Harvey, Irma and Race Relations

Harvey and Irma. These are the names given to the two hurricanes that have consumed our news media, prayer time and conversations. Since Aug. 25, we have witnessed the devastation and destruction of homes, land and human life.

Some meteorologists report that as a result of Harvey, somewhere between 25 to 30 trillion gallons of water were dumped on Southeast Texas and Southern Louisiana. It is difficult to imagine that amount of water falling in such a relatively short period of time. Additionally, when experts showed the image of Irma overlaying the Sunshine State, it blew me away. This dynamic duo, namely, Harvey and Irma, will be spoken about for years and decades to come.

My hope, however, is that the primary conversation that rises above the rhetoric of the storms will focus on something that was more powerful than Harvey and mightier than Irma. I am referring to the help people gave each other regardless of race or skin color.

Let me quickly acknowledge that I am intentionally treading very lightly when writing about “silver linings” with Harvey and Irma. I do not want to be perceived as being insensitive or as totally spiritualizing these two hurricanes that ravaged property and resulted in the loss of lives. In addition, however, we must not overlook how people treated others with dignity and respect and helped each other regardless of race.

If you were an African-American and you saw Asians who needed help, race and ethnicity didn’t matter—you just helped them. If you were White and you saw Hispanics or Latinos who needed help, race and ethnicity didn’t matter—you just helped them. Everyone, including those who were not in the direct path of the storms, was in rescue mode.

Though these storms were destructive, I hope some (if not all) can find comfort in knowing that Harvey and Irma did not sneak up on God. Even before these hurricanes were way less than a category 0.1, God knew they were coming. God is omniscient, and nothing sneaks up on Him or takes Him by surprise. The psalmist says, “Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite” (Psalm 147:5), and Matthew reminds us that God has numbered “the very hairs” of our heads (Matthew 10:30). He is all-knowing.

God knew that the storms were coming, and He also knew that race wouldn’t matter when people needed rescuing. Just as the winds from the storms caused abnormal surges that rose some 6-12 feet above sea level, we saw humanity rise above racial divisions.

I’m not a pessimist when it comes to believing that race relations can and will get better. However, my best guess is that before the flood waters completely dry up, and before the nails are driven into the wood for roof and home repairs, conflict along racial lines will surge again.

How can we continue to be light that shines in the storms of racial division?

  1. Communicate about race without becoming angry. This is easier said than done. Nevertheless, it must be done if we are going to grow in our understanding of one another. We have to be willing to intentionally listen without being defensive. James is correct, “everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). Next time you are in a conversation about race, racism or anything in that vein that can potentially be “stormy,” intentionally listen even if you disagree. This will help move the conversation forward, as mutual respect will obviously be present.
  2. Develop cross-racial or cross-cultural relationships. If you do not have such a relationship, ask the Lord to bring someone from another race into your life who will become a good friend. For 30 years, I have had the privilege of providing pastoral and ministerial care not only to African-Americans (which is the racial majority at the current church where I serve) but also to other races and people from other cultures. One thing I have learned is that we have more in common than we may realize. “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14). If any group of people should be an example of racial unity, it should be the Body of Christ.
  3. “Carefront” people publicly and privately. One need not be afraid of speaking directly to those who oppose racial unity. You do not have to be mean-spirited; just be filled with the Spirit and the love of God. Avoid embarrassing and humiliating people, but never compromise your convictions by just “going along to get along.” At times, you may have to do what Paul did. He writes, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision” (Galatians 2:11-12). Use your influence to steer people in the right direction.
  4. Forgive people. Forgiveness is like a category 5 hurricane that does great damage to those who oppose racial unity. When someone asks for forgiveness, forgive him. Give that person a new start as if the offense never occurred. Remember to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).
  5. Share the Gospel in both word and deed. 1 John 4:10-11 says, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” In other words, because of the Gospel, because of what God did for us in sending His Son to die for our sins, we should love one another. The Gospel is the cure for racial tensions; the Gospel unites us. So let us declare the Gospel with our mouths, but let us also declare it with our hands—“Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18).

Just as sustained hurricane winds are put into categories that can cause damage ranging from “some damage” to “catastrophic damage,” let us sustain our effort to build unity across racial lines. By doing so, we will cause catastrophic damage to the kingdom of darkness.