Column: How kindness broke down barriers of racial prejudice

Rt Rev Geoff Pearson, Bishop of Lancaster
Rt Rev Geoff Pearson, Bishop of Lancaster
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For a moment rather than looking forward to the controversial presidential election in America, look back to November 2008.

President Obama, the first black president, is elected. In response a small group of white nationalists starts to strategise for the years ahead. They see Obama as an anti-white radical and they are going to fight to restore white America.

Alongside these white supremacists is a young man of 19 called Derek Black. He has grown up with both parents heavily involved in the movement of white nationalism.

Derek’s early impact is to design a white nationalist website for children and he is heavily committed to running a radio show which peddled his beliefs.

Derek at some point moves to a college in Florida where he keeps his convictions quiet but nevertheless sustains his radio work and other aspects of the movement. However, eventually, he is exposed as a white supremacist.

What was the response? He was immediately required to move off campus. While many shunned him, one of Derek’s acquaintances, an Orthodox Jew called Michael, decided the best chance to affect Derek’s thinking was not to ignore or confront him but simply to include him. So Derek was invited to regularly attend a Shabbat dinner on a Friday evening to join with a small group of students. Derek agreed to go. It was the only social invitation he had received.

In brief that group offered friendship and treated him like anybody else. Through the conversation and interaction Derek became more confused about what he believed. There followed a slow and steady disaffiliation for white nationalism. Derek came to apologise for the damage done and has even come to admire President Obama.

I hope we can receive more stories like that from across the pond. Stories of hope. And well done to that group of students for their friendship and their culture of welcome and invitation.

Last week I was critical of some students for standing on their rights. I trust this story reflects another, more positive side.