'From the bottom of my heart, I am sorry': How Black History Month has challenged a white woman

October is Black History Month in the UK. Last Monday I attended a Race Equality Conference, hosted by the Race Council in Wales and 4theregion. I went to represent the charity I work for and to become better informed. I left deeply challenged.

Earlier this year I attended two Windrush Generation events that celebrated the immigrants invited to the UK between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados.

WikipediaThe Empire Windrush carried hundreds of immigrants from the Caribbean to Britain.

There was one story during those events that has stayed with me. It was the story of a man who arrived at Tilbury Dock on the MV Empire Windrush with 800 others from the Caribbean on June 22, 1948.

He settled in South Wales and trained as a bus conductor. When his training was completed he expected, as anyone would, to be able to put his training into practice. However, none of the white bus drivers would let him be the conductor on their bus.

As I heard that story, I wondered how many of those drivers would have gone to church on Sunday, or in their childhood attended Sunday School. In the 40s and 50s, going to Sunday School was much more of a thing than it is now. How many of them would have sung hymns and choruses about a God that created everyone equal, heard sermons or lessons about how Jesus loves everyone – and then on Monday wouldn't let a black conductor work on their bus?

I consider myself an egalitarian. I believe that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities and I often advocate for those rights and opportunities but on Monday I realised that isn't enough. On Monday I heard the gospel 'preached' at a secular conference.

Over the past few months it has become part of my faith journey to recognise that I am called to be a repairer and restorer. I believe repair and restoration is at the heart of the gospel message. At the Race Equality Conference I heard speakers talking about reparation and how powerful and important it is. And I asked myself the question, 'What does that look like for me as a Christian?'

One of the conference speakers was Simon Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote. He said: 'A nation which has no room for difference, has no room for humanity.' This challenged me to my core. How do I as a white woman, who professes to follow the teachings of a Middle Eastern rabbi, make room for difference?

I often read church mission statements that describe their church as one that welcomes everyone, a church where you can come as you are. But do we really mean that, and have we really considered what that could look like? If people turned up in our churches as they are, would they want to stay? Do we celebrate and embrace humanity's diversity and difference?

In Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, he says this: 'You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.'

Jesus words tell me that I am the salt of the earth. Salt is used to enhance the flavour of food, it's used to stop things rotting and decaying and it's used to cleanse and purify. A little salt goes a long way.

If I want to make room for difference because I want to make room for humanity, I need to preserve our differences, savour them and appreciate them. I need to recognise their unique flavours, making room for their distinctives to be displayed. I need to tackle the rotten stuff of racism and injustice and inequality. I need to bring out the God-flavours intrinsic in each member of humanity.

Jesus also tells me that I am the light of the world. Light gives life. It gives warmth and comfort. Light dispels darkness and makes us feel safe.

If I want to make room for difference because I want to make room for humanity, I need to highlight the wonders and colours and beauty of every culture, creed and skin colour; I need my light to shine in the darkest of circumstances. Where there is racism, injustice and cruelty I need to step up, challenge and advocate.

During the conference, one contributor, Esther Standford-Xosei, posed the question to those present: 'Who am I, am I all I ought to be?'

When asked by the Pharisees in Matthew 22, 'Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?' Jesus replied: '"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind."This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: "Love your neighbour as yourself." All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.'

All we ought to be, is people who love. It is that simple and that complicated.

She also told that where we can, we need to be 'agents of repairs'. We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world: we are repairers and restorers, wherever we are and whenever we can.

For reparation and restoration to take place there has to be an acknowledgment of the damage done. We need to be able to apologise for our silence, for the pain, suffering and humiliation inflicted by people with the same skin colour as mine – to apologise for not listening and not hearing.

From the bottom of my heart, I am sorry. I cannot hear the stories and see the pain and not be sorry for the part I've played.

I can't change the past, but I can and I must influence the present and, alongside my brothers and sisters of all skin colours, I can work towards a better future where there is room for difference because there is room for humanity.

Mandy Bayton is The Cinnamon Network Advisor for Wales, a speaker and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @mandyebayton

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