What’s Running Got To Do With It?

Every morning Mark Benson gets out of bed, brushes his teeth, puts on his running shoes and heads out the door for a 3-mile run. He’s done this for years, in Chicago, New York, California. It is often the best part of his day. “I like being alone, seeing what is going on in my neighborhood, hearing the birds.”

Shola Richards doesn’t run in the mornings, he doesn’t even walk alone in his neighborhood. Here’s why. “Twice a day, I walk my dog Ace around my neighborhood with one, or both, of my girls. I would be scared to death to take these walks without my girls and my dog. In fact, in the four years living in my house, I have never taken a walk around my neighborhood alone (and probably never will).

When I’m walking down the street holding my young daughter’s hand and walking my sweet fluffy dog, I’m just a loving dad and pet owner taking a break from the joylessness of crisis homeschooling. But without them by my side, almost instantly, I morph into a threat in the eyes of some white folks. Instead of being a loving dad to two little girls, unfortunately, all that some people can see is a 6’2” athletically-built black man in a cloth mask who is walking around in a place where he doesn’t belong (even though, I’m still the same guy who just wants to take a walk through his neighborhood). It’s equal parts exhausting and depressing to feel like I can’t walk around outside alone, for fear of being targeted.”

Shola’s experience is a revelation to many white people. It elicits strong emotions of compassion, guilt, and anger, but the biggest revelation for many is how few black and brown people they actually know. So, how do we respond? There is a moment in St. Francis life that illuminates one path forward.

In the 5th century Muslims controlled Jerusalem. The Catholic Church responded by going to war to overtake them and bring Jerusalem back into their control. St. Francis went in a different direction – he encouraged others not to fight in the Crusade, and when they ignored his advice, he decided to go to the Sultan’s camp to meet him himself. It was a dangerous choice. Christians knew very little about the Muslim faith or customs, but the popular narrative characterized them as a violent enemy. Francis was walking into a war zone. What gave him the desire and confidence to meet Sultan Mal-al-Kamil? Perhaps it was his belief that we are all brothers and sisters to one another, each created by the same God. Perhaps, this was one way he lived out that belief.

Francis’ approach to Sultan Malek-al-Kamil, was as a brother. Upon entering Muslim territory, Francis was captured, beaten and brought to the Sultan. Francis remained in the Sultan’s quarters for weeks. What they talked about is unknown, but records exist describing their time together as respectful, brotherly and peaceful. They displayed curiosity and openness toward one another.

Francis returned home a changed man. The encounter, including being present and respectful with those he did not know and did not understand, interacting with the Sultan, observing the Muslim habit of stopping to pray five times a day, and sharing meals all influenced Francis. He amended the rule he wrote for his brothers, so that any brother that felt called to go be with Muslims should be allowed to do so. Later, he wrote a prayer called The Praises of God that is very similar to the Islam prayer, The 99 Beautiful Names of God.

Francis’ visit to Sultan Mal-al-Kamil didn’t put an end to the Crusades, it may not have changed others, but it changed Francis. It also broadened and enlightened the Franciscan perspective that social justice begins (but does not end) with individuals entering into respectful, peaceful encounters with one another – so that they, like Francis, may be changed.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Do I know individuals of color within my community? What have I learned from those relationships?
  2. What leadership positions do people of color hold in your ministry and on your board?
  3. How does your ministry encourage and facilitate person-to-person interactions with people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds?
  4. In what ways does your ministry support or advocate for racial justice?
  5. How has your ministry responded to racial injustice?