Brandon has called me "brother" since he was 10 years old. Today he's 22, and our differing skin color is the biggest clue that we come from different mothers. My boyhood was spent in the obscure northwoods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Brandon grew up on the northside of St. Louis, among our city's most troubled streets. For a couple years he lived in Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb now nationally associated with racial tension.
It appears that a decision will soon be announced in the grand jury case involving Officer Darren Wilson, who on Aug. 9th fatally shot an unarmed black teen, Mike Brown. There is an edgy anxiety in the city, as our community braces for possible protests that could return us to the August rioting.
Brandon has given me a 12 year tutorial in what it's like to grow up as a young black man in St. Louis. The issues are far more complex than race. Twisted cycles of economics, education, family life, and race all collide to put groups of people into hopeless patterns.
Brandon grew up without his father. He attended four different schools from 8th grade to high school graduation. Today, every one of those schools is closed. One of his brothers was tragically shot two years ago. Another brother recently completed a three year prison sentence. Through Brandon's eyes, I have seen the complex realities of poverty, crime, and race.
The burning question is, "How do we bridge the divide?" "How do we begin to address racial division and socio-economic disadvantage?" The simplest place I can begin is by knowing who my neighbor is. Jesus' Great Commandment compels me to know the story, the needs, and the challenges of my neighbor. But many times, all we know of our neighbor is a 30 second sound bite on the news. A recent survey found that 75% of whites in America don't have any non-white friends. You can't bridge the divide when you don't know the other side.
Knowing our neighbor is critical to building the mutual understanding necessary to make societal change. This requires being intentional in our relationships. It takes time, humility, and patience. Any policy, program, or plan for reconciliation in our city (and country) must be founded on meaningful relationships fostered between those who are different from one another.
Brandon calls me his "big brother," but my life has been far more impacted by this "little brother." He has given me a gift in sharing his life with me and my family. I'm grateful that Brandon graduated 4 years ago, and that today he's attending a local community college. My "little brother" is now a "big brother" to my children, their lives enriched by a young man with a childhood so different from their own.