It was one of those mornings that I awoke to my own second guessing. I was not sure why I agreed to take a three-hour round trip to a church in a small town on the New Hampshire border, population of about 12,000, with only 4.39 percent people of color. A friend called me brave. I called myself desperate for healing.
This church offered a type of listening prayer that I had experienced before and found transformative, plus this church was the nearest to me. Although these were not the people I would normally have chosen, I had prayed and felt the Lord drawing me there.
Despite the rain-slicked roads, the drive was surprisingly uneventful. Upon my arrival at the church, I was warmly welcomed by the prayer counselors, two middle-aged white women. The ministry time was held in a small room with comfy seating. I felt I was in a safe place to pray and listen, and soon was able to uncover the roots of my recent state of indecision. At one point the prayer counselors asked if I was battling with anger. My first inclination was to say no because I wasn’t in touch with anything at that moment. I paused, then asked them if they really wanted me to go there. They said yes, so I did and was surprised about what came out.
I described to these ladies the effect that gaslighting has had on me and many people of color. The term “gaslighting” refers to the ways an individual or institution tries to manipulate or question a person’s sense of reality in order to assert or maintain control, superiority, or power. Gaslight is the title of a 1940s film that told the story of the methodical emotional abuse of a woman by her husband. In an attempt to undermine his wife’s sanity and her perception of reality, the husband lied and shamed her privately and publicly. He also manipulated the environment, then accused his wife of actually doing those things. The “gaslight” in the title refers to the dimming of the gaslights in the wife’s bedroom as her husband snuck up to the attic and used his gas light to search for hidden jewels.
During the prayer session, I shared how the Church, in all of its diversity, has been a source of love and healing for me. But I also described moments when my white brothers and sisters in Christ had unwittingly been like an emotionally abusive husband. Rather than exhibiting the love of Christ, they followed lock step into the culture that categorizes people and builds walls that keep out the other. I spoke of how cross-racial and cultural relationships within the body of Christ have been deeply affected by gaslighting, resulting in suspicion, anger, and deep wounds for people of color like me. I have experienced gaslighting when white friends have been more interested in stating their opinions rather than fully entertaining a perspective different from their own. In recent months, it has been difficult to hear how they have increasingly bought into the false narrative about people of color which is perpetuated in Hollywood, on social media, and in viral videos. These present a stereotypical portrait of how people of color think, live, work, and worship. These gross generalizations are caricatures; some of which depict all inner cities as godless hell holes, most young black men as predators, and black women as welfare queens. Many people in the United States and the church have uncritically ingested these narratives. Although they often have no friends of color, nor have had an honest conversation with one, they have retweeted and reposted things that are not true yet are uncritically accepted as fact. This is a public form of gaslighting.
The prayer counselors were fully present as I poured out my heart. It felt safe to share the pain and rage that many young men of color feel comes from frequently being stopped, frisked, and fondled then released without an apology. How a white brother or sister in Christ, upon hearing the story of a person of color, will tell them they are too angry, too sensitive. That they are imagining racism, just need to get over it, or simply live with a deafening silence in response to racial injustice. This is gaslighting. Or when the other side of the story is told, they know better and are quick to communicate solutions without truly listening. This, too, is gaslighting. The most staggering thing that surfaced during the prayer time was when I wondered aloud if many people of color woke up on November 9th and silently questioned if we had been left as orphans. Did God really care about the plight of people of color, widows, orphans, or aliens? The prayer counselors wept at the revelation that the choices of white brothers and sisters in Christ had unintentionally, or not, helped to build a dividing wall of hostility.
Although I did not go to this meeting intending to share so deeply with these strangers, nor to convince them of anything, I know this was orchestrated by the Lord. He brought us together to expose us to another wholly unlike ourselves. I believe I needed to share with someone who did not necessarily agree with me about this season of my life, the state of the country, and the Church. I was not looking for validation, but two amazing things happened as a result of my vulnerability and transparency in that prayer session. I had to confront and discard lies I believed about myself, God, and others. The prayer counselors revealed that their distortions about people of color were confronted, challenged, and changed. As the session ended, the counselors encouraged me to continue to tell my story, especially to white people in suburbia, because it may be the only time they hear directly from a person of color.
I’ve had plenty of time since that meeting to think about the lessons learned from that encounter. I am reminded of the words from Ephesians 2:14 (NIV), “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” Jesus did a complete work, reconciling all genders, racial, and ethnic groups. He destroyed the dividing wall, so how do we now build bridges instead of burning them?
- Confront and repent of the occasions when you have engaged in gaslighting.
- As a person of color and a believer in Christ, we do not have the option to opt out and give up on our white brothers and sisters.
- If we never engage a person of color because of where we live and work, we can still build a bridge by educating ourselves about how others really live.
- Be intentional about making connections and seeking out experiences that challenge the false narratives about the other.
- Seek out opportunities in our communities and churches to serve and to tell our stories and to listen to theirs.
- Commit to no longer remain silent when we encounter racism, bias, or any insidious form of gaslighting.
Although it is unlikely I will see those prayer counselors again, our choice was no different from the one we all face each day: Will we be open and submitted to the Lord? Our openness and submission just might result in greater awareness and respect for one another, a shift in all of our perspectives, and a deeper level of healing. That will be a glorious day when yet another dividing wall of hostility comes down, and a bridge is built instead.