Grace at a Funeral

Racial Reconciliation and a Glimpse of God’s Kingdom

Jason Thompson / 6.24.20

A double rainbow symbolizing hope one year after the 2016 “Sherman Park Unrest”

When it was his turn to speak, I didn’t even recognize him. I hadn’t seen him in 30 years. Making his way to the podium, he paused and genuflected before my father’s casket before sharing his reflections of having known my dad. His name is Ryan Sattler and he and his family had lived directly across the street from us. He was instrumental in fighting for racial justice in Milwaukee during the infamous era of housing discrimination in the 1970s. Nearly a decade ago, our neighbor Paul Geenen documented the rich history of the arduous work concerned citizens undertook in the nation’s most segregated city to create a world vastly different and more hopeful than the status quo that many were willing to maintain either by violence or by what would later become known as “White Flight.”

Growing up, I had no idea of the historical backdrop behind the diverse community known as Sherman Park. It was a place where summer block parties reigned, where children from various ethnicities formed lifelong friendships, and where soccer leagues were implemented as an intentional means of integration. I was in my 30s when I finally learned that John Givens, who lived three doors down from us, had been an ardent Civil Rights activist affiliated with the famed Congress on Racial Equality and the NAACP Youth Council. In fact, our entire neighborhood consisted of attorneys, judges, businessmen, and teachers who sacrificed their careers, their reputations, and their personal safety to create a realm that resembled not only the American ideal, but what the kingdom of God should look like on earth.

When it was my turn to say some words for my departed father, I wasn’t ready for what I would see when I looked out on the congregation. I have been to multiple family funerals, but this was the first time I’d attended a funeral for a relative with such a vast multiracial audience. I was reminded that the kingdom of God ultimately comes by way of death and final resurrection, not by ‘law’ or by ‘being intentional.’ I saw next-door neighbors whose lives were inextricably woven into the story of my childhood and life experiences. Many of them had flown in from all over the country just to extend a final farewell to my dad. It proved that the Sherman Park experiment worked! Although most of us had moved away from the block, formed our own families, pursued careers, created our own new stories, we yet remained one family.

Racial reconciliation will always be elusive this side of heaven, yet every once in a while, God surprises us with reminders of the good things yet to come. And while we wait in joyful anticipation, we can take comfort in knowing “our work in the Lord is not in vain.” As I considered the irony of beholding a sea of multicultural representation in a predominantly Black church of a historically segregated city, I marveled that the death of my father afforded us such a glimpse of God’s kingdom. Thankfully, because of the death of God’s Son we will one day see its fulfillment. 

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3 responses to “Grace at a Funeral”

  1. Tom Eggebrecht says:

    I had the incredible privilege of living in and serving as a pastor of a congregation in the Sherman Park neighborhood of Milwaukee for 15 years. It was/is a wonderful place of incredible diversity. It’s not without its problems, but it has a glorious neighborhood feel, and the people of the community are “salt of the earth” people who truly care for and help one another…across all ethnicities and faiths. We raised our children in that community, and they are better for it.

  2. Juliette says:

    What a powerful foretaste of what is to come! Thank you for sharing.

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