Fifth Grade Lessons in Being Different

WHEN WAS THE first time you realized that you were truly different? Different enough that it made a difference? This happened for me when I was still rather young.

I wasn’t different enough for it to matter in Monrovia, Liberia, though my tribe included one of the few super-elitist families that controlled all aspects of the country for over two centuries. I wasn’t different enough for it to make a difference in Freetown, though I was a refugee on the run from civil war. I wasn’t different enough for it to make

a difference in Abidjan, where I was an immigrant lost in another new culture, but now with the wrinkle of a new language mixed in. I wasn’t different enough for it to make a difference until I stepped o the plane at JFK International Airport in the United States.

People still often ask me about the biggest difference coming from Africa to the U.S. My answer is almost always the same: white people. Remember when the red M&M and Santa both faint when they realized, “Wow, they do exist,” when they saw

each other? That was my early experience every time I would see a white person. I had only known white people on the television screen. But now I could see that they really did exist in real life.

When I came to the U.S., I knew I was different, and it made a difference in how people saw me and talked to me. It made a difference in who people expected me to be. And it made a difference in how I was supposed to interact with my new world.

Never was this more true than when I enrolled in school. I arrived in September, so school was already in session. In our little North Jersey town, it took time to get me enrolled into the fifth grade. And honestly, I didn’t mind the time of at all – it was like two to three weeks of sick days without being sick. That’s a win!

When the day came to enroll, I was excited. I was also a little nervous because I hadn’t picked up a book or had any homework to do. I feared that everyone else was already learning new things. Still, none of my worries matched the reality I walked into. Sitting in a meeting with all the grown-ups, I couldn’t escape this funny feeling and something wasn’t right. Before long, I learned that the school thought the best fit for me would be a class for kids with developmental disabilities. The decision was made without any testing – other than the eye (or skin color) test that this refugee and immigrant from Africa obviously failed.

I remember family members trying to plead my case, to no avail. And I remember my fifth grade teacher trying to plead my case; this too, was to no avail. (It took her all of five minutes to know I was wrongly placed.) I was young but not clueless. I knew this was not the class I belonged in. I proved this every day by doing all my work for the day within the first 5-10 minutes. Then I would spend the rest of my days tutoring classmates and running errands for Mrs. P. who rewarded me with stories about baseball history and her beloved New York Mets (who I naturally came to love as well). This went on for my entire fifth grade year. I knew something was terribly wrong but it wasn’t wrong enough for my family, my teacher, and certainly not me to be heard.

Nevertheless, God is faithful, good, and true. In this class and with these my first real friends, I learned patience. I learned the importance of love and genuine friendship in all of our lives. I learned how to be a leader. I learned how selfish and privileged I was – and how being a servant and serving well matters. I also learned that all of us who can must work hard for all people who society leaves behind.

Towards the end of fifth grade, there was a general student standardized test. Even though I didn’t do all the classwork that most fifth graders were doing all year long, I did very well on the test. In fact, I scored so high that I was transferred from the developmentally disabled class into the gifted class for sixth grade. Years later, I am still waiting for any kind of apology and mea culpa from the school!

While I wait, I am thankful to God. The fruit of patience that I started to cultivate in Mrs. P.’s class has made me a better husband, father, son, brother, pastor, and friend. The fruit of love and genuine relationships led me to value those I hold dear; it has also chal- lenged my witness and spurred in me a willingness to try to find common ground with those I encounter every day. Much of my current ministry is loving and knowing the many our society, our church, and even we ourselves consistently leave behind. I learned this from Jesus, but I think He started teaching it in Mrs. P.’s class.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Shalom! journal.




Breaking the Cycle of Gun Violence

Away from home, I woke up to a series of texts from my wife a few weeks ago, highlighting what looked to be an overnight scene of gun violence. Increasing gun violence is our present national reality (30,000 deaths from firearms each year; 30 people murdered by guns each day[1]). It is a seemingly everyday nightmare. Here in Harrisburg our nightmare was recently magnified by the tragic death of young Earl “Shaleek” Pinckney[2], which has left us with opposing tales.[3]

In 2014, our murder rate more than doubled Philadelphia’s.[4] According to the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) two-thirds of U.S. homicides occur due to firearms. Here in Harrisburg, 67% might be our “best” year…ever.

On a personal level, I have lost family members to gun violence – a coup d’état, assassinations, and inevitably a decade plus generation(s) stealing Civil War(s) in Liberia. I have lost friends to gun violence in Philadelphia. I have wept with families of acquaintances we’ve buried together due to suicides.

In ministry here in Harrisburg, in the past five years, our congregation has lost eight sons—all murdered in cold blood.[5] Gun violence is a national nightmare, experienced locally, and felt personally for so many of us. It should be a Civil Rights issue of our day.

Now for some, when we talk about gun violence (they choose to only focus on urban homicides and not suburban/rural suicides).  However, even more damaging is the false critique that we need to address our own inner-city violence instead of police violence. “What about black on black crime?” is their refrain.  This is damaging because it ignores that people in our community are actually leading many anti-crime organizations and initiatives[6]. It also ignores that crime isn’t about skin color but proximity (i.e. some quick FBI stats on “white on white” crime[7]). So supporting say #BlackLivesMatter and addressing police brutality and violence is not mutually exclusive to trying to stop all senseless gun violence.

One way we are working to break the cycle is by partnering with other faith groups here in the Harrisburg region to take a more active membership in the Harrisburg chapter of Heeding God’s Call ( Our Sr. Pastor Woody Dalton sits on the National Board, and I attend and sometimes help lead as many of the prayer vigils for sisters and brothers who are victims to gun violence here in the city. This has also led us to “lobby” local and Washington D.C. politicians to help overturn loose gun laws that are directly leading to more death in our families and on our streets.

We fight gun violence because we have chosen to heed the advice to God’s people in the Pentateuch (choose life Deut. 30:19) while centering and submitting to Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If Christ is indeed the One who has come to give abundant life, we believe that working to curb and end gun violence and giving more of our kin the chance to breathe and walk, and live and love – is a journey we have to take and a challenge we have to meet.

Choose life. Walk in the light of Christ the Son, the Author and Finisher of our Faith. And by the Spirit’s help and work, we can all please God our Father, by working for life over death in this our country, our states, and our homes.

This post first appeared on Dr. Drew G.I. hart’s blog Taking Jesus Seriously: