By Nate Millheim, M.Div., Co-founder, Shalom of Oakland
Editor’s note: In 2008, Nate Millheim relocated to East Oakland and founded Shalom of Oakland. The organization runs after-school programs for children, and hires young adults from the neighborhood as interns to staff the program and develop leadership skills. This year, they have launched a basketball league for young men. Through its programs, Shalom of Oakland focuses on discipleship, teaching people to follow Jesus in every dimension of life.
How did I get here? I found myself in a cabin in the mountains of Central California surrounded by high school students from a suburban church youth group. I was the visiting camp speaker. My mind drifted back to my home in East Oakland, to after-school programs and basketball practices. I hoped the neighbors wouldn’t party too hard on this Saturday night. My wife was home alone with our three kids, and I knew she would be tired. This afternoon, I just wanted to relax and get to know some of the students in this youth group. For someone who has gotten used to the sounds of gunshots and intoxicated young men fighting in the street in the middle of the night, a couple days in the mountains with some kids from the suburbs should be relaxing, right?
Then it happened. I overheard a middle-aged man with the church group begin to talk about “those people.” You know, there are “those women” who keep having babies to get more money from the government. Then there are “those people” who were given housing after Hurricane Katrina but were ungrateful and irresponsible. Then there are “those people” who think they deserve our help while they won’t take care of their own kids. You can’t help “those people” because they will ruin anything that is given to them. A couple of heads nodded in agreement.
An adrenaline rush hit my veins. My breathing sped up and my chest felt tight. I was also confused. Didn’t I already deliver a half-hour message about what it looks like to follow Jesus and give our own lives away for the sake of others? Didn’t I already tell all my best stories about compassion and reconciliation, becoming a blessing to the world in the spirit of the Abrahamic Covenant? Surely he knew I would be offended. The youth pastor had hyped up my family’s life change and relocation to East Oakland in a way that actually made me feel a bit uncomfortable, but a point was definitely made.
I couldn’t take what I was hearing from this man’s mouth anymore, so I interjected. A debate ensued. It was awkward and confusing. I tried to calm down, to listen to the Spirit of God as we spoke, but I was angry. I had made it personal. I had allowed the volume of my voice to move up a notch or two.
“So you’re telling me that all the little boys and girls that I know and love in East Oakland asked to grow up in a violent neighborhood? So it’s their fault, and they don’t deserve any compassion from anybody? They don’t deserve food or a decent education? Really? Is that what you are saying?”
Yes, he was saying something like that. It went on and on, bewildering me. We finally started talking directly about race and the conversation somehow went even more downhill. Apparently he didn’t take into account that most of the people I spend my days with are African-American, Latino or Asian, and that I love my friends like brothers and sisters. My mini American history lesson from the perspective of people of color didn’t go over too well either. When the conversation died down I finally walked to the auditorium where I would soon deliver another message about the compassion and servanthood of Jesus, and I felt a level of sorrow and frustration that I rarely feel.
How did I get here? What am I doing here? Was speaking to these people a worthy use of my energy? Again, how did I get here?
Redeeming in the ghetto, redeeming in the suburbs
Perhaps this particular man will never become compassionate in the way that I would like, but is there no hope? If I believe that God can redeem the mind and soul of a 50-year-old person in the ghetto who stands on the corner drinking beer and smoking weed most of the day, why can’t I believe that God can redeem a 50-year-old wealthy businessman from the suburbs?
I asked the Spirit to guide me as I prayed desperately for some wisdom and peace before delivering another talk that night. I pondered Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan that I was about to tell from the stage. Is this man my neighbor? Sometimes I’d like to just write off “those people” or “those Christians” or “those rich white Christians” who haven’t seen the light of reconciliation, community development, and compassion. But I’m not sure that my God gives me that option.
The weak and insecure part of me wants to yell at this man and then gallop away on my high horse back to my pursuit of a life of love and reconciliation in East Oakland, but I don’t think that would be living the way of love that Jesus taught.
Nate Millheim lives in East Oakland with his wife, Andrea, and their three children. After serving as a youth pastor in the East Bay area of California, Nate worked with an innovative organization called Reimagine in San Francisco. In 2008, Nate and Andrea founded Shalom of Oakland. Nate enjoys playing and coaching basketball and exploring the beauty and diversity of Oakland with his family.
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