Thoughts on Edward Gilbreath


Before I reflect on Edward Gilbreath’s presentation this morning at the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College allow me to jot down something that struck me apart from Gilbreath’s talk.  It is simply this:  I like how the Festival brings together people, both those who know each other, and cross paths again because of the Festival, and also those who may never have met.  All across campus today I saw old friends catching up and new friends getting to know each other.

After Gilbreath’s talk, I bumped into my friend Chris Meehan, a former religion editor at the Grand Rapids Press and Kalamazoo Gazette who now does media relations for the Christian Reformed Church in North America.  Chris is a talented author in his own right, and a top-notch journalist. He, like me, was interested in Gilbreath’s journalistic take on race and reconciliation.  And he plans to write about the talk for the CRC news Web site.

I also met a 2005 Cornerstone University graduate who shares the last name of my brother-in-law.  Nicole Beauchamp now lives in Milwaukee, her hometown.  She loves the Festival of Faith & Writing (this is her third one) and she loves Calvin.  So I asked her why she went to Cornerstone instead of Calvin, no offense to Cornerstone which is a fellow CCCU school and doing a lot of good things.  But I was genuinely curious.  Her answer: someone she knew in Milwaukee had gone to Cornerstone; she had never heard about Calvin.  Makes sense.  But I did tell her we are in the middle of a web project intended to perhaps help more people hear about Calvin electronically. 

So what about Gilbreath?  He spoke in Swets Hall in the FAC at the same time that Calvin English professor Don Hettinga was doing an interview in the FAC Auditorium with Michael Chabon.  Tough competition!  Yet Swets Hall was packed; again people were literally spilling into the aisles.  And the 75+ folks in attendance got their money’s worth.  Gilbreath was engaging, interesting, compelling, challenging.  And he said some important things for people to ruminate on.

He spoke about, and read from, his book Reconciliation Blues, subtitled A  Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity.  An editor at large for Christianity Today, Gilbreath has that journalistic style to his writing that I always appreciated.  He also has a good sense of humor and struck me as someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously.  In fact he joked at the beginning of his talk that “I don’t know if I’m going to be as eloquent as Barack Obama, but I do love America.”  Good line.  And then he proceeded to be as eloquent as Barack!

I especially liked a passage he read from his book about being bused to school as a child and also bused to church, to a white church.  He contrasted those experiences a little, talking about the school bus in yellow with its sharp angles and uncomfortable seat; the church bus in brown and white with the friendly driver, its round corners and its supportive seats.  He talked about having to get up early for school, traveling further to school than some of his friends and getting home later.  It was inconvenient he said, yet a little bit of a status symbol too.  Buses, he said, became a strange symbol for who he was.  “Our sense of worth was tied to those yellow buses.”

I was struck by this anecdote later in his talk when Gilbreath reflected on the sometime-strangeness of being the only African American editor at Christianity Today.  His colleagues, he recalled, would invariably want his opinion on all things African American.  Charles Barkley, Jesse Jackson, you name it, the call would arise to “get Ed’s take on that.”  It got old.  Yet there he was conflicted too.  I sometimes enjoyed it, he admitted.  When another African American would show up in the CT offices, Gilbreath joked, I would say, hey, these are my white people; get your own.  A good line, to be sure, but telling too.  It reminded me of the bus anecdote.  Perhaps a bus of a different color yet again.

Indeed as Gilbreath said:  “No single person can legitimately represent an entire race.”  That’s why, Gilbreath said, writers need to dive into the greyness, to explore the areas between black and white that make up the reality of racial reconciliation, and to help people see more clearly.   And when it comes to racial reconciliation, Christians, he said, need to live out the words of Second Corinthians 5:16, where it says:  “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.” 

We don’t have to see folks the way we used to, he said.  It’s time to stop looking at people through those wordly eyes.  Lots to ponder …

~posted by Phil de Haan, director of communications and marketing


One Response to “Thoughts on Edward Gilbreath”

  1. 1 What I Discovered at Calvin « Reconciliation Blog

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