BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN Fourteen.
That’s how many “licks” Billy Russell’s junior high math teacher gave him for writing “I’m black and I’m proud” on his arm and refusing to wash it off.
That’s in addition to the times when Russell was beaten and stabbed by classmates in the bathroom, slapped to the ground by the mother of a white girl he smiled at, tripped, and called the “N word” by teachers, among other occurrences of racism while being one of three black students at his school.
Russell remembers a lot about growing up in Mississippi in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
He remembers moving to a house his father had built in a predominantly white community. He remembers being excited to have indoor plumbing for the first time in his life, only to look out the window that night to see a cross burning in his front yard.
“Can you imagine what it feels like to work hard to get that and all of a sudden, people don’t want you to stay?” Russell asked about 90 people gathered for a forum Tuesday evening at Light of Christ Lutheran Church. “ . . . we were picking your cotton . . . I get a decent house to live in and you mean I can’t live here?”
Russell, of the Black Clergy Speakers Bureau, shared many stories of racism and prejudice from his years in Mississippi, and from when he arrived in Rochester 18 years ago.
He detailed the anger he held until he had a “heart change.” While in seminary, he read many of John Piper’s books. He later got to know him and the two became good friends. In Piper’s book “Bloodlines,” the author admits he was a racist growing up in the South. For the release of the book, Piper asked Russell to talk about being on the receiving end of racism.
“I began to tell what it was like for me,” Russell said. “During that process, anger began to well up in me . . . At the end of the night, we embraced each other. He said, ‘I’m sorry for what happened.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry that came out. I’ve been holding it in.’ It was a total change from that moment on. I’ve been on a mission ever since, and I have a passion. The passion is to see us come together more.”
Russell has been sharing that passion across Minnesota for about a year and a half as a member of the Black Clergy Speakers Bureau.
“The first question I get: Did Black Lives Matter organize the Black Clergy Speakers Bureau?’” Russell said. “No, they didn’t. It was organized by the Minnesota Council of Churches.”
Many individuals had called the Council of Churches wondering what was going on after the police-involved shooting of Jamar Clark.
“The Council of Churches decided we should organize a black speakers bureau so we could go out to various places when they call and we can talk about our experiences and share what’s really going on, and what we can do to make it better and make our existence better together,” Russell said.
In addition to his role with the Black Clergy Speakers Bureau, Russell serves as president of the Minnesota Baptist State Convention and is working with the National Baptist Convention to host 40,000 African-American pastors in the Twin Cities in 2018.
After the racist vandalism and burglary that occurred in Delano March 12, Russell received a phone call from the president of the organization.
“He asked me, ‘Russell, is it safe to come to Minnesota?’ because of what he had seen on social media about Delano. ‘Should we still be coming to Minneapolis?’” Russell said. “I said, ‘First of all, it’s 30 minutes away from Minneapolis.’ I said, ‘I tell you what: I’m headed out there right now by myself if you don’t hear back from me . . . ‘”
Laughs erupted as Russell trailed off.
He admitted early in his presentation that he had never heard of Delano until he saw it on the news. After three trips to Delano, including one to talk to Delano High School students, he has come to a conclusion.
“Delano’s a good place,” Russell said. “It’s not what I saw on the news.”
He believes more minorities will migrate to Delano as it becomes more expensive to live in other communities, just as many minorities migrated from the South.
Following his presentation, a number of local residents spoke and asked questions.
“Most of us here have grown up with white privilege and, even though we probably consider ourselves pretty good-hearted and believe in equality, it’s really important for us to hear the details of living without white privilege because it’s hard to imagine that,” one individual said.
Russell responded by encouraging those present to befriend minorities. He told a story about an English teacher in Austin who wanted to befriend him, but had a number of black jokes on his computer. Russell addressed his concerns in conversations with the teacher, and they were able to become good friends.
“Most of the people I’ve dealt with, it’s just a matter of getting to know each other,” Russell said.
That was even the case for the math teacher who had beaten him. After Russell had become principal of the school he was once unwelcome at, he employed that teacher and witnessed a change in him.
Another questioner referenced that black people do not attend her church and asked about reparation and reconciliation.
“I feel we need to, as white people, repent for the way we have allowed racism none of us here instituted slavery, but we all benefited from it one way or another and are still benefiting from it and we need to find a way to undo the structures that have been built up,” she said. “I don’t know what we should do.”
Russell said churches should be as multicultural as possible and welcome community members not only to attend services but also to use the church facilities for different meetings and events.
He also told a story about 16 black pastors and 16 white pastors traveling together to significant landmarks from the Civil Rights Movement.
“They came back and talked about their experience and how it changed their hearts, changed their lives, and they’re working together to change the culture of the church,” Russell said.
One individual talked about growing up in the ‘60s and said, “I’m super frustrated and disappointed that we’re not further than we are. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. I feel like you’re preaching to the choir. How do you get the message out to those people who would never come in here because you’re here?”
Russell said he was frustrated by the same phenomenon, and said the key is to have community-wide conversations.
“Why can’t we just come together?” Russell asked. “We can be prepared for when this happens again. If we can stand together now, we can stand together when the situation happens. If we’re having conversations now, we can have conversations when it’s happening.”
Light of Christ Pastor Bruce Kuenzel thanked Russell for his time.
“Thank you for speaking to us intelligently, but more importantly, speaking from your heart because you have modeled to us to have the conversation you have encouraged us to have,” Kuenzel said.