February is known in the United States and Canada as Black History Month, celebrating victories gained in the African diaspora. Australia celebrates July as Black History Month; England and the Netherlands celebrate in October; and “in Brazil, Black Awareness Day or Black Consciousness Day (Portuguese: Dia da Consciência Negra) is observed annually on November 20 as a day ‘to celebrate a regained awareness by the black community about their great worth and contribution to the country.’ ”1
For me, the benefit of Black History Month has come, not from rejoicing in isolation but from celebrating in collaboration. Coming close to someone forces you to learn; as I discovered one summer at Andrews University.
I was engaged to be married. All that stood between me and the altar was a month of doctoral comprehensive exams. I had to study, but I also had to live. So I looked for a job that would give maximum pay for minimum work. After all, I would already be working by studying for my comprehensives. I scanned the notice board at Andrews University’s Apple Valley supermarket, and my eyes fell on an advertisement: “Wanted: live-in roommate for wheelchair-bound young man. Pay: $XYZ.” Whoa, that’s not for me! I thought. I’m about to get my own live-in roommate. I’m about to get married. I read on. “Duties: shopping, cooking, cleaning.” There was more. “Occupant will be required to take care of Gary’s bathroom and toiletry needs.” No way! Then it seemed as if a Voice said to me, “You are about to get married, but you have no idea what two becoming one is all about. Here is Gary. He needs someone who will give him 100 percent care and attention. Aside from the pay, there’s no guarantee what you will get in return. But instead of calculating what you will get, can you focus on what you can give?”
I met Gary; he was a large, white young man, awkwardly seated in his wheelchair, with a lovely, if rather apprehensive, smile. I think he wondered how long I would stay; so did I. I moved into Gary’s apartment. I shopped for Gary. I cooked for Gary. He told me his previous roommate had only given him rice and beans—every day. I immediately looked up some recipes. Gary told me he enjoyed my food; but I struggled to enjoy my stay. I wanted to be free—free to hang out with my friends and free to play my music. But I stayed. I listened to his music, and he listened to mine.
A friendship started to grow; a bond began to form. I washed Gary’s body from head to toe. He was heavy. You see, he didn’t exercise much; well, he couldn’t really. I bathed Gary in the bathroom, and I wiped Gary in the toilet. Some duties I liked, and some I didn’t; but I did them all.
I can’t say the summer went by quickly. But a tear was in my eye when it was time for me to fly to Bermuda and get married. When my wife and I returned to set up our student home at Andrews, I took Pattiejean to see Gary. He was so excited to meet her. They hugged. Little did I know that would be a last embrace. We got word that Gary’s condition worsened dramatically. At the age of 28, he died.
Gospel artist Hezekiah Walker sings, “I need you, you need me. We’re all a part of God’s body. It is His will, that every need be supplied. You are important to me, I need you to survive.” I think Gary may have needed me; I certainly needed him. I will never forget when Elder Charles E. Bradford, a beloved former North American Division president, spoke at Andrews University. He told the students that black religion (the vehicle for overcoming oppression) is a survival religion. He said that all of us, as part of the remnant, will need the black experience. He quoted Ellen White: “Those who study the history of the Israelites should also consider the history of the slaves in America, who have suffered.”2 He commented that Ellen White thus made black history part of heilsgeschichte—salvation history. Finally, he added (with a twinkle in his eye), “So there’s your justification for Black History Month—Sister White said!”3
Dr. Sikhumbuzo Ndlovu’s lead article maintains that the cross of Jesus transforms us to love and embrace others from different races. Sometimes I think the Lord says, “You cannot live with Me until you have lived with them.” And at different seasons in our lives, God brings along a “them.” Sometimes they are persons with differing abilities. Sometimes they are persons with differing sexualities. Sometimes they are persons with differing ethnicities. Who is your “them” right now? My experience with Gary has taught me that if you obey God’s still, small Voice, you will discover that soon your “them” will be us.
1 Wikipedia, s.v. “Black Awareness Day,” last modified November 19, 2017, 02:02, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Awareness_Day.
2 Ellen G. White, The Southern Work (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1966), 42.
3 cf. also Charles E. Bradford, The King Is In Residence: A Beloved Leader Shares His Vision for the Church (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2017), 9.