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Repenting from My Racist Past

Written by Zach Cochran on

During February, many in America celebrate black history. It is a time where people honor African American heroes and culture. There are things every year that blow me away during this month as I learn about African American history and many of the challenges. My fear, however, is that many, especially in majority culture, think that the pain that is spoken of during Black History Month is just that—history. We are tempted to believe that racism is something that existed “way back then.” I have always thought that black history was a month to think about the hard things African Americans experienced back in the day.

My story contradicts this belief. Racism is not long-ago history; it was my story. I did not simply witness racism in America; I advocated for it. I grew up in a rural farming community in the south, an environment bathed in racist presumptions, language, and action. Racism is not something anyone taught me. There was no book on “how to be a racist.” It was woven into the fabric of my culture.

I would love to say that I was simply an observer of this culture. Unfortunately, I was not. I was an eager participant. I had a willingly-sinful belief that I, a white boy, was superior to African Americans. My friends and I carried half-broken golf clubs in our pickup trucks called “beaters” in case we needed to defend ourselves against black men. We put rope nooses around our rearview mirrors and thought it was funny. We used the N-word to describe anything and everything inferior. We called children with one white parent and one black parent “muts.” I wish this was someone else’s story, but this was the hate I carried in my heart.

Racism is not just American history; it was my history. It was my story. It was my sin. It was how I treated God’s image-bearers. It isn’t anyone else’s fault; no one else is to blame. Even now, I am still working through my biases. My soul is completely healed, yet the effects of my sinful way of thinking are still felt. Gratefully, the story doesn’t end with hate.

My Repentance Came Because of Sports

My repentance came while playing football in college. There, God placed black men in my life who changed me forever. They didn’t know I was racist or harbored hatred in my heart. They simply cared for me. I remember Jason Ware, our senior linebacker and captain, inviting me to go with him to get something to eat after practice one day. Jason befriended me. He took me to church with him and helped me see the Christian life in an entirely different way. Stephen Moten, another senior captain, took me under his wing. He gave me ministry opportunities in the urban part of town, picking up guys who needed a ride to work. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was shaping my worldview.

These men did not intentionally open my eyes to my own racism, but they gave me the gift of proximity. They shared their lives with me, which in turn thawed my racist heart. I remember coming home after worshiping with them at a historically black church thinking, “Why have I always believed these things? They are all lies. They are all hate.” I remember crying out to the Lord, asking for forgiveness. These brothers taught me Romans 12:15-16, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another.”

I found myself loving what my brothers loved and hating what they hated because my heart had been so knit to theirs. Ever since then, God has given me other brothers like Scott Long, an African American pastor in Louisville, who continued to help me see men and women in their culture not as “less than” but as beautiful and glorious.

My Healing Came on a Bus

Shortly after I joined staff at College Park Church, I was invited to go on a Civil Rights Vision Trip. I honestly had no idea what to expect. The trip was a pilgrimage of sorts with a group comprised of 50 percent black people and 50 percent white people. We traveled to important cities and sites in the Civil Rights movement, one of them being the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The memorial features hanging metal boxes with the names and dates of African Americans who had been lynched. Each pillar represented a county where a lynching took place. As I walked through, I found the counties where I grew up. I recognized so many of the names or last names etched on those pillars. Something happened to me that I had never experienced before. It was as if all the pain and remorse I felt over my past boiled up inside me. I could hardly continue walking.

During our travel between sites, we had an open mic time to process our thoughts and reactions and to lament together. I wasn’t even considering sharing what was going on inside, but my pastor, Mark Vroegop, leaned over and asked if I would share. What I didn’t know was that he was inviting me into healing.

I didn’t get two sentences out before I began to weep. I told these new friends something I had never shared with anyone. I told them my heart harbored hate towards black brothers and sisters. I told them how I rode in vehicles with nooses and beaters. I told them that the memorial was not merely our country’s history, it was my history. I told them that my sin contributed to the pain and oppression of real people. As I confessed these things, an African American sister held me, understanding the pain I was expressing. In a bus full of weeping, you could hear shouts of “I love you, Zach,” “Zach, I love you, bro,” “I forgive you, brother.”

See, I had “repented” of my racist sins, yet I had confessed it to no one. I harbored so much shame and guilt, and I did not know what it was or even understand it was there. I hadn’t yet experienced a James 5:16 type of healing: “Confess your sins to another and pray with one another so that you may be healed.”

When my sister held me and when my brother shouted love and forgiveness, it was as if Jesus himself was holding me and telling me how much he loved me. People who should hate me, people who shouldn’t trust me, people who I hated; held me, cried with me, loved me. That is what God used to heal me.

To My Black Brothers & Sisters

I am sorry. I may not have caused you particularly pain, but I have caused pain. I have participated in a lifestyle that sought your demise. I have looked down upon you and have hated you in my heart. I can’t take that back. I can tell you today that I love you because of Jesus and a few men who loved me. I can tell you that there is hope in Jesus for healing and reconciliation. God is on the move, despite how I, or others, have treated you. I can’t take back what I have done or thought, but I can commit to standing in the gap and locking arms with you for peace, justice, and mercy in the world. 

To My White Brothers & Sisters

We have all been formed by the manner in which we were raised, what we were or weren’t taught, and the people with whom we spend time. Every human being has biases. That doesn’t mean you are or were like me, but we all share this sinful tendency toward partiality.

If you haven’t already, befriend someone who doesn’t look like you. Don’t seek their advice or go to them to argue. Become friends with someone ethnically different than you. Begin to knit your heart to theirs through sharing life, family, and dreams. What you will find is that you will start to love what they love and hate what they hate.  

Even though you may not have experienced what they have experienced, you will be able to see the world through their lens. Don’t be afraid of this. This is how God teaches us how to love and sometimes uses to reveal our sin. When we commit to love, joy is on the other side. 

My Ongoing Story: Freedom from Racism

My story is an Exodus story. I lived in bondage to a worldview that thought people were inferior to me. That was my norm. I harbored hatred and anger in my heart toward black men and women made in the image of God. The Lord has brought me out of that Egypt, but I am still on a journey toward glory. I have biases I am still working on, and I need Christian brothers and sister in my life to help me see them. But with God’s help, I long for the day when I don’t have to worry about biases anymore and we live in perfect harmony with the King.

My story is not the solution to the racial divide in America. There is no three-step process for the repentance and healing of our racially divided country. But it is proof that there is hope. Friend, if God softened my dark, cold, racist heart, he can do it for anyone. I know there are other “Zachs” out there. My prayer is that relationships are formed in such a way that the power of the gospel brings repentance and reconciliation. Then, maybe our churches and communities will see the glorious picture of the gospel through repentance, confession, lamenting, and healing.

Zach Cochran

Zach received a B.A. focused in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee at Martin and received his M.Div. from Southern Seminary in Louisville. A former pastor at College Park Church, Zach now serves as an associate pastor at Sojourn Church J-Town in Louisville, KY.

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