The word prejudice simply means to pre-judge. When we pass judgment on someone before we know anything about him or her, we are guilty of prejudice. I grew up in a very prejudiced environment — and then I became a victim of my own prejudice. Let me tell you about it.
When I was about eight years old, my dad left his job at a factory and started a roofing business. He bought an old beat-up truck and a couple of sketchy ladders and the “Hartzell Roofing and Siding Company” was born. As a kid, I didn’t think anything of it. But as an adult, I am amazed that as a factory worker with four kids he took such a risk.
My dad had four boys, and all of us worked in the family business. Summers and holidays were spent covered in slate dust and tar. I have always joked that there is never good weather for roofing. It’s either too hot or too cold. And when you’re on a roof, there’s nowhere to hide from the sun and the wind. It’s a tough way to make a living.
I mostly remember roofing in summer when I was off from school. The heat was unbearable. We would often start at dawn so that the grunt work of tearing off the roof would be over before it got too hot. By 9 a.m., we were three or four hours into a very long, hot, miserable day.
From the rooftops, we would watch people heading off to work at 8:45 a.m. They would be dressed in their suits and ties and carrying briefcases. We called them “pretty boys” and “suits”. We would joke about them sleeping late, sitting like fat-cats in their air-conditioned offices and then leaving early to play a round of golf. They weren’t men. They were sissified and spoiled wimps (we actually had a more affectionate term that we used) who had no idea what a real day of work looked like. We knew what real work was — our thick calloused hands and sweat-soaked shirts proved it.
On several occasions we put new roofs on church buildings. From high above the parking lot, we could watch the “suits”, also called “pastors”, as they arrived late at 10 a.m. and then “left early to make up for it.” Another one of our “suit” jokes.
That’s prejudice. I spent 10 years working on rooftops and I had plenty of time for that prejudice to sink in deep. I had very little respect for preachers and “pretty-boys”.
And then an awful thing happened — God called me to be a preacher. At first, I rejected the calling. I had no interest in being a lazy “pretty boy suit”. My plan was to take my father’s company and build it into the top roofing business in Allentown. I had a lot of pride in my work ethic and my strong back. But God had another plan. Someday I will share with you how God solidified that calling. It happened on a ladder sixty feet in the air. God has impeccable timing.
After four years of college (and working on roofs every summer), I landed at my first ministry assignment. It was a very small town in the middle of nowhere. The people didn’t know who I was other than that I was a college-educated member of the pretty-boy-suit clergy who came to town to be a preacher. Yep, they were just as prejudiced as me — only now, I was on the other side of the equation.
We had quite a few farmers in that church. I can remember how they would grumble under their breath about how preachers like me had no idea what real work was like. They made a regular joke about “working one day a week — and just for an hour.” They would tease me about my soft hands and my cushy job. I tried to laugh along, but inside I fumed. I wanted to leave the ministry so badly. To this day, I still feel a strong negative reaction when someone calls me pastor or refers to me as a preacher. And when someone questions my work ethic, I get very defensive. That is the awful power of prejudice.
Those farmers didn’t know me. They had no idea how hard I had worked to get through college and the many years I had spent working in roofing and construction. They pre-judged me — and they were dead wrong. It hurt — and I mean it hurt deeply.
Prejudice always hurts. We know all too well what prejudice feels like when it is based on skin color or ethnicity or religious belief or gender or some socio-economic measurement. When we pre-judge each other based solely on pre-conceived ideas and what we see on the outside, we cause wounds that are deep and scars that last a lifetime. I know it very well — for I have been a thirty-year victim of my own prejudice.
There’s a lot more to say on this topic, so we’ll continue the conversation next week.