If we, as believers, are to grow in grace and Christlikeness, then we must press in to that call. That means doing the work with God and one another. Though it can be difficult and uncomfortable at times to lean into hard conversations and truths, it’s something that Wycliffe USA wants to do as we seek to honor God and one another. One of the ways we can do this is by listening to the personal journeys of our own coworkers.
In our desire to lean in and learn about racial injustice, I asked Wycliffe USA staff members Javonte and Kristina Lilly to share their personal journeys with me. They reflect on how race has impacted them and how God is shaping their lives to reflect his heart.
What was your family like growing up?
Kristina: Growing up with a single mom, race was never a conversation that we had. The conversations were always about my character and my decisions but never about race. What I grew to appreciate about my mom is that whoever I brought home to hang out with, she loved and accepted like they were her own. I always had a diverse group of friends, finding meaningful friendships that always spoke to my heart and not just to my eyes. I didn’t fully realize racism was still an issue [in the world] because I never saw it at home or at school. It was something that was taught out of our history books like it was a faraway thing of the past. When I got to high school my eyes were opened to see that racism never really died at all.
Javonte: Growing up, my parents just let us be kids. It wasn’t until my teenage years that my parents began to try and guide us through what our experience could be in America because we are Black. There’s a book called “The Negro Motorist Green Book” which is essentially a guide during the Jim Crow era that would help Black people by listing safe places and non-safe places for African Americans as they traveled in America. The list included places that would serve or not serve Black people, or would house or not house Black people and other things of that nature. In this same way, my parents essentially provided me with a “green book” for how to do life as a Black man in America. They didn’t keep us from hanging out with certain types of people because we naturally gravitated toward people who looked like us.
Have you ever experienced racism? If so, when is the first time you remember experiencing racism and what was your response?
Kristina: In high school my friend, Jeremy, and I got dressed up to go see another friend perform in “The Wizard of Oz.” Jeremy is Black and from the time we got out the car to when we left the theater, we were stared down — in disgust — by elderly white men and women. We felt so uncomfortable the whole time. We laughed it off, saying, “That’s just how some people are, I guess.” But to this day, I know that experience hurt my friend far more than it affected me. I think of it often and it still grieves my heart. No words were spoken, but … this was one of the first times I remember seeing racism living in so many people in one single room.
My experience at the theater led me to realize that we who know better have a responsibility to live up to the standard of Jesus Christ. We need to approach people who don’t look like us, act like us or live like us with humility and love. We need to invite them into our spaces and accept the invitation into theirs. We need to listen and learn from each other. Even if we don’t see it or experience it, racism exists. It’s real, and we must be willing to step into the shoes of others and see their lives for what they truly are. As followers of Christ, we also have the responsibility to pray. It’s not flesh and blood we’re fighting against but principalities, powers and spiritual forces. We are given the authority by God to dismantle such things.
Javonte: When I was in college, I was talking to a resident assistant and a friend of mine and somehow the conversation steered toward, “Why do Black people do some of the things that they do?” (Some of those “things” being saggy pants, jewelry in their mouths, etc.)
I remember responding to his question, “Well, I don’t do those things.” He responded saying, “Well, you don’t count. You’re not Black for real.” I didn’t know how to respond in that moment. I felt confused, angry, sad — all at the same time — because in my mind, he seemed to insinuate that Black people’s natural behavior is what he’s seen in music videos or on television.
By saying that I don’t “count” as a Black person because I don’t exhibit those behaviors, he was suggesting that Black people are incapable of dressing well or being intelligent. There seems to be an underlying insinuation that because of who I am and what I look like, I must know nothing. That’s something I feel like Black people struggle with often. We have our intelligence questioned quite a bit. I think that comes from a false perception of how Black people behave and carry ourselves. Those types of encounters make me feel like I have to use words that I normally wouldn’t in order to sound intelligent or be extra nice or extra friendly to show people that I’m not dangerous or a threat.
Javonte: Growing up, even though I didn’t actively avoid people of a different ethnicity, there was an unspoken rule to not be involved on a certain level with someone of a different ethnicity because of a perceived barrier to understanding. My parents probably would have preferred for me to marry a Black woman instead of a white woman because a Black woman can understand more so what it’s like for me in America. In their minds, because we would share that in common, she would be able to love me better than a white woman could.
Even when it came to what college I was trying to decide to go to, my parents really wanted me to attend a historically Black college or university because they felt that I would have more success there. Being surrounded by potentially like-minded people who’ve faced the same struggles would help me in an upward trajectory. Their reasoning was that if I attended a predominantly white institution, I might not receive the same support and investment in my life. My parents wanted my life to be as stress-free and easy as possible being Black, because Black men were born with two strikes against them. One, we’re Black. Two, we’re Black men. So although my childhood held simple and harmless games as I got older, [my siblings and I] learned that the game became one for survival as young adults into adulthood.
What are some pivotal moments in your life that shaped who you are today?
Kristina: When I think back on what has shaped me I think of Romans 5:3-4: “... We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (ESV).
God has always used the pain in my life to shape my heart and character. Whether it was being held back in school, being in a mentally abusive relationship, getting rejected by churches for being a female worship leader or a number of other things — while painful, I’m thankful for these moments in my life because the most pivotal moment was when I gave my life to Jesus. That’s what makes the past and present sufferings meaningful.
I’ve seen him turn all things into resilience, character, faith and testimony. Even when I’ve felt that I was wasting away, God didn’t waste a thing. He was the one who always kept my heart from hardening during these pivotal moments. Without them in my life, I don’t think I’d like who I would have become.
Javonte: The most pivotal moments in my life were all of the moments where my character, in some way, has been attacked. Whether it was questioning my intelligence or perceiving me as a threat, I often found myself overcompensating to prove myself. I believe God allowed me to experience all of those things to shape me into the person that I am by having me remember how I felt in those moments and teaching me how I should respond to people regardless of what they say or do. What I feel is sometimes overcompensating, I believe actually reveals my true God-given character.
What has helped you get through times when you have felt unheard or unseen?
Kristina: God has been excavating me in the secret place. He’s breaking, shifting and planting. He’s helping me find my voice and teaching me to hear his so I know when to use mine.
Javonte: God is shaping me into someone who desires to respond in humility even in the midst of mistreatment — as one who can look at the person responsible for said mistreatment and not see them for their actions but see them for their heart and its brokenness. Often when people attack us, we want to be defensive. But God doesn’t want us to make it about us. He wants us to respond to that person with love in the midst of their weakness.
What do you wish your Wycliffe family knew about you?
Javonte and Kristina: Our desire is to be used together. We know that what God has for us is not exclusive to just one of us. We pray that one day soon, we’ll be able to work side by side in ministry — pouring the living water into dry, dead places. We also pray for a longing of deeper intimacy with the Father instead of simply relying on head knowledge about him.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Javonte and Kristina: We long to see Wycliffe thriving in a way that’s even greater than its original purpose. Every morning before we walk into the building, we pray for Wycliffe and the people of Wycliffe. And we pray for openness to how the Holy Spirit moves and a willingness to move with him.
We are so grateful for Javonte and Kristina and their willingness to share a portion of their story with us.
Questions for Personal Reflection:
What resonated with you as you read through Javonte and Kristina’s stories?
What has God taught you in regards to racial reconciliation? What are you struggling to understand?
How can you lean into honest conversations like these with your family members, friends or colleagues this week?