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Sitting at my seminary desk and reviewing the material for an upcoming lecture, I heard my cell phone buzzing and put it to my ear:

“Tom, you are not going to believe what I just found.”
It was my brother Phil. He had been sorting through all the documents and papers that my parents had left behind after their deaths within weeks of each other in the late winter of 2017.

“I found the original deed to our house.”

The actual deed to my parents’ house

In 1949 my parents become pregnant with me, their third child in a short span of three years. My father had come home from the war, married, and started college. Housing was in short supply, and they lived in a tiny upstairs apartment in the Dutch quarter of Grand Rapids, Michigan, known as the Brick Yard, a place where poor immigrants of a previous generation had lived and worked making bricks and tile. The apartment was too small to accommodate a third child.

In the post-war years, the leaders of Grand Rapids had been plotting new neighborhoods to provide housing for the returning soldiers and their growing families. One such neighborhood was a swampy patch of land north of Fulton Street and east of Plymouth Street that had been drained and dried. My parents bought the plot that was to become 1828 Mayfair Drive and, with the help of friends from Third Reformed Church, build a Levitt house. Designed by Abraham and William Levitt to accommodate the needs of returning soldiers, a Levitt house was small but affordable, and most importantly it had as many as four matchbox bedrooms.

“It restricts occupancy to Caucasians only,” Phil said.

“That can’t be,” I replied. “Read it to me.”

“No person of any race other than the Caucasian race shall occupy any building on any lot except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant….”

The leaders of the Grand Rapids community were no different from those in any other community. They shared a vision of the good life. Such a vision expressed itself in laws, and these laws created a world. The leaders of Grand Rapids instantiated their vision of the good life with laws that would divide the city on the basis of race. I was both born into the world that they had created and borne up by its values largely unaware.

*****

Fast forward fifteen years.

When I was a sophomore at Grand Rapids Christian High School, I participated in many different sports but chose to wrestle in the winter rather than play basketball because I liked the singularity and clarity of wrestling—just you alone on the mat competing with the other.

One week, we were preparing for a match against South High. I did not think much about it, until a day before the match when I suddenly realized that there was a good chance that I would be wrestling an African American, South High being in the African American quarter of racially divided Grand Rapids. After that I could think of nothing else.

Up to that point in my life, I had had no contact with African Americans, physical or otherwise. Now I faced the reality that I might have to grapple with one for six minutes. I got a knot in my stomach from a tangled mess of feelings I could not sort out.

At the weigh-in my fears were confirmed. My opponent was indeed to be an African American. When the time came for our match, I walked onto the mat in a daze, thinking about everything but the match itself. My opponent dove for a single-leg take-down, and I instinctively defended myself and threw a whizzer. As soon as we touched, my fears vanished. It was a match just like any other match, and he was a young man just like any other young man.

*****

There are so many things I could say about this part of my story of growing up in Grand Rapids, but I will limit myself to two.

First. My father came back from the war and took advantage of all the benefits offered under the GI bill including a low interest loan for his Levitt house and a scholarship to complete his college education. He was borne up by these privileges and I of course was borne up with him—white privilege. The father of my opponent that day on the mat could not take advantage of these benefits because discriminatory laws prevented him from buying land in certain neighborhoods, getting loans, and being accepted at most colleges and universities. I had come to understand the injustice of all this in a general way but it became overwhelming specific when my brother Phil called to tell me that the neighborhood where we grew up was zoned Caucasian Only.

Second. I learned something that day on the mat when I was fifteen years old, something that contained a hint of a way for me to approach the complicated and seemingly intractable pain caused by systemic racism. I learned ironically that the touch that I so feared, the touch that the leaders of Grand Rapids so feared and were trying to prevent, was the very thing that took my fear away.

Tom Boogaart

Tom Boogaart recently retired after a long career of teaching Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

16 Comments

  • JJ TenClay says:

    Powerful and insightful, Tom. Thanks for sharing, and congratulations on your retirement.

  • Helen P says:

    As a banker I am particularly embarrassed to see the redlining on the document, which sadly still takes place (though more covertly).
    My mother’s dad led the integration of the YMCA in Benton Harbor (no longer there-having been moved in the 70s to a wealthier area), for which my grandfather was General Secretary.
    He wanted it integrated – having for years seen young men of the neighborhood needing a place they could gather to recreate, study, and be a part of something.
    He battled one particular member of his board (who was dead-set against it) whom he accused at one meeting of being fearful the “color would wash off” and attach itself to this man in the swimming pool.
    Grandfather won the battle eventually, but what an indictment of the society in which we lived and still live.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    “…that the touch I that I so feared…was the very thing that took my fear away.” What a lovely sentence, Tom. May we all always have that experience and realize in all races imago Dei.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    who won?

  • Karl Westerhof says:

    Tom, thanks so much for this. It’s important witness to so many dimensions of the race divide in our society.

  • Todd Zuidema says:

    Interesting to me, because of my tie to the area. I served Mayfair CRC, just up the street, which was formerly Dennis Ave. CRC and located in the Brickyard neighborhood until they relocated in the 50’s.

  • David Stravers says:

    Thanks for sharing and it reminded me of my own experience as a 17 year old at Battle Creek Central High School. My debate partner Brent Simmons and I traveled to an out-of-state tournament where we roomed together in a college dormitory. A close friend of my parents scolded them: “How could you allow your son to room with a n——?” The following year, we traveled through the deep South and stopped at a gas station to fill up and use the restrooms. Except that Brent was not permitted to use the restroom “because we don’t have colored facilities.” That year, Brent and I found ourselves on opposite sides of the election podium, both running for Student Council President. Brent won. A few years later, my younger brother married an African American. They have two children. We have a long way to go, but thank God, much has changed.

  • Kathy Van Rees says:

    Makes me cry. Thanks Tom.

  • Mike Weber says:

    Reminds me of a song by John Gorka that illustrates the same truth

    I was born to ignorance, yes, and lesser poverties
    I was born to privilege that I did not see
    Lack of pigment in my skin, won a free and easy in
    I didn’t know it, but my way was paved

    I grew up a Catholic boy, in a north-eastern State
    A place when asked, “Where you from?”, some people tend to hesitate
    Reply a little bit late, as if maybe you didn’t rate
    I was born to ignorance and privilege

    My dad ran a printing press, a tag and label factory
    May have seen it as a child, now a distant memory
    Almost too faint to see, dark red-brick factory
    I didn’t know it, but my way was paved

    We moved from a city street, shortly after I arrived
    To a house on a gravel road, where I learned to be alive
    Crawl, walk, run and ride, that’s where I learned to come alive
    I didn’t know it, but my way was paved

    CHORUS:
    If the wind is at your back
    And you never turn around
    You may never know the wind is there
    You may never hear the sound, no, no

    Got to grow and go to school, work at home and dream at night
    Even be a college fool, like I had any right
    Never went through a war, never Great Depression poor
    I didn’t know it, but my way was paved

  • Keith starkenburg says:

    Thanks for this Tom. Important to continue bringing these stories to light.

  • Stan E Seagren says:

    Thanks Tom. Reminds me of Jacob’s wrestling match. You did win- the blessing.
    Great to see and hear you at General Synod also.
    May we all touch and be touched by “the other” and come away blessed.

  • Amy Schenkel says:

    This is my neighborhood, and our house deed contains a very similar phrase. I considered it outdated and irrelevant until we began to hear stories of how that played itself out in the lives of our neighbors, both past and present. One way we addressed this was to start a book club that read books that catalyzed discussions about race. Not a perfect nor a complete solution, but today our neighborhood is increasingly multi-ethnic and we are learning to love all our neighbors.

  • Tom Boogaart says:

    Elegantly written Tom Sr. I concur, beautiful last sentence that captures a powerful reality. Racism is actually a type of terror; a fear without a face. When you are locked in the intimacy of the wrestling mat terror of the unknown gives way to a clear and present danger; he’s trying to pin me, while the fear of the unknown vanishes. Cities are more tolerant because we are more accustomed to differences. In Kanawa Iowa, evidently, residents fear taco trucks, not because they see any, but because they have never tasted a taco.

  • Judi Boogaart says:

    Excellent, as always, Tom. Encourages us to confront and touch what we fear–a good but difficult endeavor.

    Judi

  • Henry Baron says:

    I had the privilege of working with your dad for many years while chair of the Board of Trustees for the Christian Educators Journal and he the volunteer treasurer of the board. I came to love him for his humility, his quiet wisdom, and his unstinting commitment to the cause of Christian education by giving generously of his time and talents, often serving in ways that went far beyond what we expected of him.
    I now regret we did not have more conversations then about our personal lives, past and present.
    Years later when I served as a volunteer usher at Civic Theater, it was often my pleasure to lead your parents to their reserved seats.
    Thank you for reviving good memories of a servant model.

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