—by Judith Roberts

The day we purchased our house, we loaded boxes, furniture, toys and clothes onto my uncle’s truck. I was so excited.

Our caravan of cars and trucks drove five miles north of the city of Hartford to our new home. Once we arrived, I played outside and watched the white families in the neighborhood pass by. No one spoke. No one stopped to lend a hand. No one waved. Though I was only 5, I knew we were unwelcome.

Next door to us, Linda and Frank lived with their family. A few days after we moved in, a big “For Sale” sign went up on their front lawn. My parents, unfazed by this overt act of racism, didn’t treat them any differently. My dad, a jack-of-all-trades, gave Frank a helping hand from time to time. My mom connected with Linda about raising kids.

But it didn’t take long for their house to sell. The new neighbors, a retired Jewish couple, found Frank and Linda’s charming house to be a perfect fit. They were delighted to have a young family that just happened to be black living next door.

One night before he moved away, Frank appeared at my parents’ back door. My mom invited him to sit down at our kitchen table. Peering into the room, I could see that he was crying.

Years passed before my mom spoke of Frank sitting at our table that night. Through his tears, about rushing to put his home on the market—because we were black…

…It reminds me a little of how Jesus meets Zacchaeus, a man despised by his own people for collecting unfair taxes for the Roman empire. As one short in stature, Zacchaeus literally goes out on a limb—of a sycamore tree—to see Jesus. Jesus sees, calls and invites Zacchaeus to a meal. Those in the crowd sneer at the invitation, saying that Jesus “has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” But by the end of the meal, Zacchaeus has a change of heart. He repents, saying: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:1-10).

You see, my neighbor, Frank, like Zacchaeus, served as an actor who kept inequality in place. Frank’s racial prejudice toward my family caused him to not only participate in discrimination; it caused him to miss out on a new friendship. Discriminatory practices and unfair treatment (whether based on class, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc.) are maintained by individual acts of complicity and collusion, through attitudes, beliefs and actions. Zacchaeus worked for the Roman empire that occupied Palestine and economically harmed his own people. I imagine that Zacchaeus must have suffered from internalized oppression, a mindset where we have negative thoughts and beliefs about our own identity and our own people.

When we look to Jesus, we see that Jesus aligned himself with the most marginalized in society—while also sitting and supping with the most despised, like Zacchaeus…

Judith Roberts serves as ELCA program director for racial justice ministries.

This article is excerpted from the October 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.