Help Me To Understand

Rev. Erwin Goedicke, Stated Clerk – Presbytery of Cincinnati

Almost 30 years ago, I became part of a diverse group of pastors and ministry leaders in the greater Cincinnati area who met to pray and work and organize together to seek “unity in the Body of Christ,” and especially between, what we called at the time, “The White Church” and the “Black Church.”  We quickly realized this was not going to be easy, despite our commitment to this common goal and our shared evangelical faith in Christ.  

Those of us “of the lighter hue” were surprised and skeptical and even offended by the claims our African American friends made of experiencing a lifetime of discrimination and inequity, and the implication that we – and our Churches — were somehow complicit in some kind of systemic or structural racism.  And we often responded defensively. 

The African American participants in the group were surprised and skeptical and even offended that we were so unaware of much of the history and legacy of racism — in our own city and even in the Church – and unaware of what they actually experienced, and the notion that racism was largely a thing of the past or just the sin of a few bad actors.  And they often questioned our motives and our sincerity. 

Needless to say, it was rough going. 

About that time, we had a chance to meet with Dr. Raleigh Washington, who was then serving as Vice President of Reconciliation for Promise Keepers, a national men’s movement in the 1990s.  (For a brief bio, see  I asked Dr. Washington, “How do we get past the distrust and misunderstanding caused by all the differences in experience and perception between black and white Americans?”  His answer took me by surprise. “The most important thing in this work,” he said, and I still remember how he looked at me when he said it, “is to begin with the question: Help me to understand.” 

It didn’t even occur to me at the time that Dr. Washington was echoing the prayer of St. Francis:

“Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.”

Help me to understand.  This simple question, as we asked it of one another with open hearts, allowed us to bridge our differences.  Today, many of that original group are in deep covenant relationship with one another and are still working together and inviting a new generation of diverse leaders into this journey. 

In the last several years we all have experienced increased polarization around so many differences of opinion, even within our churches: about how to respond to the Coronavirus, how (or if) to talk about race, who or what is responsible for the recession and gun violence and climate change and the growing number of Nones and, and, and… 

Maybe we could start to build some bridges by just asking one another, “Help me to understand.”