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Contact Theory

Now and then, parishioners will send me email responses about what I said or wrote, or simply send me articles they’ve read and which they believe would be interesting to me. Last week, a parishioner sent me a response to the article I wrote for our weekly newsletter. You will learn more about the magnificent work he is doing in the future. Reading his reaction to the article I wrote felt special. It felt like we had been speaking to each other about a particular subject.

A few months ago, a parishioner sent me an article about a journalist who grew up in West Baltimore. His parents, a White mother and a Black father dated in the early to mid-60s. The parents never married, not because they didn’t want to get married to each other, but because the woman’s family-Irish Catholics and the society at large didn’t approve of multi-racial relationships.

Both the man and the woman were once arrested by the police. The mother’s dad assaulted his father and called him the N-word. Cab drivers wouldn’t take the man to the woman’s neighborhood. Drivers honked when they saw the two of them together. People stared at them when they saw them walk together. The ecosystem was simply hostile to an interracial relationship. The one place where neither the man nor the woman felt any level of hostility was in the man’s home and neighborhood.

Despite the hostility, they had two children, but the children didn’t know their mother, nor did they have any relationship with the mother. They also didn’t know the mother’s family, nor did they have any relationship with them. It wasn’t until the firstborn, the journalist was about to enroll in college that it was revealed to him that his mother was White, and had the chance to visit his mother, who had spent years at Crownsville Hospital Center. The woman was diagnosed with schizophrenia and so she spent her years in that dreaded facility, which has since been closed. The sad part is that her children didn’t know that their mother had schizophrenia until they saw her.

The journalist narrated two turning points in his life. First, when he first saw his mother. Second, his relationship with his mother’s sister. According to Mr. Blake, his first meeting with his mother shattered all the hostility towards White people that he had known all through his life. When he enrolled in college, he made friends with Whites and joined a White evangelical church.

Second, when he connected with her mother’s sister, he expected an apology from her. But since he didn’t get an apology, he stopped communicating with her. It just happened that Aunt Mary wrote letters to him, but he didn’t read those letters and stored them away because he didn’t hear what he thought the aunt had to say. But when he finally opened those letters as a result of an experience he had, he realized that Aunt Mary had been apologizing all along. He just hadn’t read those letters. In one of her letters, Aunt Mary wrote, “I will state that God, you, and Pat gave me a second chance.” That was enough to change the relationship between John and Aunt Mary - to the point where Aunt Mary referred to him as family.

How did this happen? Contact Theory.

Professor Gordon Allport, in his book “The Nature of Prejudice,” challenged the idea that racist attitudes cannot be overcome. Professor Allport’s research determined that racial prejudice declines when different racial groups engage one another over a longer period, working together on a common purpose.

I am not exactly sure if Jim Rouse, the founder of Columbia, read Professor Allport’s book but it seems to me that his vision for Columbia is in sync with the hope that Allport’s theory expresses - that living together, playing together, working together, shopping together, worshiping together, eating together, going to school together, walking together and exercising together, is a sure ingredient in creating a more harmonious community where reduced prejudice makes for a thriving people.

There’s no doubt that Jim Rouse’s vision and the hope expressed by Gordon Allport have been challenged in terms of inequity, homelessness, food insecurity, poverty, and low income. Despite these challenges, I am tempted to believe that every single person who moved to Columbia believed that he or she was committing himself to be a part of a vision that is directed towards minimizing racial tension and overcoming racial animus.

As we celebrate Black History Month, I am reminded of the challenges that persist in our community and that African Americans have to deal with. Still, I remain hopeful.

The fact is that Contact Theory doesn’t dismiss or minimize differences, some of which may be stark. Contact Theory thrives on the idea that sustained interaction, working together and relationship building is what would lead us, both Whites and Blacks to overcome racial mistrust.

Listen to John: “Facts don’t change people; relationships do.” In other words, it is not a question of the mind, but a question of the heart. And if it is a question of the heart, then maybe it’s about time you begin to develop thriving relationships with those who don’t look like you or sound like you.

If Mr. Blake’s relationship with his mother and Aunt Mary could change him, so can a relationship change you - don't be afraid to nurture one.



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