November 15, 2010

But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups [Jew and Gentile] into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall…that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross… Ephesians 2:13-16

My thanks to my neighbor Kay who brought this article in The New York Times to my attention, about the National Park Service’s efforts to reach out to African Americans.

According to the article, in a survey done in 2000, “only 13 percent of black respondents reported visiting a national park in the previous two years [as compared with] 27 percent for Latinos, 29 percent for Asians and 36 percent for whites.” And those numbers have not changed significantly since the 1960s, when the problem of less minority visitation was first identified as an issue.

Of course, there are more black visitors to sites such as the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, “but attendance tends to be more homogenously white at wilderness parks like Yosemite, where…visitors are overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white, highly educated and affluent.”

Shelton Johnson, a black park ranger in Yosemite, who was also featured in Ken Burns’ national parks documentary, America’s Best Idea, sent a letter to Oprah Winfrey, in which he pleaded, “Every year, America is becoming increasingly diverse, but that diversity is not reflected in the national parks, even though African-Americans and other groups played a vital role in the founding of the national parks [black Buffalo Soldiers guarded the first national parks, and Mr. Johnson wrote a novel about them, and also portrays a Buffalo Soldier in reenactments]. If the national parks are America’s playground, then why are we not playing in the most beautiful places in America?”

In answer, Oprah went to Yosemite, and featured her visit on two recent segments of her show. Mr. Johnson said he wasn’t surprised to learn that this was her first trip to a national park (and her first time camping). He says he’s “more likely to meet someone from Finland or Israel in the park than from, say, Harlem or Oakland, Calif.”

Joe and I have noticed the same thing. Europeans are a common sight in the parks, but blacks—from America or elsewhere—are not. And that’s a terrible shame.

Fortunately, Jonathan Jarvis, who took over as director of the Park Service last year, is looking to remedy the problem. “There’s a disconnect that needs addressing,” he says in the Times article.

Some of the steps the Park Service is taking to be more welcoming are incorporating stories like that of the Buffalo Soldiers into park tours and brochures, planning partnerships with high schools that arrange park jobs for students, more naturalization ceremonies for new citizens in the parks, and recruiting employees at black colleges. He acknowledges that the efforts are scattered, though, and many more are needed. Of course, the Oprah segments help, as does having a black family in the White House who has visited two national parks already.

The early church had something of a similar disconnect. The book of Acts spans 30 years of transition following Jesus’ ascension, as the gospel message moved from being directed mainly to Jews to including Gentiles as well. Chapters 10, 11 and 15 especially deal with the struggle of Jewish and Gentile believers coming to terms with their different habits and ways. The church’s continued existence depended upon hearing each other’s concerns, finding areas of agreement, and hammering out concessions so that everyone, no matter what their heritage or background, would feel welcome in this new religion called Christianity.

So, let’s continue in that vein, being sensitive to what would keep fellow Americans from visiting the parks and encouraging more diverse programming and such on the part of the Park Service.

And oh yeah, let’s do that in our churches and our neighborhoods while we’re at it. Because heaven will be populated by people “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation,” all purchased for God with the blood of Jesus (Revelation 5:9).


  1. Elise Daly Parker says:

    Love this Penny! As always informative and insightful. I love the way you introduce us to new things to consider. May we all be part of making everyone feel welcome. I am often saddened by the divides, racial, religious, socio-economic, etc. I don’t think that’s God’s idea!

  2. Nature Girl, April says:

    Amen! I grew up in New Mexico where Caucasians were in the minority. Then I moved to Arkansas where I had my first confrontation with racism. I will never forget my shock! How could people function with so much hatred inside? I was definitely in ‘another world’!

    Won’t it be wonderful to have such variety in our heavenly home? Yes!!

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