Learning to listen

Here’s my June column for the award-winning @HollandSentinel…

I am no expert on race relations.

Where I grew up, in southeast Grand Rapids, our idea of cultural diversity was having Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church in America people in the same neighborhood. We were always so proud of our mutual forbearance.

Our next-door neighbors during my childhood were Roman Catholic and went to church on Saturday afternoon, which seemed strange and somehow not right. They were also Irish, and therefore different. I remember that we kept our eyes on them.

I was a young adult before I learned that, during my childhood, there was also a synagogue in Grand Rapids. I had no idea. I can tell you this much: none of the members lived on my street.

My grandmother lived in what was known at the time as a “changing neighborhood,” and the way the words were spoken, you knew it was not changing for the better. One summer while staying at my grandmother’s house I went to Vacation Bible School at a nearby Baptist church. I have all good memories of the experience. Only years later did I learn that it was a mostly African American church. I am surprised that I was allowed to go.

There were never African American students at any of the Christian schools I attended. The first non-white student I remember getting to know was a Japanese exchange student in my high school class. I resented him, though, because he made the baseball team, and I didn’t. I’ve been working out my feelings about the Japanese ever since.

The first African American I came to know was at the theological seminary I attended in New Jersey. He lived next door to me in our residence hall, and we shared the same bathroom. It’s hard to believe, but I was 21 years old before I had any kind of conversation with someone as black as Hendricks Davis. He and I reconnected through Facebook a few years ago, and he reminded me that I didn’t know much back then, which I thought was pretty generous.

Most of the churches I have served over the years—in New Jersey, Illinois, and Florida—were predominantly white. Every year we filled out the membership questionnaire from our denomination, and every year, in answer to the question about our racial-ethnic mix, we described ourselves as 99 percent white. The correct answer was undoubtedly 100 percent, but we pretended that we had seen someone—the Korean wife of a member, maybe—who was not white. As you can imagine, I got to know a lot of white people over the years.

The last church I served as pastor before my retirement was the International Protestant Church in Zurich, Switzerland. Zurich is an international city, and more than 30 percent of the population is foreign born. On any given Sunday morning there were more than two dozen nationalities and language groups in my congregation. For someone raised as I was, in West Michigan, with limited experience in multicultural settings, this was a startling and, at times, overwhelming experience.

I learned a few lessons about race relations during my years in Zurich, mainly because I had no other choice. I’m still no expert on the subject, but I think these lessons ought to be more widely known, especially at a time when our country is so racially divided, when every conversation and news report is shaded with suspicion and mistrust.

Beginning with my first day on the job in Zurich, I listened as I had never listened before. How is it possible to get along with people who are not like us, who have different cultural experiences and expectations, if we don’t try to understand them? Just because we speak English, I realized, doesn’t mean we always understand each other’s words. I wish more people in this country would spend less time speaking their opinions and more time trying to understand what other people are saying. That was the first lesson.

The second lesson I learned was humility. As a white American I can tell you that it’s hard to be humble. We are, after all, the best at everything and always have the best ideas. The biggest (and most difficult) shift I had to make was to accept the possibility that I could learn something from someone who was not like me. And that shift required humility which, as a white American, does not come naturally to me. I am so much more effective in my work when the people around me just do what I tell them to do and not ask questions.

Remarkably, I learned quite a bit during my years in a multi-racial setting, but my learning didn’t begin until I realized other people might have something to teach me. There are people in this country who could teach me a few things, too, if only I could admit that they sometimes know what they’re talking about. I’m trying hard to hear what they have to say.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

5 Responses to Learning to listen

  1. Sandra Steffen June 4, 2020 at 9:51 am #

    Thank You Doug!!! We have had some unfortunate racial issues in Ft. Lauderdale and our church seems not to want to tackle the issues (surprise, surprise). My best to you & Susan and CONGRATS to Lizzy!!!1

  2. Catrina Hamilton June 4, 2020 at 10:59 am #

    Thank you for sharing this. I find your candor very refreshing.

  3. Doug Nienhuis June 5, 2020 at 10:21 am #

    Thanks Doug, well thought out and written essay, I give you high marks ! My problem as yours was growing up isolated from minorities, due to our location. I now live just about a mile from Lake Street, Mpls., but it it still resembles Zeeland, Mi, in that we are predominantly white. My Methodist church in St.Paul, also mostly white, but active in the community.
    Soul searching, Black Lives matter signs, are band aids for hemorrhaging that has been manifested in uprisings throughout the land. Here’s hoping that Holland and Zeeland and all communities (including Mpls.)can respond with concrete ways to end the disparities, economically, and emotionally that exist between white people and minorities, and especially within the RCA CRC and other religious denominations.

    • Doug June 5, 2020 at 3:25 pm #

      It’s good to hear from you, Doug! Especially after all these years. My older daughter lives in Mpls too, about a mile and a half from the place were George Floyd was killed. Her downtown church seems to be mostly white too. If had answers, I would write about them.

  4. Lisa Radlinski June 6, 2020 at 11:57 am #

    Love this! I learned SO MANY similar lessons living in Amsterdam (after Glen Ellyn/Wheaton) and attending a Church there. Did you know that someone can have tattoos and piercings and still be a Christian? lol