The morning sun found gaps in the white pergola covered with beautiful red and purple bougainvillea. It was already getting warm in the courtyard of the motel in Pinar Del Rio, Cuba. The six of us were enjoying a Cuban breakfast with pineapple, papaya, mango, white bread, butter, orange marmalade, with eggs made to order and sausage. Some were drinking sweet café con leche while others were downing shots of Cuban expresso.
Although we had been planning this trip for eight months, it only dawned on me two weeks before we left Miami that I was the only white person on our team. It did not make any difference that I was white —until that morning.
After I led the prayer before our meal, a gentle and casual conversation ensued that made me glad again we were all together to represent our United Methodist Church in Plantation, Florida, to our sister church in nearby Consolacion del Sur. There was an unusual sense of trust, openness, and an appreciation for each other.
However, because they were comfortable with me their white pastor, and because they trusted me, they began to share stories, stories that made me uncomfortable, stories that made me angry and ashamed at the same time.
They were stories of mistreatment they or their families had endured because of the color of their skin. One’s brother was driving with his wife and children to a birthday party. They were stopped by a police officer. The officer demanded they open their trunk because he suspected they had drugs. The father complied and explained they were only on their way to a birthday party and that they had no drugs. In the trunk was a large, beautifully decorated cake that had been prepared for the birthday celebration. The officer picked it up and dumped it on the ground in order to find the drugs under it. Of course, there were no drugs. After an hour, the family was allowed to continue on their way to the party. How do you celebrate after that? How do you explain to the little girl in the back seat she will not have a cake at her party? How do you keep your cool?
The stories around the table got much worse. They were personal—injustices and abuses they had experienced. I knew they were telling me the truth. I knew that I had lived a life of privilege, not having to put up with being bullied or worse by authorities because of how I looked. I had never been judged as less than a human being or as an evil person because of my skin tone. All I could do was listen and shake my head. My experience was not theirs.
Although that conversation took place five years or six years ago, the feelings of sadness, anger, shame, disbelief, and helplessness resurfaced when I heard about the brutal treatment of George Floyd.
I am confident most police officers would never mistreat a person of color. The killing of George Floyd and other unarmed black men by the police make all police officers look bad. That is completely unfair, just as it is unfair to judge a person as bad just because they are dark-skinned.
Unfortunately, racism is alive and well in America. We should not consider some persons as less valuable than others and automatically suspect simply because of their appearance. God opposes such thinking.
After about forty-five minutes, which seemed like three hours, my friends paused. One of them smiled and said, “Well, pastor, you didn’t know you were going to get an education about being black in America this morning, did you?”
It’s a lesson I’m still learning, still hearing the echoes of their sadness, anger, and pain.