“It was as if a spear went through my heart,” he said.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
THIS LIFE: RACE AND RELIGION
This is the fourth of a five-part series analyzing race and religion by AJC columnist Gracie Bonds Staples. Come back Wednesday for Part 5: Reimagining the future
Jack Alexander had come of age in a nearly all-white West Hartford, Connecticut, neighborhood so far removed in mind, body and spirit from the African American community, it was as if it didn’t even exist. His first recollection of any black was on his high school basketball team, but the relationship began and ended there on the court.
He’d go on to graduate from high school in 1969 and then Duke University before joining a Big Four accounting firm and moving to Atlanta, just as Maynard Jackson was launching a campaign to become the city’s first African American mayor, without forming a meaningful relationship with anyone of African descent.
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In 1977, he was transferred to Melbourne, Australia, where he heard the Gospel for the first time at a multiethnic Pentecostal church and for the first time in his life witnessed God intervening in the lives of the poor.
“I saw God answer the desperate prayers … for food, jobs, transportation. I asked God why I had never seen him move like that. His Spirit whispered to me, ‘How many people have you known who really needed me?’”
In that moment, seeing their desperation for God, Jack Alexander saw his own need for a savior.
“The poor led me to Christ,” he said.
Author Jack Alexander holds a copy of his latest book, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” a montage of perspectives from U.S. Christians on their views about racism. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
When he returned to Atlanta six months later, Alexander was a new creation — no longer driven by fear and competitiveness, but a desire to serve and love his neighbor as Christ loves the church. That included African Americans.
It wasn’t until he began a study of the good Samaritan story in Luke years later that he started to see and understand what that meant.
As a member of a conservative church, he’d learned to see and think. In the Samaritan story, Jesus called him to see and feel compassion for his fellow man.
The difference is profound.
Hearing his story as I embarked on this journey gave me hope. Not that I didn’t know whites who weren’t racist. I know plenty. But I saw in Jack Alexander’s story — the fourth installment of a five-part series examining racism from a spiritual perspective — the sentiments of that old hymn “Amazing Grace” — once blind, now seeing.
If God could change his heart, he could change others.
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En route to that moment, God had given him the theological foundation to stand on, and “authentic” friendships with African Americans, including Barron McCoy, whom he met nearly 40 years ago when the McCoys and Alexanders would gather for dinner and sports outings.
Jack Alexander, in white, enjoys a light moment with his mentee Barron McCoy, in green vest, near McCoy’s work site recently in Atlanta. ELIJAH NOUVELAGE / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Barron’s father had passed and his mother struggled to raise him and his sister alone. Jack Alexander did what he could to help, taking Barron under his wing, giving him his first job and advocating for him when he got in trouble.
In the McCoys, he could discern the effects of structural racism and its long-term impact across generations of African Americans who saw their wives raped, their children sold, and the total disruption of the family unit. He could see how the church was complicit in racism and that many denominations and Christian leaders even owned slaves. And he could see clearly that there’s a big difference between seeing yourself as a responsible and caring citizen as he did and seeing society through the lens of the oppressed.
He wanted to know and understand more, so he started by reading Jim Wallis’ “America’s Original Sin,” Eric Mason’s “The Woke Church,” Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” and Austin Channing Brown’s “I’m Still Here.”
Books written by Jack Alexander are displayed at his residence in Atlanta. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
He was in the midst of writing his second book, “The God Impulse: The Power of Mercy in an Unmerciful World,” when he heard Bishop Alexander preach from the passage on the good Samaritan to help the church understand racism.
“My heart was just heavy,” Jack Alexander said. “I was surprised how ignorant I was about the history. It was like being in a closet when the lights are off, and someone turns on the light. It set me on fire.”
He began praying and seeking new ways to show mercy toward others, to allow his heart to fully engage those God put in his path. The answer, he said, was racial healing.
Finally fully aware that his white skin gave him entree to people, places and opportunities that African Americans didn’t have, he wondered what he could possibly bring to such a divisive issue. He didn’t know what it was like to be stopped on the streets because of his skin color or to be eyed with suspicion when he walked through a nice neighborhood. And he certainly had never had to worry if one of his sons might be killed by a policeman before he arrived home.
There was no doubt race relations had improved; that laws had been passed and policies instituted that significantly improved the lives of many African Americans. At the same time, there was no question that racism remained a problem. A big one.
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That was never more clear than after the election of Barack Obama and then Donald Trump.
Police shootings of unarmed black men were on the rise. African American churches, the site of a massive shooting and repeated arsons, had come under attack again. And a rash of whites calling the police on black people simply going about their daily lives was a common occurrence.
Jack Alexander was convinced racism and, worse, his indifference made him complicit in the injustices African Americans suffer.
He was certain that how we treat one another informs whether we understand Jesus' death on the cross and what that means. Jesus emptied himself on the cross for us. The question was whether the rest of us were willing to do the same for each other, thus fulfilling the law of Christ expressed in Matthew 7:12 or Romans 13:10.
As he pondered that question, he said God reminded him of the ninth chapter of Ezekiel that calls us to lament over injustices, to pray and then do something to foster understanding and change.
Deep down in his spirit, God was saying to him
He connected with a local organization, OneRace Movement, to found the Day of Remembrance to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first slaves arriving in Jamestown, Virginia. OneRace, which plans to launch the Leadership 400 Fund to help young African American leaders, is hosting the 400Conference for pastors and church leaders on Aug. 2-3 at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“We need to know the story of the history of race and the church so that we can own our broken past and change the story for future generations,” he said.
Looking back, it’s been a long road from indifference to understanding, one that has strained some relationships, but Jack Alexander is determined.
“It’s awkward to see something so clearly and know many people do not,” he said. “All you can do is continue to be loving and share your heart with mercy. It’s a burden but the Bible tells us to love our neighbors. All I’m trying to say to the white church is ‘Can we allow what has broken the heart of God to break ours?’”
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Part 5:Reimagining the future
OneRace Movement Scheduled Events
400 Leadership Summit, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Aug. 2. $30. Ebenezer Baptist Church, 101 Jackson St. NE, Atlanta. oneracemovement.com.
400 Conference, commemorating the 400th anniversary of slavery in America. 6-9 p.m. Aug. 2 and 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Aug. 3. Free. Ebenezer Baptist Church, 101 Jackson St. NE, Atlanta. oneracemovement.com.
21 Day fast, Aug 4-25
Day of Remembrance. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Aug. 25. Participating metro Atlanta churches.
This is the fourth of a five-part series analyzing race and religion by AJC columnist Gracie Bonds Staples.
Intro: Why columnist Gracie Bonds Staples felt compelled to write the Race and Religion series
Part 1: The church's role in perpetuating racism
Part 2: The Rev. Raphael Warnock on how racism continues to reinvent itself
Part 3: Racism: Stupidity, stoicism or sin?
Part 4: One man's journey from indifference to enlightenment
Part 5: Reimagining the future
If you have ideas about how we might foster racial healing and transformation or are aware of efforts underway in metro Atlanta or elsewhere that are working, I'd love to hear from you. Please email me: email@example.com.
To read all of the series, go online to www.ajc.com/staff/gracie-bonds-staples/.