My Black History
Until I was eleven years old, my Father pastored in a neighborhood in the midst of reverse-gentrification in Flint, Michigan. Our family had moved there from Texas when I was very young, so many of my first memories of the world are from that time in my life.
Just weeks after moving, our family was still getting to know everyone at the church. As church folks do, we’d often hang around in the sanctuary after the weekly worship service for conversation. One random Sunday, I remember standing there at the front of the nave holding my Dad’s hand and looking at all of the musical instruments. I also saw a man, still there on the stage gathering his sheet music, and I said, “Hey Dad!” and pointed to him.
My Dad said, “Yeah, Ryan. That’s Ellsworth Jackson.” Would you like to meet him? I nodded and my Dad walked me over to him.
As we approached, the man said loudly, “Ryan Phipps! I’ve been waiting to meet you!” I was startled and, to be honest, a little scared. I’d never met someone like Ellsworth before. His skin was a different color than mine— a deep, dark brown. His hair was different than mine. It didn’t grow out straight and lay down on his head. It stood up in tight curls— textured much like the sponge that we would scrub our dishes with at home.
As Mr. Ellsworth reached out his giant hand to shake mine, I grasped it and began inspecting it. I’d never held a hand like that before. I turned it over, back and forth, back and forth, looking at both sides. Then I asked him, “Mr. Ellsworth, why are the tops of your hands brown and the bottom of your hands pink?” (I can only imagine what my Father must have been thinking as he witnessed his child’s open display of white ignorance). But Ellsworth wasn’t offended. He just smiled, picked me up, put me on his lap, and gave me a big hug. Then, he explained (as best as one can to a young child) why some people have different colors of skin.
There on that random Sunday, he embraced the awkwardness, strangeness, and ignorance, using it as an opportunity to teach me something deeply important about the world and about people.
This is my first memory of a black person.
Years later after our family had moved to Pennsylvania, I had gone back to Michigan during summer break to spend a few weeks with some of my childhood friends that I’d kept in touch with over the years. Their family owned a hardware store in the city, and when it got busy, we kids would help with duties around the store.
One afternoon, the front door of the store swung open, and in walked Ellsworth Jackson. I hadn’t seen him since I was very young and I was stunned. He came back to the counter and said, “Ryan Phipps! What are you doing here?”
I was speechless, doing everything that I could to hold back tears. Truth be told, I don’t think Ellsworth had any idea the impact that he had on me as a child. That’s what made it even more profound. If you were to ask him, he probably wouldn’t even have remembered that exchange with me as a young kid. He was just treating me, in that awkward moment, how he treated everybody.
We talked for awhile, he asked about my parents and my life, then we said our goodbyes.
Black History Month
Today, in my forties, not a year goes by that I don’t think about Ellsworth, especially during Black History Month.
His name isn’t written down somewhere in a best-selling book, recounting tales of the things he did that changed the landscape of race and equality in our country. But as it pertains to the book of my own life, he made history, and his name is there in the pages.
Even today, try as I might, I still can’t comprehend how or why a group of people would be treated differently because of the color of their skin. And I have Ellsworth to thank for that. He took something that the world said was “strange” and showed me that it was beautiful, the very handiwork of God.
Above and Below
I don’t know what I believe about heaven. I don’t where it is, or what it’s like, but scripture gives us a few glimpses of it.
One passage, in particular says this;
Scripture teaches us that heaven is vast, diverse, and beautiful.
Jesus also taught us to pray that it would be “on earth as it is heaven” or “as it is above, so below.” And I’m grateful to have seen glimpses of that in my life because of people like Ellsworth Jackson.
For how far we’ve come as a species in matters of race and equality, something in my mind can’t help but thinking that hastening justice has so much to do with what we teach our children about diversity— not only by what we say, but also by our behavior in moments of awkwardness or strangeness with people who are different from us.
Who’s at your table? Who are your friends? Who goes to your church? Are you ever forced out of your comfort zone having to engage those who are different? If not, you’re not living in the real world. These moments of discomfort are not something to shy away from, but opportunities to understand one another better.
Andre Henry said it well when he wrote;
That couldn’t be more true (and it’s been true for a very long time).
Every day of our lives is an opportunity to connect with people who are different from us in ways that bring a little more heaven to earth. In fact, if we don’t believe that (or don’t want to believe that) we’re going to be really shocked by what we see when we get to heaven.