I was 18 years old and a freshman at the small liberal arts college I attended in Sterling, Kansas, when I had one of my first experiences of repentance. It came by way of Bonnie Carson. Bonnie was a tall, graceful, athletic African American from South Carolina. She was everything I was not and we were best of friends.
One night, late in the spring semester, we were sitting around the dorm room discussing classes and boys as was our wont, when suddenly the conversation veered in an unexpected direction. I think I had made a casual remark about needing to get a haircut.
“Do you realize,” she suddenly lashed out, “that you can go into any beauty parlor in town and find someone who knows what to do with your hair.” (I had not realized this because I was still in the stage where every haircut I got left me crying.) But she went on.
“Do you realize that you can walk through a neighborhood in Sterling, Kansas in the middle of the morning and no one will ask you if you clean house or that you can walk down main street after a movie and no one will eye you suspiciously or lock their car door as you pass.” She was not through yet. “Do you realize that not a single poet we are studying in Major American Poets is black as if none of us ever wrote poetry, that nobody ever turns to you in class and asks, ‘What do white people think about that,’ and that if you get a D in statistics you consider yourself lucky whereas if I get a D I’m just proving to the whole college campus that black folk aren’t as smart as white folk. I was imported here to play basketball because I’m tall and athletic – I’m a sport as far as Sterling College is concerned and nothing more than that. And you don’t even notice!”
And so it went. She was furious and in her fury and honesty, she changed the way I viewed the world forever. The conversation led to the sudden, stunning awareness that what I accepted as the norm was not the norm for many people. That privileges I assumed were “human rights” were actually privileges afforded me because of my skin color and remained grossly denied to people of color. I learned that night that racism had very little to do with how I felt about Bonnie Carson (she was my best friend, after all) and everything to do with a system in which health, transportation, business, housing, education, religious institutions all configure to grant privilege and access to me and deny it to her. I learned that Bonnie, who I assumed was experiencing our friendship and college and life in much the same way I did, was not. That daily she encountered subtle and not so subtle assaults on her dignity and worth and that she was hurt and angry and that she was angry with me – something I would never have known, by the way, if she and I had not been friends.
And finally, I learned something that separated me from Bonnie more than anything else: since the system worked for me, I didn’t have to think about it at all if I didn’t want to but for Bonnie there was no escape from awareness.
And so began my long process of repentance – of changing my mind and changing my direction – a process of turning that continues today.
Repentance, in my experience, is not a momentary feeling. It is, instead, as Eugene Peterson called it, “a long obedience in the same direction.” It’s not a feeling as much as it is a decision, a decision that keeps needing to be made. I “repented” of the systemic racism I participate in unthinkingly that night in a college dormitory but only in the sense of changing my mind about the way I‘d been viewing the world. Believe me, real repentance requires a daily decision (and for too many days I don’t make the decision) not to retreat into my convenient naiveté, my love of comfort, my preference for not knowing, my ease with the status quo.
A long obedience in the same direction. Repentance is the work of a lifetime, and one that leads to life.