by Carsten Thomsen | 20 January 2023 |
I was born in Denmark in 1949, in a white, Protestant culture. Multiculturalism had not yet arrived.
Our family moved to the United States when I was nine years old. We moved from the biggest Adventist enclave in Denmark—centered around the Skodsborg Sanitarium—to its model in Battle Creek, Michigan.
Battle Creek had its white and black districts. The black districts were perceived as poorer, not as clean, and not as desirable.
But as a summer mail carrier in Battle Creek, I probably delivered mail to most residences in the town. I sensed a special aura in the black community, with more kids playing on the street and more life.
There were two churches in town: the Battle Creek Tabernacle, and a few blocks down Van Buren Street, the Berean church. One Sabbath, a friend and I ventured to the Berean church, and were overwhelmed during the break after Sabbath School by the warm welcomes and endless invitations to come home with people for lunch. We had never experienced anything like it. But we also felt uneasiness and discomfort with the situation, so we declined.
Then there was my dear aunt. For eight years she showed up every day in her Ford Galaxy at Battle Creek Academy and drove me home from school. She was a sweet, kind, and generous person, a retired career nurse from the U.S. Army. But she was also a member of the John Birch Society and Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. She bombarded me with racist tirades about the joint conspiracy of the blacks, Jews, and Communists—along with how terrible women drivers were.
In my four years at Andrews University, I primarily stayed in my WASP bubble. Exposure to academic thinking broadened my tunnel vision slightly. It was in the days of the rebellious late 60s, and I was attracted to “liberal” teachers at Andrews such as Don McAdams, Herold Weiss, and Roy Branson.
But even though the campus was more multicultural than it once had been, it had little influence on me. I remember one day in the Tuesday morning chapel in Pioneer Memorial Church when the speaker said “Yes, even some of my best friends are black.” A shocked gasp at his perceived pandering rippled through the audience.
A life-changing experience
And then, one day after graduating, on a visit to the East Coast, I had a life-changing experience.
In the train between New York and Philadelphia, I sat across from a black couple who owned a shoe store in Newark. They struck up a conversation, and I was immediately filled by the warmth and graciousness that they radiated, their joy of life, the vitality and love of their demeanor.
I was struck with extreme guilt when I found myself secretly wishing that they had been my parents. My parents were good parents, but disciplined and not experienced in expressing emotions. The black couple illuminated an empty spot in my heart.
I realized that my early environment had inculcated a form of subconscious racism in my whole being. And having received this as a child and young person, it became part of my reflexes and second nature. Throughout my life, I have struggled to open up. Opening up to other races, cultures, musical expressions, sexual expressions, food types, and other religions.
However, I also had this great privilege: I worked in “worldly” organizations. They sent me on world-wide travel where I experienced many different cultures on their terms. I was never welcomed in the airport by local Adventists, like a pastor would be, surrounded by people who would keep me safe in the Adventist bubble.
This was a great blessing and helped to broaden my horizons. But it still hasn’t been easy!
So am I a racist? Are my parents and aunt guilty? Is the Battle Creek environment guilty?
Is my acquired “systemic racism” part of my “original sin,” a burden that I must carry the rest of my life?
The answers may not be easy, but in retrospect I see that train ride 50 years ago to Philadelphia as a seminal event. It wasn’t me going out into the world to convert the world. Instead, the Lord sent that wonderful couple to convert me! By showing their love and graciousness they started me on the journey to vaporize the prejudices burned into my subconsciousness.
Carsten Thomsen is a recently retired electronics engineer having lived in Michigan and Austin, Texas, and now again in Denmark. He has two daughters, three grandchildren, and a wife who has been resting in her grave for eight years. She often said, when Carsten dies they’ll put him in the casket with a computer mouse in one hand and digital camera in the other. Among the delights of retirement is getting his daily kick as a year-round winter bather.