Monday, January 21, 2013

Red Clay of the Soul: The Legacy of MLK Jr. in my life

I am going to depart from the normal topics of this blog to share some personal things. I don't usually do that, but many times our history plays an important role in the choices we make. And in some many of the ways that we choose to mentor children. So here goes . . .

I grew up in small town in South Georgia in the southern U.S. While Georgia is generally known for peaches, there is another widely seen phenomenon of the natural world where I come from: red clay. An orangy, blood-red gift from Mother Earth. It's everywhere. And if it happens to get on your clothing or shoes, it is very difficult, if not impossible to remove.

I was born a little more than 100 years after the end of the Civil War and the Abolition of Slavery. A lot can change in 100 years, but it generally takes a people group longer to make changes of the heart. Though slavery ended in 1865, segregation would be practiced in this small town for many more years. About 10 years before I was born, a desegregation coalition was formed that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to our city. The coalition became known as the Albany Movement and though it failed, many important lessons were learned from it. Formal segregation eventually came to an end, but an informal segregation lingered on. And that was the social milieu that I grew up in.

Mine was a world where I often heard the word "nigger". (For the sake of my parents, I want to add that they taught me never to say that word.) As a result, I became aware of skin color at an early age. The African-Americans that I knew were my teachers at school and a handful of kids that attended our majority-white elementary school. But we never mixed socially with them outside of school. There are painful childhood memories involving race: of a black friend not being able to come to my birthday party. Of being told by an extended family member (again, just want to clarify that this was not my parents) that I would no longer be in the family if I ever married a black man.

I have another distinct memory as an eight-year-old. One day while riding bicycles with a neighborhood friend, he for some reason started bad-mouthing African-Americans, using the "n" word, and talking about how white people were better. I remember hearing his words and thinking, "That's wrong! We are not better! God loves black people!" I hope that I told him what I thought, but I honestly don't remember. I don't tell this story to imply that I was some kind of great person as a child. I definitely wasn't. But there are times in our lives when the grace of God breaks through our thoughts and culture and gives us insight. This was one of them.

I would leave for college 10 years later and found myself sharing a dorm room at Baylor University with a smart, beautiful African-American women named Renee. It was there I realized that though I'd left the small town in Georgia behind, its "red clay" was still on my soul. The shame of having had ancestors who owned slaves. That my hometown had been a battleground of the Civil Rights Movement, where the Movement had actually lost ground. That it was a place where African-Americans and white Americans continued to largely mistrust and live in fear of one another. Renee helped me confront my own prejudices that I didn't know were even there. I am grateful that she was in my life. She helped me begin a life-long journey of seeking out people who are different from me. Of learning from them and seeing differences as strengths.

I didn't know much about Dr. King until I was an adult, because no one ever talked about him when I was a kid. As a young adult, I was moved by his speeches and ideals. His commitment to non-violent resistance and speaking up for what is right are things that I have committed to emulate. And God used him to set forces in motion that have profoundly changed American society. (Not to say that there isn't still a long way to go where racial issues are concerned.) I am acutely aware of how much he has influenced my life, even though I wasn't always conscious of it.

Is the red clay still there? Though the shame I once carried is largely gone, the red clay is not easily washed away. I believe it even now profoundly affects how I mentor children. God has a marvelous way of taking the ugly things in our lives and casting them in a new light. One of my missions as a Godly Play mentor has become to expose children to others of different backgrounds as soon as possible. The earlier children become familiar with people of different ages, races, languages, religions, etc., the more they will be able to live out Christ's command to "love your neighbor as yourself" and the less likely they are to become racists. It's why I took my then 3 and 5-year-olds to Uganda. It's why the kids in our Advent and Easter clubs play with senior citizens and inner-city children of different socio-economic groups. It's why we have Muslim friends.

It has also caused me to be committed to teaching children non-violent ways of solving conflicts. It takes time and patience to help children find verbal solutions, because verbality doesn't come naturally to them.

And what about my hometown? Though I still sense much racial tension when I go back to visit, it is healing for me to meet African-Americans who now attend the Baptist church that I grew up in. There is hope.

Thank you, Dr. King, for following God's call on your life, even though it cost you everything. 
And thank you, Father, for making use of the red clay. 


  1. Sheila, what a wonderful testimony to how much our world has grown!! We can harbor all day about how wrong it was for rascism exist, but to hear your story it brings so much inspiration to our world.

    If every generation continues to grow like you we are going to become a nation of great people!!

    Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post, it is interesting to read how God shapes us throughout our lives. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Thank you, ladies!! I have a difficult time "baring my soul" on the internet, because I am such a private person. But in this case, I felt like it was really important, and healing for me at the same time.