Race and ethnic differences have plagued human relationships for thousands of years, and it feels like no time has been more divisive than the past few months. Race divides our culture in housing, religious association, and community and social gatherings. We live apart far more than together. We find ourselves in exclusive communities far more than inclusive ones. It is easy to see the challenges but far more difficult to envision solutions. Systemic issues of racial division and prejudice must be identified and corrected. Universities certainly need to address systemic issues in their cultures, and they also need to create opportunities for hearts and minds to understand and appreciate the perspectives of others. Unity, in a Christian context, can only be achieved when trust and relationship create understanding.
More than three years ago, one of our students called me early in the summer and asked if I was open for an evening meeting; he just wanted to talk and share stories. We met one evening in June at the Starbucks in Newberg. The student’s name is Fabian, and a few of you know his story. Fabian was born near Jalisco, Mexico, and lived in that area until he was 5 years old. Because of the increasing violence and general lack of hope in his neighborhood, his family took a risk and came to America, and more specifically, to western Oregon.
Fabian grew up near Forest Grove, and what he consistently remembers about his childhood is the hard work of his parents. They worked long hours in backbreaking jobs to make sure that their family had enough to survive. They also wanted their children to have a vision for the future. At one point in our conversation, I asked Fabian why he chose to value education highly. He laughed and noted that his father had a clear strategy. When he was young (10 years old) his dad would bring him on jobs on Saturdays and involve him directly in the “hard work.” At the end of a few months of this type of work his father took him aside and asked, “Do you like this work?” “Not really, Dad, I cannot see doing this all my life.” “Then, my son, get an education, go to college, make a life for yourself!” He noted that his mother and father always pressed him to excel in the classroom, and he chose to do so.
Beginning in middle school, Fabian looked for every opportunity to enhance his math and engineering skills. He participated in 4-H robotic programs, engaged in summer science programs – anything he could do to advance his ability. He attended Sunset High School, where he was one of very few Hispanic students among a “legion” of wealthy Anglo students. He reflected a little bit on his high school experience, noting that, whether it was teachers or even counselors, he was constantly confronted with people who told him not to go into engineering. “Fabian, you do not want to be disappointed. You can’t afford to go to college. Pick something else. Get a trade through the community college system.”
He rejected their advice and still pushed on. When it came time for college he filled out 11 applications and was admitted into nine institutions. His counselors were right about one thing: It was going to be difficult to afford a college experience. Interestingly, George Fox was actually not on his radar; we were not among the 11 schools he applied to. How did he get to George Fox, then? One afternoon at his high school, he met a woman named Pamela Ryan who worked for the Portland Leadership Foundation. She was visiting schools to talk about the Act Six program – an initiative George Fox began in 2003 in concert with the Portland Leadership Foundation, now called the Contingent, with a vision to bring diverse students to the Newberg campus. The concept was to develop young diverse leaders who would help broaden the understanding of diverse communities at George Fox while at the same time preparing those same leaders to re-enter their communities of origin with hope for a different future. George Fox provides a full-needs scholarship, and both organizations advance leadership development and training.
Although he knew nothing about either George Fox or the Act Six program, the prospect of a full undergraduate scholarship encouraged him to apply. He competed for the scholarship but did not end up winning the award. In spite of that, he chose George Fox anyway.
Fabian shared one additional part of his story that I found compelling. When he was in middle school, his parents did not provide televisions and computer devices for him. In the afternoons he was encouraged to look for work, study or engage in other activities. Near his home he noticed a house with a yard in terrible condition. An 82-year-old man, Larry Underhill, lived there. Fabian asked if he could help him clean up the yard, and Larry agreed. Fabian spent a couple of months cleaning the yard up, and in the end both owner and pupil were proud of the result. In return, Mr. Underhill gave Fabian his one-third acre back yard to form a garden. That led Fabian and his family to grow tomatoes, carrots, lettuce and a variety of vegetables that they shared with their community.
Fabian faced more challenges than any student I have come to know. He shared with me the expectations of others that were forced upon him because of his socio-economic condition and his race. Teachers in the public school system rarely saw a future “engineer” when they looked at Fabian, and the members of the dominant culture were far more likely to see his limitations rather than his possibilities. In addition, as he drove back and forth to George Fox, he had the experience numerous times of being stopped by police officers for what he considered were less-than-rational reasons. He suspected it was simply because he was a young Hispanic man in a white community. Fabian is also an undocumented immigrant, which makes his life even more challenging, and he helped me see that an undocumented student sees the future quite differently than someone who is a citizen. Yet, in spite of the obstacles and even the fact that he is a man “without a country,” he chooses to hope and strive for a different future.
At the end of the conversation, I asked Fabian to consider how we can bridge the racial gaps that exist in our culture. We certainly agreed that government policies had to move from limitation to opportunity. Dominant-culture people needed to more fully understand the experiences of less-advantaged citizens, and there needed to be new educational opportunities to achieve those desired ends. Fabian noted that, ultimately, the hearts of people had to change. He had several suggestions to improve our conversations at George Fox University, and in the broader culture:
1.) You need humility. You cannot come to the conversation knowing that your position or your understanding of the world is the only one or the right one.
2.) Trust must be established. “Just like my relationship with Larry Underhill,” he said, “conversations are better when we know each other and understand our backgrounds and perspectives.”
3.) Listening is required. Part of engagement, and perhaps the main part of engagement, is listening to other people. It is vital to truly listen (perhaps better expressed, to hear) to another’s perspective not so that one agrees but so that one can understand.
4.) You have to be willing to learn. If you enter a relationship only wishing to convert the other person to your cause, you really make little progress. If you practice clear active listening it should result in learning about the world of another, which can lead to true understanding.
5.) Build friendships. We lack cross-cultural and cross-racial friendships. We need more people who will take risks and enter into relationships that include people across our typical social, religious and cultural boundaries.
Fabian is one of my heroes. He sees hope where there is despair. He sees possibility where others see only limitation. He chooses risk even when it may mean rejection. He chose to send a note to a president, which resulted in conversations that had meaningful impact on both our lives.
In the early days of the church, Peter struggled with allowing non-Jews to be equally treated as members of Jesus’ followers. The Apostle Paul challenged him and noted, “For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
We live to that vision. May God give us more Pauls and Fabians.