike said. "My name is Michael, and her name is Robbin."
"Oh!" Reverend Pell exclaimed. "It's good that we got that cleared up!"
Everyone present at the wedding burst into laughter. The wedding went on, but Reverend Pell made the same mistake again. He asked Robbin to repeat, "I Robbin take you Michelle." Robbin responded, "I Robbin take you MICHAEL" putting a strong emphasis on the right pronunciation of Mike's name.
Robbin gave birth to a baby girl in April, two months after she was married. Mike and Robbin named their child Amber Lynn. Robbin and Mike lived in my parent's basement for a year before they were able to afford to move into their own apartment. This, therefore, gave me a lot of time to spend with my new niece since she was always there when I arrived home from school. I sang to her, I played with her, and I made funny "Bleh" and "googily" noises which caused her to burst into laughter. She loved it whenever I sang, "'Bleh,' went the little green frog one day! 'Bleh,' went the little green frog! 'Bleh,' went the little green frog one day! 'Ble-eh! Ble-eh! Ble-eh!'" I sang that "song" to her almost every day. Amber was the type of baby who didn't seem to be shy around anyone. The slightest thing would make her burst into screeches of excitement and laughter. I started carrying a picture of Amber in my wallet so that I could show her off to everyone. I was proud of my niece, and I wanted everyone to know it!
"Look at her!" I would exclaim as I showed the picture. "She is the cutest baby that ever was! Isn't she the cutest baby you ever saw? She's going to drive the guys crazy some day! She's a future man-killer!"
I had quite a bit of involvement with my church during my Senior year in high school. Word of Life had a competition every year in which people could perform in music, writing, preaching, and other areas. I entered the creative writing competition. I ended up taking fifth place for a story I wrote called "Too Late." I personally didn't feel that the story deserved to take fifth place. I was disappointed with the story, and didn't feel that it was very good. I wrote the story by hand, and an adult woman from my church typed it up. However, she didn't like a couple of words in my story, and so she changed it. I was very upset about that because I had chosen all my words very carefully. I didn't say anything to her because I was afraid to speak up. Nonetheless, this experience taught me that I considered my writings to be a deep form of self-expressions. I took it very personally when someone tried to change my words. I still feel the same way about the things that I write today.
I frequently went to the church on "visitation night." Dan, Don, and I would go walking the downtown streets handing out tracts and witnessing to people. It was hard for me to do this the first time that I did it, but it became easier after the first few times.
Dan, Don, and I went witnessing with three of the girls from our church one night in June. Dave, however, didn't think that it was appropriate for guys and girls to be witnessing together without an adult "chaperone." He told the girls that we had to quit and we went back to the church so that he could talk to "Brother" Mark about it. The girls were pretty upset about it. They were talking to each other about it on the way back to the church.
"What, do they think girls can't witness, or something?" one of them said.
When we got back to the church, Dan talked to "Brother" Mark about it. "Brother" Mark agreed with Dan, and would not let us go out together anymore. He also said, "But I'm glad that we have this kind of problem."
The girls were offended, although they didn't say anything more about it after the talk with "Brother" Mark was done. Dan and Don talked about it afterward.
"Did you hear what they said in the car?" Don asked. "They thought that we were saying that girls can't witness."
I stayed out of Don's and Dan's conversation because I agreed with the girls. I felt that the girls had a right to be offended. This separation between the sexes was something that I felt was wrong. My church even believed that guys and girls shouldn't swim together in the same pool or at the same beach.
A new guy started coming to our church youth group some time during the month of February. He was tremendously intellectual, viewing things philosophically and systematically. He was also somewhat critical of the legalism of the church, but he was not divisive. Don got into a debate with him one evening about video games, movies, and rock music. Don was opposed to all three, while the other guy, who's name I never knew, was in favor of all three. Don started focusing on why he felt that video games were wrong. His debate got so intense that "Brother" Mark walked up to Don, put his arm around Don's shoulder, and said, "Don, video games are okay."
This new guy had a good vocabulary and liked to throw out big words. He threw out a big word in a conversation one night, and I actually laughed at him because of it. However, my intention wasn't to mock him. I liked this guy. Shortly after I laughed at him, I walked up to him and said, "Hello. How are you doing tonight?" He looked at me with a rather angry expression on his face and only said, "Fine." He seemed upset at me and I got the impression that he didn't want to talk to me. After all, I had laughed at him. I didn't even realize what I had done, or how he might interpret what I had done, until I left the church. I decided that I would tell him that I was sorry the next time that I saw him. However, I never saw him again. He never came back to the church. This was another hard lesson for me. I needed to be careful about what I said. I may not intent anything hurtful, but my words and behavior could still cause great pain!
There is one more experience that I want to explain before I end this chapter. It was one of the most unique experiences that I had. During the summer of 1983, I went back to working 8 hours per day, giving me 40 hours per week. I went back to working at the same school I had worked at during the previous summer. However, there were a few weeks during the summer when I worked at my high school instead.
At my high school, there was a small hallway that connected the cafeteria to one of the gymnasiums. There was a set of double doors that could be used to enter this hallway from the cafeteria, and there was another set of double doors that could be used to enter this hallway from the gymnasium. When both sets of double doors were locked, neither the cafeteria nor the gymnasium could be accessed from this hallway. Within this small hallway, there was also a door to the kitchen that was always locked. There was also a set of double doors that went outside into the courtyard. Thus, if someone were to become trapped in this hallway while the doors to the gym and cafeteria were locked, one could easily go outside into the courtyard.
For reasons beyond my comprehension, the janitors were told to put heavy chains on the inside of the doors that went into the courtyard during the summer months. One day (I think in July), I found one of the office secretaries trapped in the hallway. I let her out.
"I have been trapped in there for over an hour!" she said. "I've been banging on the door but no one heard me!"
I talked to the janitors about it. I said, "Why do you put the chains on the doors that go into the courtyard? People can't get out if they walk in there!"
They told me that they had no choice because they were told, by whoever was in charge of all the janitors in the entire school system, to chain those doors.
"That's stupid!" I said. "Somebody could get trapped in there!"
"I know," one of them said. "But we don't have a choice."
Little did I realize that I was about to fulfill my own prophecy.
It was quitting time on a Friday afternoon. All of the janitors and student workers were leaving the building. As I started to leave, I remembered that I had left something in the gym. I walked over to the gym to get it. I didn't tell anyone where I was going. Everyone else was on their way out of the building, walking in the opposite direction that I was going. After I found what I was looking for, I (without thinking) walked through the double doors that led into the infamous hallway. I walked to the double doors that led into the cafeteria. To my horror, they did not open! I turned to look at the doors that led outside. They were chained so tightly that I couldn't move them. I turned around and tried the doors that led back to the gym. They were locked as well. I had no keys.
I started to panic.
"I'm trapped!" I cried.
Everyone was gone. No one would even find me until Monday! I had no food. There were no bathrooms in this hallway.
The thought passed through my mind that I had one more hope: the door that led to the kitchen. However, that door was always locked. It had a dead bolt lock. It wasn't much of a hope, but I had to try it. I went to the door. I knew that it was either locked or it wasn't. I was either trapped in this hallway until Monday, or I was going home through that door. I reached for the door knob and turned it. Suddenly I heard a loud noise, like the sound of a dead bolt suddenly slamming into the open position. The door knob turned, and the door opened. I walked into the kitchen, through the cafeteria, out of the building, and homeward.
I forgot about the loud noise that I had heard just before I opened the door. I was relieved that the janitors had "forgotten" to lock the door that led into the kitchen.
On Monday morning, I went to the janitors to tell them what happened. As we went back to the hallway, I gave them a "play by play" account of what happened:
Near the end of my story, I said, "And then I went up to the kitchen door like this..." I grabbed the door knob like I had before. I continued, "And then I turned the knob." I turned the door knob. It didn't open! It was locked!
I had no explanation as to how I had gotten out of the hallway!
Then I remembered the loud noise that I had heard, like the sound of a dead bolt slamming open! I then realized that I had experienced a miracle. God, who is active in His own creation and in my life, had gotten me out of that hallway!
There are many who would be skeptical about this story. They would argue that there has to be some logical explanation. Perhaps it was already unlocked on Friday, but someone came by over the weekend and locked it. However, why would a door that is always locked suddenly be unlocked on the very day that I would be trapped in the hallway? And what was the loud noise that I heard? And why would someone come to the school over this particular weekend to lock it when no one ever did so on any other weekend? There were too many coincidences to explain away.
This is a story that I haven't told to very many people until now.