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Ethnic loyalties must be overcome to achieve racial harmony

Ethnic loyalties must be overcome to achieve racial harmony
by Rodolpho Carrasco
in Religion News Service 1998
(Rodolpho Carrasco is associate director of Harambee Christian Family Center in Pasadena, Calif. and a columnist for the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group. Check out more articles by Rodolpho Carrasco here.)

PASADENA, Calif. -- Much of my time lately has been spent pondering the ethnic conflicts coming to 21st-century Southern California.

My native Los Angeles is now home to more than 100 different ethnic groups, all clamoring for their rights and fair share of the American dream.

And in Pasadena, where I live and work, African-Americans make up half the population, and the rest are Latinos. Sadly, it seems we are never far from an ethnic-based flare-up.

As each ethnic group struggles to advance in our highly competitive society, it seems conflicts arise more from ignorance than from cultural and economic differences.

So in 1996 when I heard about Christian Leaders Empowering for Reconciliation and Justice (CERJ), a faith-based training program in ethnic conflict-resolution that was developed and successfully implemented in South Africa, of all places, I rushed to sign up.

CERJ trains clergy and lay people to help resolve racial tensions because its leaders believe average citizens are most likely to approach spiritual leaders when they need help, and too often seminaries don't train their students how to mediate ethnic conflicts.

I visited South Africa recently to participate in CERJ training by learning directly from those who use the program's principles daily. However, one statistic I learned there left me cold: Three of the 1,400 Christian leaders who have attended CERJ training have been killed in incidents directly related to the conflicts they were mediating.

Tales of murder, death threats and time away from family and friends burdened me for days.

Then I met Trevor, a South African Anglican priest who told me the story of the Franshoek settlement.

In 1994, amidst threats and counterthreats, Trevor mediated a dispute involving a white farm owner in Franshoek, a corporate winery that wanted the farmer to grow crops for a new label, and the black laborers who lived and worked on the farm for decades and would be displaced by the new venture.

Years later, on the very day he addressed my CERJ group, the Cape Times newspaper announced a settlement in the Franshoek conflict. The media hailed the privately engineered settlement as a symbol of the new South Africa.

Trevor and one of his trainers wiped the tears from their eyes as they remembered the frustration, threats and time involved in resolving the heated dispute. But mostly, they were awed anew that mediation can work.

Efforts like Trevor's are the kind needed in Southern California -- indeed the entire nation -- if Americans are to embrace both ethnic pluralism and peace in the new millenium.

Everyone, from all faith backgrounds and every station of life, has a role to play in mitigating tensions and violence among ethnic groups. Clergy and other spiritual leaders have an especially critical role in the pro-active peacemaking process.

But the big question is whether the new peacemakers will withstand pressure from their own ethnic groups when they begin to help mediate the conflicts of others.

As a Mexican-American, I've had my ethnic allegiance questioned by some Latinos because of my strong identification with African-Americans. Although most Latinos celebrate my connection to the black community, the disapproving view still stings whenever I encounter it.

And every time I hear an African-American, or anyone else, talk about reaching out only to their own ethnic group -- no matter how benevolent the intent -- I feel pain.

Sometimes I feel foolish for trying to reach out to blacks when it seems as if no blacks are willing to reach back to Latinos. But then I remember my ministry partner Derek, an African-American who understand the biblical injunction to "bear one another's burdens."

Like Trevor, Derek carries the spirit of a torn, yet impartial mediator, who with great struggle places the good of all over the good of "his own."

Derek has drawn the ire of many in the African-American community for his work among Latinos. And that's where I come in: As Derek bears my burden to reach Latinos, so I must take on his burden to help blacks.

The racial challenge of the 21st century will require all Americans to develop practical strategies for resolving ethnic conflict. But if those skills are not accompanied by a spirit strong enough to exalt the common good over ethnic loyalties, we may settle for second best and we will lose the opportunity to walk through life with friends like Trevor and Derek.


The copyright for these materials are owned by Rudy Carrasco.  These materials were used with permission by TechMission