Dear Black People

You don’t know me.

We may exchange glances as we pass each other in the grocery store or drive past each other on the road, but you don’t know who I am. You don’t know where I’ve come from, the questions with which I’m wrestling, or the fears and anxieties that I carry.

But the same is true for me. I don’t know you. I’m clueless about your upbringing, how you view the world, or the dreams you have about your future.

I’d love for that to change.

I’m thirty-nine years old, and I can’t think of another time in my life when race relations have been more tense than they are right now. I fear that the polarization we’re experiencing as a country might be irreversible unless something drastic happens real soon. And I’m convinced that the only way things will change is through relationships. By creating space to ask meaningful questions and listen to one another’s stories and life experiences, we can start building bridges towards each other rather than allowing our assumptions to keep us apart.

So, before we go any further, let me introduce myself. My name is Bryan Marvel. I’m a pastor in Wauwatosa. My family and I moved to the greater Milwaukee area in 2016. I have a wonderful wife named Becky, who works as a therapist. We have three elementary school-aged daughters and a dog named Charlee (she’s a girl dog with a boy’s name).

For a better part of my formative teenage years, I grew up in New Hampshire. My home town is a small college town of about 23,000 people. Its biggest claim to fame was that the Jumanji movie starring Robin Williams (released in 1995) was filmed in our town. There wasn’t a whole lot of diversity where I grew up. We probably had less than ten minority students in my high school’s graduating class. Which was a class of about three hundred and fifty students. I stayed in New Hampshire for college but moved to Chicago for grad school. Since then, I’ve lived in Atlanta and now Milwaukee.

It’s nice to meet you.

As the conversation around race in our country has intensified over this past year, I’ve been reflecting on the term White privilege. And as I talk to different people in my community, it’s a term that hits White folks in a wide variety of ways. Some can see it and recognize it;while others take offense to the idea.

I think it’s hard for some White people to name that they have any sort of privilege because privilege is often viewed in a negative light. We often think of it in extreme terms. That it’s something reserved for the elite, for those who have trust funds, are heirs to family businesses, and don’t really have to work a day in their life.

Even though I grew up without any of those things, I would say that I grew up privileged. I was raised in a loving home with parents who stayed together. We didn’t live with extravagance but always had more than what we needed. With the help of my parents, I was able to go to college and grad school, and have been fortunate enough to have steady employment throughout my life. I had little to zero control of any of those things. They were simply given to me due to the family into which I was born.

That’s how privilege works. It’s not something you earn. It’s something that’s given to you. It’s a gift.

And I think some White people struggle with the idea of White privilege because they feel like they’re being blamed for something that they couldn’t control.

It’s similar to the idea of White people being asked to repent of previous generations’ sins. The comment I often hear is, “Why do I need to do that? I wasn’t around then. So why am I being held responsible for something that I didn’t do?”

(On a side note, as a pastor, I wonder if there is a place for that in this conversation. Specifically, because in the Bible, you see the Israelites repenting for the sins of their ancestors. Read Nehemiah 9:1-3. But that’s a post for another day.)

When it comes to struggling with the claim of having White privilege, I wonder if the real offense comes because there is a lack of relationship.

Maybe a story can help to illustrate.

One summer, while in college, I worked for a construction company. As the new guy on the job site and temporary summer help, I was regularly teased by the long-time year-round workers, which to some degree, was expected. But during one of my last days on the job before going back to school, one of the guys was giving me a hard time about leaving. He kept commenting that “I was one of those college boys whose ‘daddy’ paid for everything.”

I was so ticked. Because while my parents did help with college, they didn’t pay for the whole thing. I was expected to contribute. They didn’t buy my car as that summer, I had saved everything I made in order to buy one. Nor did they give me a steady stream of money while at school. I worked a few part-time jobs to pay for gas, books, and whatever else I needed.

At the end of the day, the reason I was so mad about his comment was that he didn’t know me; nor did he take the time to know me. He assumed things about me and threw them in my face. And while I fully admit, I do have privilege, but it isn’t the thing that defines me.

So if there is anything that I can bring to this conversation, it’s the encouragement to take the time to get to know people, to hear their stories, and learn what makes them who they are. And I think that goes for everyone, no matter what side of the conversation you’re on or what your skin color is.

I believe that when we can start building real relationships, our assumptions about people who are different from us will begin to change.

My name is Bryan. It’s nice to meet you.

Bryan is the Senior Pastor at Meadowbrook Church in Wauwatosa, WI. He lives in the Milwaukee area with his wife Becky and their three grade school daughters. In his spare time, he enjoys DIY projects around his house, reading good books, and drinking great coffee. 

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