The classroom was dark and musty. Minute rays of sunlight snuck through the blinded windows, and the dust danced in its spotlight. It was silent.
“How is it that America is a Christian nation?” a voice, charged with significance, bellowed from the front. The professor turned on the projector and dimly lit the faces of his intent students and repeated, more slowly: “How is it that America is a *Christian* nation, when they do things like this . . .”
An image of black men hanging from trees flitted on the board. The slide projector clicked, an image of black men lying in the street, click, a picture of segregated fountains and bathrooms, click, click, click. More and more proof of America’s racism lit up the darkness and overwhelmed me with rage.
“Louis Farrakhan,” the teacher began explaining, “a leader of the Nation of Islam and whom I am a follower of, says ‘There really can be no peace without justice. There can be no justice without truth. And there can be no truth, unless someone rises up to tell you the truth.’ Students, this is what I am here to do, to tell you the truth. We didn’t choose to come here,” he said and waited. “We were brought over. We have been treated like property, our rights and human dignity stripped from us.” He spoke with confidence and authority. He understood.
Everything I’d seen and experienced in my 25 years of life confirmed what this man’s voice suggested— we were seen as less than.
He turned on the lights. There was one white kid in the room, the rest were my people.
“Welcome to African American Studies at San Jose State.”
My dad died when I was 8 months old. And being the last of my mother’s 16 children made me the biggest reminder of my father. She and I were tied at the hip, but I craved a father figure.
So, when the coach of the local Salvation Army basketball team recruited me, I couldn’t say anything but yes. I was the only black kid on the team with a white coach, and he said he was a Christian. My dad had been a preacher and my mom had a Bible, so what could be wrong?
In the back of my mind, my mom’s advice kept pricking me: “Always show respect to them, but you can never really trust white people.”
But, I trusted this guy. He knew I didn’t have a dad, and by the rags I wore, that we were poor. Nothing seemed off when he’d encourage me, or buy me clothes and food.
My 9-year-old mind couldn’t wrap itself around me being anything but a son to him. Still, when he started touching me and telling me to do things with him that made me progressively uncomfortable, I didn’t know what to do. And, even then he’d convinced me that he loved me. As the months went on, I became more and more filled with disgust and hatred for this father figure — and myself.
He was a man of God, so he claimed. He encouraged us as a team to go to church, he’d play us hard on the court, and then he’d have his way with me.
I spit to an invisible god, “Why did you allow this happen to me?” And even far after that sadistic relationship ended, I willingly fell into what my older brothers were doing with girls. I had to prove myself to them, to gain their respect and even my own.
He was here. My mom sat at the table resigned, but upright in posture. Dressed in my nicest clothes, I stood up and opened the door.
“Thanks for coming,” I said to the Marine Corps representative, leading him into the house. As he approached the dining room table, my mom stood up and shook his hand. Our chairs scuffed the floor as we settled in.
“I can understand why this is difficult for you, Mrs. Lowery,” he began. “I want to assure you that we will take care of him. But, Thomas being only 17 and not a legal adult, we need you to sign your consent to allow him to join the Marine Corps”
My mind drifted back to the day that drove me to this moment. Three loud and piercing pops echoed in my ears as I saw my friend gunned to the ground outside of our high school. A fight had broken out during class and escalated. I didn’t know the reason behind those bullets; most gang members don’t need reasons. However, I did know that Quincy was dead.
This was going to be my future in this town.
I sensed a weighted silence in the room, and snapped back to the present. My mother and the rep were looking at me.
“Mom,” my eyes pleaded with her. “If I don’t get away, what happened to Quincy will happen to me. I know it.”
“But, I don’t want you to go,” she choked out, fearing the worst. “I can’t have you leave.”
“Mrs. Lowery, this is the best thing for him.” But, she knew that already.
It wasn’t just to escape the gangs, but they didn’t need to know that. I joined the Marine Corp. because it was the most intense branch of the military, and I needed to prove to myself I was a man. I needed to prove that I was tough and could defend myself. I needed to leave behind everything that happened to me.
However, within months of training and shipping off to Japan, the memories hunted me down. I drowned myself in alcohol, cigarettes and a string of failed relationships, and, ironically, basketball. For one hour of my day, I could dam up the overwhelming flood— the disgust, shame, guilt, memories, hatred, fear, anger, and emptiness — by being on that court.
“Hey, we are going to need you to work a longer shift. Guy after you can’t make it in. Mind taking off at 8 a.m. instead of 4?”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” I responded and hung up the phone. I made my rounds again, checking that the doors and windows were still locked. I walked around the 12 cubicles, curiously observing the belongings of people I’d never met and would probably never know as I busied myself working the security shift at night, attending San Jose State during the day, and playing ball in the afternoon.
One cubicle was filled with disorganized papers and discarded wrappers, the other a Bible and next to it a stack of tracts. I stood there, staring at it. There had been a Bible in my mother’s room growing up, the man that abused me carried a Bible . . . I tentatively picked it up. I’d forgotten how heavy those thin pages were and flipped through the miniscule script — still just as confusing as ever. I placed the Bible back and picked up the lighter piece next to it and thought at least the tract kind of made sense.
Finishing my rounds, I went back to the front desk and a squatty, soaking-wet white man walked in. His face almost covered with a massive and dripping beard, looking stone cold, austere and unpleasant — typical of a white guy, I thought.
Which cubicle is his?
He wobbled over to the one with the Bible. Classic.
Curious about the tracts, I walked over with the excuse of checking his I.D. card.
“Can I see your I.D. sir?”
“Sure,” he said pleasantly.
“Thanks Larry,” I said, peeking at his badge. I waited, trying to figure out what to ask, when he began speaking.
“Hey, so do you know the story of the prodigal son?”
I just stared at him and he began talking about a father and a son, the son doing something against the father, the son coming back and the father seeing his son return in the distance. At this point in time, Larry started crying.
Dude’s a grown man. Suck it up and quit crying, I thought to myself as I began to feel uncomfortable. Getting picked on by my brothers growing up, I swore to myself I wouldn’t cry and, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why this guy was.
My shift ended shortly after, and I went home to get some sleep before my African American Studies course. But, sleep escaped me. His face was seared into my brain. And, for three days, I couldn’t rid those red, teary eyes from my mind.
My footsteps echoed through the empty corridors as I walked in for the night shift. A solitary light from the cubicles made a portion of the room glow. It was exactly the one I was hoping for.
“What have you done to me?” I demanded after I’d checked into my security station. “What do you mean?” Larry asked confused.
“Ever since we talked a few days ago I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you and that Prodigal Son.” I had been so consumed with our conversation, that I thought he’d done some weird voodoo thing to my brain.
I sat still, my eyes following him as he reached for his Bible and flipped to the beginning. We sat there from the beginning of my shift at 8:30 p.m. until 1 in the morning talking about Jesus Christ.
He went through that ancient book and talked about a holy and righteous God. He talked about man who, because of his disobedience to God’s law, could never be in relationship to him. But, then this God sent his only Son to live on this earth. His Son, Jesus, lived a perfect life and died a brutal death for sinners to take on the punishment we all deserve. He died and was buried. After three days in a tomb, He rose to new life.
I could have a new life too, Larry said. All I had to do was repent from my sins and believe in Christ.
“So, if I heard you correctly, I can have all my sins forgiven?” Even the thought of that being true made my heart race. Everything I’d done could be washed away. All the filth and grime, cleaned . . .
“Yes,” he said smiling.
“Huh,” I sat there, thinking. “I’m gonna go to church. What church are you at?”
“My brother’s church is great,” he stated, pulling out a piece of paper and pen to write down the address.
“No.” I was suspicious. “Why not your church?” I challenged him.
He sat there, a shade of awkwardness now over him. “Well, our church has no one of color in it yet and my brother’s does. I don’t want to do anything to make you uncomfortable.”
“Where do you go and what time do I need to be there?” I asked, smiling.
That Sunday morning, I left for church and had my wife stay home —I thought there was going to be some altercation, a big black guy walking in to an all-white church how can there not be?
I can’t wait to prove Larry wrong, I thought to myself. To prove that this thing called Christianity is wrong, to confirm Christians aren’t loving to anyone outside of their own race.
When I’m proven correct, I can finally shut the door on this religion and convert to Islam like my professors had suggested.
I walked through the back door, tensed and wary. But before having the opportunity to even get into the room, a big, round white guy came up and gave me a huge handshake and hug.
I immediately stepped back, more uncomfortable than before, and painfully faking a smile.
“We are so glad to have you here today,” the overeager man said, beaming.
You mean so great to have seen a black person today?
“Do you know anyone here?”
“Oh, he’s right over there,” the man pointed. And, sitting in the first few pews closest to the front and right in the middle of the row was Larry.
I took a deep breath. Here we go.
I’d seen it on TV, some lady was going to clench her purse, or hold on to her child and move him or her away from me when I walked by. Their natural reaction will be to whisper to each other “Oh my gosh, there’s a black man.”
I started walking and nothing happened. Nothing. No one yelled or pointed. No one hid from me. I safely made it to Larry and was dumbfounded.
I was shocked. So much so, I barely paid attention to what the preacher said. I’d come there to prove Larry wrong and my professor’s right. To prove myself right: This Christianity thing was too good to be true.
But in that moment I was the one who was wrong.
After the service finished, Larry turned to me, “So, what did you think?”
“I liked it,” I stated simply. “Everyone was so nice.”
“Will you come back?”
“I think so.”
My wife and I began going, and within a month, those thoughts of being “the outsider” completely disappeared. We were relaxed there, we were loved and welcomed and never treated as different. This thing they called love was practically shown to us daily. The more interactions I had, the more services we went to, the more I was convinced that Christianity was truly different than what my teachers had made it out to be.
After the service on December 14th, I turned to Larry. “Larry, I’m ready.”
“Ready?” He questioned.
“I’m ready,” I said again.
“Oh,” he said, suddenly excited. He grabbed the pastor, and we all walked over to the back of the church and I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior.
Relief washed over my body, and I truly felt like a new man, all the struggles and mistakes of my past completely washed away because of Christ. It was a heavy burden I’d been carrying, and Christ took it off of my weary shoulders.
I’d gained a church family. They weren’t perfect, I wasn’t perfect and that’s what I loved so much. No one acted better than the other, and I was at home. This was true Christianity.
It was also humbling; these people weren’t what I assumed them to be. I had always thought, “You’re a white person, so you’re up to no good . . . eventually you’ll do something wrong, history proves it, my life proves it,” but I came to realize it’s not about the color of a man’s skin, it’s the color of his heart.
Over the years I’ve asked, “Lord, why me?” Now, almost 22 years since giving my life to Christ, I’ve become surer of the answer.
The Lord put some burdens on me, but knew I’d be able to take them and come out on the other side with a genuine and deep love for His people and a different perspective on life that I can hopefully pass on to kids. He gave me a genuine love for youth and the desire to protect and prepare them.
Through the trials, I discovered a passion for basketball and, eventually, that passion led to something people search their whole life for, a calling. My calling is coaching. And, I’ve gotten to fulfill that calling in many places but am now graced to fulfill that here, at The Master’s University where I get to coach young men to not only be excellent players, but excellent, genuine and joyful men of faith. I get such a joy out of doing what I do.
Coach Thomas Lowery is Assistant Coach for the nationally No. 1 ranked men’s basketball team at The Master’s University. For schedules, bios, and team information, go to gomustangs.com.
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