Somewhere around the seventh grade, The Salvation Army stationed my parents to the Virgin Islands.
When most people learn that I lived in the Caribbean, they make some comment about how lucky I was. They ask about the beaches and the sunshine. It’s not dissimilar to when out-of-towners think when they learn that I am stationed in Niagara Falls. Many think of waterfalls and honeymoons.
While I love this city, those who live here know there is more to it than what we put on the postcards.
My years in the Virgin Islands were the hardest of my life. At a time when I desperately wanted to fit in, I was forced to stand out. My sister and I were the only white students in our school. And while the white tourists were treated like royalty, the school uniform that I wore was a big bullseye on my back announcing to the whole island that I was not a tourist. I was fair game for classmates, teachers, the principal and even total strangers.
People hated me because I was different. People made fun me because I was different. People attacked me because I was different. And when I fought back, I learned that the people who hated me also also had power over me.
When an upper class man beat me up because I refused to clean milk off his sneaker, I was suspended, and he went back to class. When my sister, who now has multiple world-class art degrees, turned in her ‘Black History’ poster for the annual art contest, it was lost. Her teacher told my parents that the contest wasn’t really for her anyway.
I tried to adapt. I learned to talk like an islander. I embraced the food and music of the islands. But couldn’t change the way I looked. So, I did what I thought I had to do to ‘survive.' Eventually, surviving got me kicked out of that school and sent back to the states a few months ahead of my family. My accent faded. I began to dress more like those around me and life went on, at least for a couple of years.
Upon graduating The Salvation Army’s training college, my wife and I were sent to Staten Island to be the leaders/pastors of a predominantly West Indian and African American congregation.
We loved our first appointment. There was a lot of need and we worked hard. We were particularly involved in youth programing. Our hope was to help the young people we worked with make it out of their current situation. We tried to give them opportunities that they may not have otherwise had.
One of our teenagers, we’ll call him Tony, had gotten his girlfriend pregnant. At just age 19, Tony sat in my office in tears as he shared how he wanted to be a good father for his soon to be child. Tony didn’t have a relationship with his dad. He didn’t even know who his father was, but he was determined to give his child a better life. It was the beginning of our Christmas season so I gave Tony a job as a bell ringer and told him that if he worked hard, I would make some calls and help him find something more permanent and give him a strong work reference.
Tony turned out to be one of my hardest workers that season. His kettles always came back full. I received positive comments from the store managers wherever he was sent. And he was never late for work, until the day he was. It was a Saturday morning, I was sitting in a van full of bell ringers in front of The Salvation Army and everyone in the van was frustrated because I hadn’t left. I was frustrated with Tony because he hadn’t shown up for work, but I didn’t want to leave him. It wasn’t like him to be late.
In frustration, I got out of van and stepped into the street and looked toward the Stapleton Projects where Tony lived. As I looked up the street, about a block and a half up, there was Tony. His head was being shoved into a building by one police officer while another patted him down. I ran up the block in record time. When I questioned the officers about why they were harassing one of my kids (when you are a pastor, they are all your kids), I was told that he was acting suspicious. When I pressed further, I was told he was wearing an oversized coat and running down the street.
He was wearing the coat that I gave him because it gets cold standing next to that red kettle. He was running because I told him I expected him to be on time to work every day. This kid was doing everything I told him he needed to do to make it and still he walked away with cuts on his face for running to work.
I flashed back to that white kid in the principal’s office getting suspended for the crime of being white on a Black island.
This kid was being punished for being Black in a white world.
I’m not trying to make a statement about the police or about school principals for that matter.
Rather, my point is that I was able to better identify with Tony because I had tasted the sting of racism.
The difference for me was that after a couple of years I got to return to a world advantage and safety.
In 1895, Mary T. Lathrap wrote “Walk a mile in his moccasins before you abuse, criticize and accuse. If just for one hour, you could find a way to see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.”
Maybe, rather than jumping on social media and complaining about all the protesting, I could offer you another option.
Consider doing the hard work of crossing the racial line and talking to someone whose experience differs from yours.
We can change the world if we allow people to change us.
Major Steve Carroll serves with his wife Major Delia Carroll as the commanding officers of The Salvation Army Niagara Falls corps. If you would like to reconnect with him or learn how to Join the Fight for Good email him at Stephen.Carrolljr@use.salvationarmy.org.