The Third Option
The Third Option
N* or White Boy?
Did they just call me the N-word? School was out, and I rode my bike as fast as I could through the white neighborhood that stood between me and the safety of home.
My heart pounded as I approached an intersection and faced a red light. Please turn green, please turn green, I repeated in my head. Just in the nick of time, it did. Thank you, God! I crossed the street that served as the gateway into my neighborhood, and zoomed down the hill. I was ten blocks from home.
But I couldn’t slow down yet. In fact, entering my Black neighborhood only meant that I’d exited one potential danger zone and entered another.
“Hey, White boy!” someone called. These words shot through my body like adrenaline, making me feel fearful and anxious all over again. I flew through the streets I knew so well, trying to outpace the name-calling, threats, and insults. I didn’t slow down until I was two blocks from my house.
I grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood called Lake-view, in Long Island, New York. But from first through eighth grade, I went to school in an all-White neighborhood called Malverne.
At the time, according to my uncle, the one and only black family who moved to Malverne was welcomed warmly—with a burning cross on their front lawn. So it is easy to understand why I never felt comfortable there.
Ocean Avenue ran between Lakeview and Malverne. Each time I pedaled across Ocean Avenue, I experienced anxiety. On this particular day, I had a legitimate reason to: some White kids from Malverne were chasing me out of their neighborhood. I was pedaling as fast as I could to outrun their threats of violence.
So imagine my devastation when—just as I entered the apparent safe haven of my own neighborhood—I heard the words Hey, White boy! As a multiracial kid, I felt like a ping-pong ball bouncing between two worlds, never feeling like I completely belonged to either.
I’m what Black people call a “high yella brother with good hair.” To some, that meant I wasn’t “black enough.” White boy was the not-so-affectionate term by which some Black kids in the neighborhood called me. The White kids used even less endearing terms to describe me.
Growing up, I felt like a perpetual outsider. Aside from my parents’ home, where diversity was embraced and celebrated, it seemed like there was nowhere I could go to fit in. And though it’s been decades since my school days in Lakeview, I still experience the same feelings today from time to time that I did back then.
You may be feeling like I did that day, wondering how you can escape the devastating impacts of racism. Maybe you’ve experienced racism personally, or know someone else who has. Maybe you feel like you’ve been wrongly blamed for racist events that happened long before you were born. Maybe you want to learn how to have a conversation about race but you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Maybe you’re trying to recover from the shame of being the target or a perpetrator of racism. Or maybe you’re searching for a way to deal with the race-based hate, resentment, and fear you cling to in your heart.
Whatever your reasons for picking up this book, I commend you for your courage and commitment to tackling racism head-on. I have struggled with most of the issues listed above, too, and look forward to sharing what I’ve learned with you.
Above all, I want to offer you hope. Racial unity is God’s idea, and He promises that if we ask Him for help, He will be faithful to answer us. Let’s approach God with confidence and vulnerability while we trust him to guide us in tackling this issue together.
My name is Miles McPherson, and I am the senior pastor of the Rock Church, located in “America’s Finest City”: San Diego, California.
I am the proud offspring of two Black grandfathers, a half-Chinese and half-Black grandmother, and a White grandmother. I am of mixed race, but I identify myself as Black. Consequently, the stories and feelings I share in this book are shared through the lens of a Black man.
I’m also a former NFL player. My love affair with football started when I was a kid. Every Sunday during football season, my dad, uncles, and neighbors played pickup games in the park. Even as a child, when I had the ball in my hands, no one, not even the adults, could catch me. At least, that’s how I remember it.
Football came naturally, and I loved every minute that I played, whether in the neighborhood or under stadium lights. In my youth I played in Pop Warner leagues, on my high school team, and at the University of New Haven, where I was the school’s first all-American and its first player to be drafted by and to play in the NFL.
Playing football helped me cultivate a strong sense of unity with others from an early age. I’ve always played with guys who represented all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Going to battle with my teammates created a bond between us that bridged our differences.
Football is a great tool for teaching us that what is most powerful and valuable about a person is what’s on the inside, not the outside.
Ultimately, it was also football that led me to Jesus. Having attended Catholic school all my life, I learned about God at an early age but walked away from religion after the eighth grade. One night when I was nineteen years old, while I was standing in a department store waiting for my girlfriend to get off work, two hippies who looked like Charles Manson shared the gospel with me. Learning that I was created to have a personal relationship with Jesus rocked my world, and I prayed to receive Christ as my Savior on the spot. For about ten days or so, I was in “spiritual shock.” I did not get high on drugs, I stopped having sex, and spent all day wondering what God wanted to do with my life.
The “high” I felt from my newfound relationship with Jesus eventually went away. Since I didn’t know anyone who could guide me in the growth of my faith, I returned to my old ways: partying, sleeping around, and living a wild and out-of-control lifestyle. When I joined the San Diego Chargers, I dialed it up even further.
During my first two years in the NFL, I was a “guy gone wild.” I smoked a lot of marijuana, used cocaine, and chased women. But all the while, I watched two of my teammates, Sherman Smith and Ray Preston, from afar. Those two Christian men modeled the heart of God and started challenging me to grow in my faith.
On April 12, 1984, at 5:00 a.m., I was lying on a couch in my apartment, my heart pounding in my chest. I’d been using cocaine all night. I was thinking about what those Jesus-loving hippies and my teammates, Sherman and Ray, had said and modeled for me. That morning I recommitted my life to Jesus and never touched cocaine or marijuana again. I reunited with my old girlfriend later that afternoon, and we were married five months later. I played two more years with the Chargers and became known as “the Jesus guy.”
When my four-year career with the Chargers ended, I felt the call
of God on my heart to serve in ministry. I served as a youth pastor for eight years, and launched Miles Ahead Youth Crusades. Tens of thousands of kids, representing all different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, came to know Jesus personally through the ministries I led and worked in. I had finally discovered God’s true purpose for my life.
Eventually, I took over the Sunday night service at Horizon Christian Fellowship, which grew from six hundred people to over three thousand in five years. Again, these services were as diverse as our city. The Rock Church, which I later founded and of which I am now pastor, is attended, in person and online, by over twenty thousand people weekly. I’m proud of the fact that our congregation is as diverse as a bag of Skittles: 48 percent White, 28 percent Latino, 14 percent Black, 7 percent Asian, and 3 percent other ethnicities. These percentages are neither intentional nor accidental.
When we launched the Rock Church, my staff and I committed ourselves to reaching everybody in the city. We based our commitment on two foundational truths: first, that we are all made in the image of God; and second, that the church should reflect the reality that all nations will be gathered in heaven. To this day, we remain committed to these principles, and have extended our reach to five campuses and thirteen microsites, including one in Tijuana and one at a local juvenile detention center and a state prison. Through our online ministry, millions have heard the gospel, and we have recorded over one million decisions for Christ.
A lifetime of experiences—growing up a mixed-race kid in a segregated era of our nation’s history, living in diverse neighborhoods and cities, playing on a diverse NFL team, and pastoring multiethnic congregations—has given me a deeper understanding of God’s heart for his people to live in loving unity. My highest calling is to love others the way Jesus calls us to. While I’ve failed in that endeavor more times
than I can count, my greatest desire is to grow more perfect in love, especially toward those who don’t look like me. This book is my earnest attempt to help you do the same.
The stories and perspectives I share are meant to answer the many questions I’ve been posed as a Black pastor of a large, urban, multiracial church. Well-meaning people of all backgrounds want to understand the racial issues that divide our nation, and what they can do to alleviate them. This book is my effort at answering their questions and encouraging us to honor each other and ourselves the way God does.
The Third Option: Honor
Do you find yourself getting angry or defensive when you think or talk about race? Do you look at the racial divide and wish there was a solution? Do you, like Rodney King, ask why we all can’t get along? If so, I want you to know that (1) you are not alone, (2) racism corrupts our souls, (3) culture promotes racism, and (4) there’s a Third Option that can set us free.
Everyone is affected by racism. Nearly every American has been a victim or a perpetrator of racism, and most have been both. On average, 83 percent of Americans believe racism is a problem in our nation. This number has remained steady over the past two decades, with the latest polls showing a spike in the percentage of Americans—now 58 percent—who believe that racism is a “big problem.”1
You may despise racism, but it affects us all, whether we know it or not. It is a corruptor of the soul that degrades and devalues those who look different from us. When we allow racism into our hearts and society, we minimize the priceless value of God’s image in others, which limits our ability to honor, love, and serve them the way God calls us to.
Culture plays a big role in perpetuating racism by wrongly insisting that there are only two options you can choose from: us or them.
Culture pits one group of people against another by promoting a zero-sum-game mentality that says, “You must lose in order for me to win.”
God, however, offers us a Third Option that stands in stark contrast to the two offered by culture. God’s Third Option invites us to honor that which we have in common, the presence of His image in every person we meet. When we honor the presence of His image in others, we acknowledge their priceless value as precious and beloved of God. The Third Option empowers us to see people through God’s eyes, which enables us to treat them in a manner that honors the potential of His image in us.
Some of the greatest heroes of our faith overcame culture’s temptation to buy into the us-versus-them mentality. One example in the Old Testament is Joshua. As Joshua prepared for the battle of Jericho, he asked an approaching messenger of the Lord to identify whose “side” he was on:
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” (Joshua 5:13-14)
In this passage, the Lord’s messenger offered Joshua a way out of culture’s trap by giving him a Third Option. Joshua responded to the presence of God in humility and obedience, and reaped the benefits of God’s blessings in return. God personally intervened on Joshua’s behalf to deliver him an overwhelming victory at Jericho, because Joshua decided to choose the Third Option.
Choosing the Third Option in our hearts and culture isn’t easy; it requires intentionality, a prayerful commitment to obedience, and wholehearted
trust in God’s provision. But I promise you it’s worth the effort. When we choose the Third Option, God Himself will deliver us from an us-versus-them mentality that prevents us from honoring the presence of His image in ourselves and in others.
Works in Progress
The Third Option is more than a choice; it’s a God-given mission that directs us to honor our neighbors the way that God calls us to.
Culture, on the other hand, asks us to determine whether the issue of race is something we should even concern ourselves with in the first place. Culture does this by posing an oversimplified question—Are you a racist?—and forcing us to choose yes or no in response. A small percentage of Americans would answer yes. Most of us would say no, because we’re either unaware of or unwilling to admit our biases, biases that we all have, even if they are subconscious.
Consequently, we’re likely to answer “no” in one of the following ways:
Defensiveness: I’m not a racist. I may have some biases, but they’re all justified, and that doesn’t amount to racism.
Self-righteousness: I’m not a racist. I’m a social crusader who’s “woke.” (“Woke” is slang for being aware of issues pertaining to racial and social justice.)
Helplessness: I’m not a racist, and there’s nothing I can do about racism in America.
Apathy: I’m not a racist, and racism doesn’t concern me.
Uncertainty: I’m not a racist, and I’m not entirely sure what “being racist” means.
The Third Option frees us from culture’s false dichotomy by offering us the grace we need in order to admit that we are imperfect in our love for others. The Third Option opens the eyes of our hearts so that we can acknowledge biases where they exist. And the Third Option enables us to define who we want to become, so that we can wholeheartedly pursue our God-given mission to love and honor all our neighbors equally. The Third Option acknowledges that my biases will do and say racist things, but I can learn to live more honorably.
Me, You, We
I’ve seen firsthand how racism affects individuals and communities and impacts us in different ways. I’ve witnessed racism erode our ability to live in unity with others and prevent us from recognizing the loving image of God in ourselves. I believe racism can only be conquered when individuals take ownership and responsibility for their own attitudes, words, and actions; when another’s experience is understood and honored; and when we decide to tackle racism together. To illustrate this, I have set up the book in three parts: Me, You, and We.
Me: If I want to be an agent for change, I must first purify my own heart. Or, as Scripture more bluntly says, I must first remove the plank from my own eye before I can see clearly enough to remove the speck from my brother’s. In this section, we’ll ask God to reveal racial blind spots that prevent us from honoring others, what role we play in perpetuating racism, and what God is calling us to do about it.
You: With the plank removed from my own eye, I can now see you more clearly. But in order to really understand your experience, I must step out of my comfort zone and into your shoes. Walking in another’s shoes is never a comfortable experience, but it’s essential to understanding their perspective and learning how to
honor them. In this section, we’ll explore what it feels like to be the “other” and learn to empathize with those who’ve been marginalized by racism.
We: Our lives, joys, and burdens are meant to be shared in community. As Scripture says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up . . . Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not easily broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9–12). In this section, we’ll identify ways that we can edify and honor each other as a church, a city, a community, and a country.
This book will challenge and encourage you to choose the Third Option so that you can achieve an elevated level of honor that is consistent with the priceless value of God’s image in you and your brothers and sisters of all races and ethnicities. But in order for real transformation to occur, you must be open to a new level of vulnerability with the Holy Spirit. Unity is God’s idea and can only be achieved by the Holy Spirit’s transformation of our hearts. I ask you to join me in prayer as we seek to honor God’s heart for unity.
Lord, please prepare my heart for what I am about to read. Holy Spirit, just as a seed cannot grow into a plant unless it is planted and dies, please reveal what needs to die in me, so that You may grow a desire in my heart to move past my comfort zone and love others like You love them. Holy Spirit, I give you permission to expose that which needs to be transformed in me, and I ask You to change my heart, attitude, and actions for your glory and benefit.
In the name of our Lord, Amen.