A few weeks ago, my wife Neva surprised me with what we thought could be a great opportunity. Neva is from Southern California, and she now has some friends who work in Hollywood. She told me that one of her friends, who is now a producer, was putting out a request for any White individuals who might be interested in having a conversation with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi about his newest book, How to Be an Antiracist.
Neva knew that I had read his previous book, Stamped from the Beginning, and that I had just started reading How to Be an Antiracist. She wanted to know if I might be interested in having a conversation with Dr. Kendi. Of course I was! Neva gave my contact information to her friend and we set up a phone call for the next day.
I interviewed with the producer for roughly 20 minutes. She asked me about my own history in coming to terms with racism in our culture. I was also asked to elaborate on what drew me to Dr. Kendi’s work and how it has impacted me. When she learned that I was an “evangelical” pastor, we discussed some of the challenges of being a community leader in an environment where not everyone approaches issues of race and racism in the same way.
When the call was over, I was still under the impression that this was an interview for a conversation with Dr. Kendi alone. I assumed it would be the kind of Zoom conversation that might be broadcast over social media with several other individuals asking him questions. Later that night, I received an email with the following opening sentence:
We’d love it if you would join us for our How to Be An Antiracist conversation with Oprah and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi on Friday!
My jaw hit the floor. Oprah? Oprah! My first instinct was to back out of the conversation. With only three days to prepare, the thought of representing the position of a White “evangelical” pastor on the national stage was daunting. I quickly realized that my participation in such a conversation may prove to be divisive. If I’m not “Christian” enough in my words, non-Christian observers may assume Christianity has nothing unique to say to the issues of race. Then again, if I’m not “Christian” enough for the Christian audience, they may assume I’ve bought wholesale into secular ideas surrounding race and racism. The thought of receiving criticism from both sides on a massive scale produced great fear and trembling in my soul.
I’m not sure if Neva sensed this fear in me or not. However, it was her encouragement which gave me the courage to move forward with the interview. “You’re thoughtful, well read, and passionate about sharing Christ with others. I can’t think of anyone better fit for this conversation.” In my head I was thinking, “I know plenty of people better fit for such a conversation!” But Neva believed in me, and that was enough.
I spent the next three days preparing night and day for my conversation with Oprah. This meant sacrificing time with my family and mother-in-law, who I had not seen in over a year. They were understanding and supportive of my studies as I prepared for every possible opportunity to speak winsomely with the love of Christ.
It was important to me during this time that I stay humble about this opportunity I was given only by the light and goodness of God’s providence. I only shared this opportunity with a few close friends, asking them to pray for me. I cherished their prayers and truly believe God answered them in strengthening me for this opportunity.
On Friday afternoon, the time came for me to get on the Zoom call to prepare for the discussion. For the first hour, I was spending time with several producers who made sure our backgrounds, lighting, and sound would be a good fit for the broadcast.
After some time had passed, I heard someone in the studio say loudly, “Ms. Winfrey is on her way!” All of a sudden, a full cleaning crew came out and meticulously cleaned the studio where Oprah would be. It was then that I realized how seriously they were taking COVID-19. Every piece of furniture was covered until the last minute, every employee was wearing a mask and gloves, and every surface was wiped down thoroughly before she entered the room without any protection on. I was impressed. No one would ever see how serious they’re taking this pandemic, but it’s clear they are consistent in their words and practice.
When Oprah sat down, I expected to be overcome by nervousness or fear. I wasn’t. She has a very warm and inviting presence. Perhaps it was observing her rehearse and review her notes for a few minutes before we started that made me realize – she’s human too. This doesn’t have to be a conversation between a superstar, a famous author, and some average people like me. It can be a conversation between seven human beings doing their best to bring hope, joy, and justice to the world.
For the next 90 minutes, we had a very wonderful, natural, and fruitful conversation about racism in America. The five of us panelists who were chosen were all White Americans who had recently read Dr. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist. While I have been on my journey to understand racism and advocacy for racial justice for some time, it was clear to me that the other panelists only recently had their eyes opened to racial injustice in America. I was struck by how honest each panelist was about their blindness, hard hearts, and complicity in racist ideas and policies. It was very moving.
I was selected to go first in the conversation. In a way, my role as a pastor and community leader, and the challenges I have faced in discussing race and racism, framed much of the conversation.
After my initial responses, the conversation went to some of the other panelists but often returned to me. I did my best to speak humbly and honestly from my Christian faith, and I hope those who watch the broadcast will assume the best of my intentions. Without giving too much away, I was able to speak of the importance for Christians to confess their sins, connect with Dr. King’s ideas of racial justice, and acknowledge the poor history White evangelicalism has in addressing race but with the hope for a growing movement of White evangelicals who are now addressing racial injustice in their churches and communities.
I was also able to connect one of my answers to the story of Cain and Abel when Cain asks of God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I told the other members of the conversation that I am trying to teach other Christians that the answer to this question is, “Yes.” We are responsible for one another, including one another’s sins and misfortunes, and therefore must approach issues of injustice differently from the individualistic culture surrounding us.
My last response in the conversation revolved around the subject of power, and how Christians must uniquely approach the abuse of power from a position that is informed by the gospel.
I have no clue how I might be edited for the final broadcast. However, I believe Oprah is very fair in how she portrays others on her program, and I sensed no ill-will from her, her producers, or anyone else. I know that any editing of my responses will be for the sake of time, not to edit my message. My hope is that even if I am edited my responses will be faithful to Christ and his gospel.
When the conversation ended, Oprah expressed immense gratitude for all of us. She was very kind and encouraging with her words. While I originally feared what it might be like to converse with someone of her stature and intellect, I now wish the conversation could have gone on for hours. It was a real joy, and probably one of the most unique things I will ever do in my life.
Once Oprah exited the studio, I returned to another digital waiting room with all of the producers. Several of them were in tears. They exclaimed how awesome, honest, and moving the conversation was. Several said they believe this conversation will advance the national conversation on race.
I don’t know, that might be overstating things. But who knows what God will do?