A few months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I boarded a plane headed for Merida, Mexico.
Air travel was tense in those days. And it was really intense for those of us who have dark hair, dark eyes and darker skin.
My passport was scrutinized for quite some time. There seemed to be real concern around the idea that my “so-called” last name was Italiano ... which was suspiciously not Arabic-sounding enough to match my appearance.
That had been my last name my entire life long and would continue to be for a few more years until I got married.
When I got to Merida, I ran into another challenge. Everyone assumed that I must speak Spanish because, clearly, I was from a Central or South American country. Amazingly, all these years later, that still happens to me frequently — here in Bradenton.
Regrettably, I could not speak Spanish then and do not speak it now.
Then when I got married and my last name became Lee, misconceptions still happened. I showed up to speak at a conference in another part of the country and a participant came up to me, looked at my named tag and said, “Oh, I assumed you’d be Asian.”
Oddly enough, no one ever assumes that I am Italian or Czech, which I am. And if I thought I had it tough, that’s nothing compared to what my children go through. People assume all kinds of things about their racial/ethnic backgrounds.
I worry that sometimes we make assumptions about Jesus, too. We were doing some cleaning around the church office a couple weeks ago and came across what I would call the standard North American picture of Jesus with lighter skin and lighter hair, albeit with what my grandparents would have called “hippie hair.”
I know it’s often hard to hear and even harder to imagine, but from an anthropological perspective, one would be hard-pressed to make the case that that’s what Jesus looked like.
But does it really matter what Jesus looked like? Does Jesus having long hair or a crew cut change the reality that He died for our sins?
Does a light-skinned Jesus or a dark-skinned Jesus impact our salvation? I should hope not.
Jesus is the image of God in the world. So our descriptions of Jesus fall short unless we describe Him as the very face of God.
Adults could learn a thing or two about how we talk about people from our children. I love asking my youngest about her friends. And sometimes I’ll get confused as to which one she is talking about, so I’ll ask, “What does he look like?”
Inevitably she’ll say, “Mom! You know! He wears the blue shirt with the green sneakers and he likes stuffed animals.”
Sure, she could be describing thousands of members of the human race, but that’s the point — she sees them as humans and doesn’t divide them according to race.
There is no denying that these are difficult days for our nation in regards to race relations. The assumptions that are made are far too many to recount and many of them would be wrong anyway.
But, as followers of Jesus, what would our country be like if we just assumed that everyone was made in the image of God and then we started treating them as though we believe that to be true?
Let’s give it a try.
The Rev. Dr. Hope Italiano Lee, lead pastor of Kirkwood Presbyterian Church and The Well, can be reached at 941-794-6229, email@example.com or biggreenchurch.org. Faith Matters is a regular feature of Saturday’s Bradenton Herald written by local clergy members.