Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove on race and family in North Carolina

Yesterday, over 150 social justice activists in North Carolina were arrested at the state legislature building after a civil disobedience protest over a bunch of new laws the NC state government is racing to implement that activists say are going to really hurt the poor in NC. One of the biggest problem areas is education. To share two examples, one bill says that charter schools can hire instructors that don’t have teaching licenses; another one transfers $100 million from public schools to for-profit private schools without subjecting the for-profit schools to the same accountability measures the public schools have like standardized testing. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a leader in the Christian neo-monastic movement who lives in community with the poor in inner-city Durham. On his blog today, he shared an open letter to his kids about why he chose to get arrested yesterday that exemplifies a basic contrast in the two visions for family that we encounter in the church today.

Jonathan writes:

As you both know, we live in a hospitality house and share our life with other people because God has given us this way of life as a gift. It’s not always easy to greet every knock at the door, eager to see Jesus in the stranger. But that’s what we try to do because this is where Jesus promised to meet us… One of the things we know about God’s family is that we don’t all look the same. Even though you are brother and sister, your skin is not the same color. Uncle Matt and Uncle Vern are not the same color. This is how it is in God’s family…

Some people say that parents should work as hard as they can to give their kids all the opportunities that are available in our society—that this is what it means to be a good parent. I know you’ve been disappointed at times when you didn’t get to have a video game or wear the coolest new clothes. But your mom and I believe that the best life for you (and for us) is a life in the beloved community that Grandma Ann and others worked for—the life that God wants to give us in relationship with others who are not like us.

The men who run our Legislature in Raleigh right now are people who love their kids like I love you. They are afraid because they believe that the inheritance they have to pass on to their children is the wealth that they’ve been able to accumulate. They do not want to see that inheritance squandered by others whom they think undeserving. They are determined to defend their way of life at any cost.

But we believe they are wrong because we know a better way of life. We have asked them to consider the pain they are causing others by pursuing their own interests. They have refused to listen. Because they have power right now, they don’t have to listen to what we say. They can have us arrested and taken away.

But what they are doing cannot last forever because it is not true. God will stop them; we don’t have to. But I chose to get arrested because I don’t want those men to miss out on God’s great party. I want them to know that there is a better way—that they do not have to listen to our worst fears and re-play the worst chapters of our past. I want them to know that God has invited them to be part of the beloved community too.

I preached my first sermon in December of 2006 at Resurrection United Methodist Church in Durham where Jonathan lives. My text was Hebrews 2. I talked about the family of God since verse 11 says, “The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesusis not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” One of the things I confronted in my sermon was the way that many Christians in our society are completely absorbed into caring for their immediate nuclear family and don’t give a whole lot of thought to God’s family.

I shared an interesting statistic: the percentage of black and white people at Durham’s Hillside High School in 1994 versus 2004. Both years, the school was over 90% black. The reason why this is significant is because a major redistricting occurred in the Durham school district in the late nineties in order to even out the racial demographics. If all had gone according to plan, the school would have been more like 60/40 black and white.

A very popular, middle-upper class (and mostly white) neighborhood Woodcroft was redistricted to Hillside. But because of loopholes in the law, white parents in Woodcroft and other places were able to petition to have their kids transferred to other schools. If they were unsuccessful, they put their kids in private school. I imagine that many of these parents are friends with black people and have never said anything explicitly racist in their lives. I imagine that if you gave them a survey about desegregation, many would have supported the redistricting in theory (just not for my kid). They knew that all the other parents were going to jump ship and they didn’t want their kid to be the one white kid in a class where everyone else was black.

I’m not sure how many of the Woodcroft parents were Christian. I imagine many or even most of them were, and saw nothing un-Christian about making sure their kids had the best educational opportunities that they could lobby for. Even though Hillside was a brand-new school building with state of the art technology, it was a “bad school” and I’m sure the parents who thought that way would protest vociferously that “it has nothing to do with race.” It’s just the gangs, the fights, and all the classroom disruptions (that are presumably taking place at a school that’s 90% black).

In mainstream Christian culture or at least the evangelical side of it that I inhabit, you’re supposed to find loopholes to take your kids out of “bad schools” because your duty to Jesus as a parent is to make sure that your kids get the best of everything that you can provide for them. There simply isn’t any concept that it could ever be a problem to focus too much on the well-being of your nuclear family to the exclusion of the Lazarus who lives outside your gate. I imagine that many of the NC legislators who are defunding the public school system are Christians who send their kids to private school and don’t see anything immoral about what they are doing because they are taking care of their kids just like other parents have every right to fight for their own.

That’s the basic difference about Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s vision for family. It’s not enough to be devoted to your kids and fight for them to have the best. Jonathan’s concept of family includes strangers who may not even know that they are your brother or sister and in whom you are “eager to see Jesus.” It’s not that Jonathan is neglecting his kids; he just sees it as part of being a good parent to raise his kids in community with poor people.

I’m facing a difficult discernment in my future. I really want to live like Jonathan lives. After college, I spent three years in intentional community and thought I would spend my whole life living that way. But your attitude about life changes when you get married and have kids. But both of my kids have some learning needs that the affluent Fairfax County school system has the resources to address. I feel kind of paralyzed when I think about throwing my son into an environment that, due to a lack of resources, treats his legitimate challenges as “moral” issues, assuming that he’s just being a smart-aleck when he forgets what a teacher has told him to do.

I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I do consider living outside of privilege to be part of the education and upbringing that I owe my sons as a father. We are committed to the idea of spending at least two years in a foreign country or an under-resourced environment at some point while my sons are growing up. Of course I’m sure that all the white Woodcroft parents were committed to the idea of racial desegregation.

2 thoughts on “Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove on race and family in North Carolina

  1. Thanks for this, Morgan. I resonate deeply with the struggles. We are allegedly committed to public schools, but put our kid in a private school for kindergarten when the school she was assigned didn’t measure up. Now we’re in, but the very fact that we’re “volunteers” is a part of the power dynamic that we’re trying to undo.

    Last night our small group started digging into Amos. I read them JWH’s letter–good stuff to get us thinking about what true solidarity with the poor might look like.

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