I was a fairly new Christian that Wednesday night in spring 1995 when I attended a new Bible study. I found the group's leader, Marilyn Parks, in the church's lounge, along with the only other woman who'd shown up: Bridget Thomas.
I didn't know Bridget well. She'd married our pastor's son, Tobin, earlier that fall and had joined the church, but we rarely had occasion to speak.
Since there were only three of us at the Bible study that first night, it seemed inappropriate to simply wave "good-bye" and rush out following our discussion, so I took my time putting on my coat and made polite small talk. Bridget struck me as open and friendly, an impression that solidified during our interactions in the weeks that followed.
I soon learned from our Wednesday evening chit-chat that Bridget and I had a lot in common. Not only were we both new to the church, but also both new to our faith in Jesus and hungry to learn more about him. We had similar tastes in music and other entertainment. I also enjoyed Bridget's encouraging spirit.
But as similar as we were, there was still one major difference—our racial makeup. I had no idea how heavily that difference weighed in my mind until Liz Butler joined our church later that year.
Liz had a sincere, welcoming disposition—and she was black. I was immediately drawn to her warm smile and deep faith, and soon I was inviting her to my home for dinner, calling her on the phone, making a beeline for her after church. I was excited about my friendship with Liz, and I ex-pressed my enthusiasm to Marilyn and Bridget one Wednesday night: "Thank God I finally found a friend in this area!"
Bridget and Marilyn smiled politely and offered congratulations. But later that evening, Marilyn phoned me. "Kim, I know you're glad, as I am, that Liz joined the church. But I have to ask—what have you been forming with Bridget and me if not a friendship?"
I was accustomed to Marilyn's forthrightness, but was taken aback at how insensitive I must have sounded earlier that night. I answered, "I've always considered you more a mentor than a peer, so I haven't really thought of our relationship as a friendship. And Bridget. … well, I guess I should have put it a different way. Bridget's a friend, too."
Marilyn confided that I'd hurt Bridget's feelings with my declaration about Liz. After we hung up, I sat wondering why I hadn't embraced Bridget as a close friend—the kind I could go places with and invite over for dinner. I finally had to admit her white skin color was the primary reason.
The only close white friend I'd ever had was Karen Zimmer, a girl who lived in my condominium complex when I was 11. We spent the summer together swimming at the community pool and playing at each other's house. I had black friends in the neighborhood, too, but Karen was one of the first people I'd met when my family moved to the area.
But then I started junior high school one year ahead of her, and by the time Karen joined me at the bus stop the following year, things had changed. We said little more than "hi." She huddled with her white friends; I huddled with my black friends. We never stepped foot in each other's home again.
With the benefit of hindsight, I believe I was mostly to blame. In my first year of junior high, I watched the premiere of the television miniseries Roots, Alex Haley's startling depiction of slavery in his ancestral line. Seeing in graphic form the injustices white people heaped upon black people filled me with shock, anger, sadness, and dismay. After that, I wanted little to do with white people.
Those feelings never left me entirely. In high school, college, law school, and beyond, all my good friends were African-American. I got along well with white people, laughed and had a good time with them in school or at work, but rarely talked to them on the phone. Certainly, I never shared any personal details with them.
I'd erected a wall between whites and me, made more impenetrable whenever I heard of another injustice inflicted on one of "us." As I matured, I realized not all white people treat African Americans negatively, but I still let them come only so close.
So even as Bridget and I grew closer at church, I continued to keep her at arm's length. I rarely called her on the phone, and if she called me, I dealt with her purpose for calling and drew the conversation to a close. Subconsciously, I'd relegated her to a limited realm. Painfully, I realized even though I'd recently become a Christian, my mind hadn't been transformed (Romans 12:2). Even in church, I was harboring prejudice in my heart.
The night of Marilyn's call, I asked God to change me. Like Jesus, I wanted to love all people and not focus on their color. I wanted to become more Christian than African-American.
I didn't change overnight. As I got serious about reading for myself what the Bible says about love and forgiveness, God worked silently, fashioning circumstances that would change my heart and pull me closer to Bridget.
A few months later, Bridget announced her first pregnancy at our Bible study; that fall, my husband, Bill, and I became expectant parents as well. My Wednesday interactions with Bridget soon spilled over to the phone as we gushed with anticipation.
Meanwhile, the following January, I watched an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show that featured seven of the nine brave African-American students, known as the "Little Rock Nine," who were the first to integrate Little Rock's Central High School in 1957. They recounted how they'd been beaten, kicked, and spat upon daily by whites as they attended the all-white school. Their memories ignited anger within me. But then, surprisingly, three of their tormentors, also guests on the show, stood and expressed a tearful apology. The seven offered hugs and sentiments of forgiveness.
I cried uncontrollably, awed by how warm those seven hearts were, and dismayed at the hardness of my own. God had forgiven my sins and set me free, yet I held the sins of whites captive, sins no more terrible in God's eyes than my own. It was time to let my bitterness go. I used the tears to dredge up every hostile bone in my body, and then let it all go. As my eyes dried, I realized the Holy Spirit had strengthened me to accomplish the impossible. That day race lost its grip over me, and Christ took hold.
One week later, I returned home from out of town to find a voice-mail message from Bridget telling me she'd given birth to a boy they'd named Jalen. As I shared in the joy of Jalen's arrival, I realized how close we'd truly become.
As my due date in June neared, our friendship blossomed. As everything about me swelled disproportionately, Bridget helped plan my baby shower at Liz's home. Liz occasionally attended the women's group, and I remained fond of her, but as God would have it, my friendship with Bridget had taken on a life of its own. Having spent more than a year studying the Bible together and sharing our lives every Wednesday night, Bridget knew chapter and verse about my family, my job, my disappointments, even my dreams. My world was ever-changing as I grew in my relationship with God. Bridget's was, too, and she remained the person with whom I had the most in common. God had matched us perfectly, down to simultaneous pregnancies. … except for the skin color, which he didn't see anyway.
The night I eventually went into labor, I called Bridget from the hospital, and the next day when she visited our baby boy, my husband, Bill, and I asked her to be Quentin's godmother. Visibly moved, she accepted and tearfully hugged the baby and us. Our friendship leaped to yet another level.
Thank god he didn't expect me to change on my own. I needed only to cry, "Help!" and God rushed in, recast my heart, then bonded it with Bridget's. Without God's hand, I would have never experienced the friendship he'd planned for me.
In January 2000, my family moved to another state, yet my friendship with Bridget has been strengthened. We talk numerous hours each week by phone, and even continue our Bible study that way. We often praise God for our sisterhood, and today we laugh about how Bridget prayed it into existence. She confided that early on she'd discerned a special friendship for us, but had also sensed my hesitancy and decided to pray about it. Stunned at the revelation and embarrassed at my reluctance, I admitted that at the time I couldn't see myself being close to a white person.
Bridget responded in her thoughtful, understanding way: "We've both grown spiritually in so many ways. I just thank God we're new people now—and that you're my best friend!"
Kimberly Cash Tate, an attorney and author of More Christian Than African American (Daybreak), lives in Texas.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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