Eight Minutes, Forty Six Seconds

  • Jack Heppner, Author
  • Retired Educator

Recently I heard Al Sharpton speak at the funeral service for George Floyd in Minneapolis. As Martin Luther King, Jr. did 50 years ago, he proclaimed that this is the time for major changes in society; that the work begun in the 1860s to liberate black folks is still not done. Yes, he said, we have eliminated slavery, overcome Jim Crow laws, outlawed segregation, and now it is time to eliminate police brutality and social injustices that still remain.

I remember being captivated by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. As a young university student and later as a teacher I was inspired by his famous speech, “I Have a Dream.” A large poster of King hung on my office door for many years even in the 1980s while teaching at Steinbach Bible College. His passion for justice and his vision for a better future stirred something deep in my soul. I felt something like a maverick, though, displaying this picture in a context where rhetoric about social and racial justice was mostly overshadowed by a focus on more “spiritual” issues. King’s dream was not dismissed outright, but you might say it was moved to the back burner. Yet I felt swept up in the dream King was talking about where the color of one’s skin did not determine one’s future.

When Sharpton called for the congregation at George’s funeral to stand for eight minutes and forty six seconds – the time a police officer’s knee was pressed against Floyd’s neck – I also stood up at my computer. As I thought about what George experienced as his life ebbed away while calling out, “I can’t breathe,” tears rolled unbidden down my cheeks. I grieved for the many people of color who have suffered police brutality over the years, but I also grieved the fact that I have found it convenient to be part of the silent majority that often fails to stand up for justice. You might say that in less than nine minutes I had a conversion experience. I knew I could not remain with the silent majority but would need to begin raising my voice on behalf of people of color.

You see, by this time in my life I have skin in this game. When I listened to King as a young man, I could never have imagined that one day seven members of my immediate family would have much darker skin than I do because of DNA imported from Africa one way or another. But gradually, as one after the other joined our family circle, Ruth and I came to a deep realization that love is accepting of all colors. Color differences need not be a barrier to mutuality and intimacy. We already had experienced a taste of this during our time in Bolivia in the 1970s where we developed intimate relationships with people of color. And it was almost a badge of honor to notice that our darker grandchildren fit right in to the local Spanish school in Santa Cruz when we visited Carl and Kathy and their family there in 2008. So by now there is no turning back; my family includes various shades of black and brown and I must fight for a world in which they all will experience justice and feel at home. To remain silent is to be complicit in injustice.

Someone recently said to her dark-skinned son, “Now you are a cute kid, but soon you will be a young man who will be seen as a threat because of your skin color.” It struck me that my 17-year-old grandson who got his driver’s license last year will be viewed differently behind the wheel than his white buddies. Or indeed his grandpa! Being six foot four with dark skin and an afro will likely get him pulled over more often than others – and then what? I must at least raise my voice to ensure that he will feel safe and secure as a young, dark-skinned adult!

Most of the discrimination experienced by people of color never makes it into the news. A cup of hot chocolate refused my daughter-in-law until her white friends piled on the attendant at The Forks. A pious, white person crossing the street in Altona to avoid meeting someone of color face-to-face. The time I called out a conservative, Mennonite lady while registering for a plot at the community garden for a racial slur she uttered, denigrating people of color. Or the unspoken fear people of color often have of being overlooked or sidelined because of their color; not something you can prove but something which is real nevertheless.

My life has truly been enriched these past few years volunteering at the Altona Community Garden where I have had the chance to get to know people of color from many places around the world. Of course it involves making allowances for cultural differences and going out of my way to make sure new immigrants have a positive experience at the garden. My heart thrills when I see cross-cultural relationships developing at the garden as neighbors meet, share experiences and even the produce they grow! There is such beauty in diversity for anyone willing to see it. I am so thankful for the many folks in Altona who have welcomed people of color from around the world and gone out of their way to help them feel at home here.

But I realize I still have personal work to do. I must do more to accept, respect and welcome new immigrants and indigenous folks into my life. And I know this cannot just be a mental exercise that I keep to myself. It will require actually getting to know and appreciate more people who are different from me. We must invite them to our house and be willing to visit them in theirs. Who knows, it might even mean that this old man will one day march for social and racial justice. Can you imagine?