3 Ways to “Lean Forward” and Begin to Heal Racism

By Dennis Rainey


“I am a slow walker, but I never walk backwards.”

President Abraham Lincoln

Did you know that there are only two animals that can’t go backwards?

Dr. Gary Arnold doesn’t drive or lead his school by gazing in the rearview mirror. He does NOT go backwards. He is Head of School for Little Rock Christian Academy, which was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a “National Blue Ribbon School” in 2012. The school has 1,445 students (PK3-12) and employs 233 teachers and staff.

Gary is also a friend. One day we were having lunch and he shared with me an award that he regularly gives his teachers, coaches and admin staff: “The Emu Award” for lean forward leadership. He explained that the emu is one of two animals that can’t move backwards (the other is the kangaroo, and both are on Australia’s official seal). When he’d catch a teacher doing something extraordinary, he would recognize her/his leadership publicly and put a small stuffed emu on their desk.

Gary has had a lot of fun as a leader challenging his team to “lean forward.” He is an infectious “Lean Forward” leader and I left that lunch that day with the real disease, wanting to infect others to lean into their challenges.

Before I suggest where you must lean forward, I want to remind you of the consummate leader you hopefully already follow. This leader modeled taking responsibility for challenges He faced and giving everything He had to fulfill His Father’s assignment for Him.

The ultimate lean forward leader

You already know Who I’m talking about, don’t you? It’s Jesus. Jesus didn’t go backwards either. Think for a moment what He as the ultimate lean forward leader took on. He…

… emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant and was made in the likeness of men (Philippians 2:7).

… loved sinners, perfectly (John 15:12).

… adopted us (Ephesians 1:4-5).

… redeemed us (Ephesians 1:7).

… made known to us the mystery of His will (Ephesians 1:9).

… sent the Holy Spirit to us as His pledge and seal to guide and empower us (Ephesians 1:13-14).

… became a servant (Mark 10:43-45).

… endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2).

… despising the shame (Hebrews 12:2).

… and defeated death (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).

… and completing His assignments, He is now sitting down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).

Reviewing and taking a fresh inventory of that list, I’m grateful for His sacrifices on my behalf. Look at what it cost Him … His life. Look at what it brought to us … real life and a relationship with Almighty God and a home in heaven.

As an individual, what’s your challenge? What are you facing where you must not fail? Where are you compelled to initiate and provide “lean forward” leadership? Is it in your marriage? Your family? At work? At school? At church?

The issue of the day: racism

As a nation we have plenty of challenges, but there’s one that does demand we all shoulder some personal responsibility: Racism.

May I share three ways I’m leaning forward and into the challenging issue of racism? I’m not doing it perfectly, but I am not going backwards.

First, I’m leaning forward by listening to trusted friends of color.

I have several very good, long term African American friends who I can ask and who will honestly tell me what I need to hear. I have admitted to them and their families that when it comes to how they’ve experienced injustice, I’m clueless. When it comes to the daily indignities they and their families have suffered, I have no experience to compare with theirs. When it comes to the pain and harm they’ve endured, I really have no category to explain why.

So I’ve decided to become a lifelong learner by asking questions, listening and, hopefully, keeping my mouth shut!

I’ve found that I have nothing to say other than, “I truly am sorry for the hurt and harm that has impacted you, your family and your community over the last 400 years.”

And I try to LISTEN empathetically.

I’m asking my Black friends three questions:

1. What are you feeling in the midst of all that has taken place and is currently taking place (primarily the murders, past and present).

2. How are you processing what you are feeling?

3. What would you say to me as a white person about what you’d like me to do to engage in these issues going forward?

A friend of mine called a Black pastor and asked him that last question. The pastor said very simply, “Listen, Learn and Lend … Lend any influence or platform you have and make a difference.”

I would hate to be facing the issues of our day without friends who speak the truth to me. Friends who will allow me to be honest (and clueless), who shoot straight with me and give me grace where I just don’t quite “get it” yet.

I have two men who started out nearly two decades ago in a mentoring relationship with me … and over the past decade, unashamedly, they have mentored me in issues of race.

I continue to be surprised at the number of white folks who don’t have a truly trusted friend of color.

Do you have a cross-cultural friend you can be transparent with and trust? If not, why not ask God for wisdom in beginning a friendship with a person of color.

Now is the time to lean forward! If so, who? When? And how?

Second, I’m becoming a “Lean Forward Learner.”

I’ve created a list of resources that at points will that are guaranteed to take you out of your comfort zone and help you understand what has happened and is happening. Here goes…

I’d suggest you start with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This is short but stout. It’s one of the best things that has helped me understand what’s going on today.

Listen as a family to Dr. King’s message, “I Have a Dream.” I’ve found that most white people have heard excerpts but have never listened to the entire message. It’ll only take 15-20 minutes.

Watch Bryan Loritts’ 30-minute interview/message at Church of the City in Nashville. Watch this over dinner with your family, then take 15-20 minutes to talk about you all gleaned from Bryan’s message. This is the best 30 minutes I’ve spent that helped me understand what’s currently taking place.

Ask your African American friends to recommend a reading list. I did and here’s what they recommended. They warned me that some of these books say things that they don’t agree with and that at times can be graphically raw beyond comprehension. And some of these are NOT written from a Christian worldview. I have not read all of these books, yet.

Oneness Embraced, by Tony Evans. A good friend and a very good thinker and communicator. Solid read.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson. A must-read, gripping story of injustice that was an eye opener to me. There’s also a movie that was made from this book.

Let Justice Roll Down, by John Perkins. Named by Christianity Today as one of the 50 books that has shaped Evangelicals.

Free at Last? The Gospel in the African American Experience, by Carl F. Ellis, Jr. The author traces the 400-year history from slavery and their pursuit of freedom and dignity.

The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, by Jemar Tisby.

Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation, by LaTasha Morrison.

Black Rednecks and White Liberals, by Thomas Sowell.

Pick a couple and join me in becoming a lifelong learner, and make sure you watch the video message by Bryan Loritts.

Third, I’ve purposed to find a way to “lean forward” and connect with people of color.

I have found that God delights in delivering the unexpected to those who are available.

Earlier this month Barbara and I went on a 2,500-mile road trip to visit our children and grandchildren who live near Denver. One of our stops took us through a major city where we spent the night. After dinner we went for a walk around the block and noticed a police car parked on the side of the road.

I reflected on how difficult it must be to be a policeman right now, so I turned to Barbara and suggested, “Why don’t we tell him we appreciate his work on behalf of our safety?” Barbara was game and we slowly approached the squad car, smiling and saying, “We just wanted to say ‘thank you’ for the work you do … for protecting this neighborhood and city. We know that it’s probably not an easy time to be a cop, but we wanted you to know that we appreciate you.”

The policeman’s face brightened to a smile and he placed his hand outside the window to shake mine. I didn’t hesitate and reached out with mine. His firm grip and his grin told me that he had soaked up our words and needed the appreciation.

He told us that he had been on the force for 30 years and was retiring in two years—he said he was just trying to finish his career well and retire. He went on to tell us the night before that there had been over 200 vehicles and some bad guys had blocked off the roads where we were standing. The police were outnumbered and it could have ended badly. But it didn’t.

We ended up talking with him, mostly listening for 15-20 minutes.

When it was time for us to go, I asked him if I could pray for him. I placed my hand on his shoulder and asked God to protect him and bless him and his family and help him safely get to retirement. When I finished, I lifted my head and opened my eyes and his hand was waiting for mine to shake hands again.

We said goodbye and started back to our hotel. Our brief conversation with this Black officer felt good … actually sweet. Barbara and I talked about how difficult it likely was to be an African American police officer in a community that is mostly white.

Here’s my conclusion and a challenge for you.

My conclusion: What would happen if one million people began to lean forward and go out of their way to express empathy, respect, and appreciation every day to police officers, EMT workers, military personnel, TSA Agents, nurses, doctors, mailmen, the butcher, the lady in the dry cleaners, the cashier and bagger at the grocery store and more … every day?

My challenge: Lean forward and ask God to give you opportunities to just do it!

Dennis Rainey

Psalm 112:1-2


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