Writer's note 2: The same God who tells me to "do justice" also tells me to love kindness and walk humbly in the exact same verse (Micah 6:8). So I'll offer my perspective and my story here, while promising to keep an open mind, open ears and open heart to those with different perspectives, and acknowledging the dignity of each person, no matter what their conclusion.
As a writer, you usually pick the topics you write about.
On occasion, however, the topic picks you.
Over the last month, I've had the same conversation. The person I'm having the conversation with is constantly changing. The locations have changed, too.
The question has not changed.
Everyone in our city is talking about Robert E. Lee and the possible school name change. It's too important of a topic to try to answer quickly, so I figured I tried to write about my experience from the beginning.
I just remember trying to hold back tears. I was down the street at the neighbor's house, a family that was - and remains - close with my family.
The radio was on, and the radio announcer had just proclaimed Robert E. Lee had lost a playoff game on a last-second shot. I was heartbroken. This was the mid-1980s. And it was my school. I would have been around 10-years-old (maybe a bit younger), but my connection to the basketball program at Robert E. Lee was already evoking strong emotion out of me.
By the time I reached Shelburne Junior High as a brace-faced preteen, I had already decided my career path. I was going to be the point guard at Robert E. Lee High School - hopefully winning a state championship - and then I was going to play college basketball.
In my teenage years, I never deviated from that plan.
A STUDENT AT ROBERT E. LEE HIGH
My dad's family is from Waynesboro. Dad spent his first year of high school at Rosenwald during segregation, and then helped integrate Waynesboro High School in his sophomore year. My dad talked to me about of lot of things growing up, but for whatever reason, we didn't talk too much about integrating Waynesboro.
Growing up in Staunton, I had tons of family and friends in Waynesboro. I played AAU basketball in Waynesboro, and I spent a lot of time at "Granny Miller's" home. My dad's family was so big that we sometimes ate in shifts.
I had lots of cousins my age, along with friends my age.
The waiting time meant plenty of time for jokes. The jokes would often go like this:
Me: "Cousin, exactly what is a Little Giant?"
Them: "We know you are not talking. Your school mascot is a confederate general."
That always made me feel uneasy, even though we were all laughing.
As a 15-year-old, however, I thought more about personal goals than the school name. As a teenager, my thoughts in school usually looked something like:
1. Is my high school crush in this class?
2. I hope my friends are in my class.
3. I need to think of some better jokes for the daily cafeteria jokefest.
4. I wonder when I'll get a chance to start on the varsity basketball team.
5. I need to do enough classwork to get a basketball scholarship.
Pretty turned in on myself, I know.
It wasn't that I didn't have convictions. I just didn't understand - or desire to understand - what was going on with the name Robert E. Lee at that time.
EVERYTHING WAS GREAT BUT ...
I loved high school. I made lifelong friends. I had teachers like Mrs. Polly, Mrs. Weller and Mrs. Lotts to help shape me and inspire me. Mrs. Cynthia Gray, Coach Willie Gray and Coach Doug Carter made sure I saw minorities in professional positions. And I played for a Hall of Fame basketball coach Paul Hatcher.
And although I was obsessed with getting a basketball scholarship - my old classmates at the 20-year reunion laughed at the memory of me dribbling my basketball from class to class - I loved learning.
Except US history.
I hated the way those history books taught us about slavery. It literally made me sick. Sometimes, I would just leave the classroom.
If the textbook writer's aim was strip dignity away from black students, it worked. First, it started the story of black people at slavery, as if blacks were never people, only property. And then we just learned how we were beaten, only considered three-fifths of a man, etc. And we never heard from any indigenous scholars.
I would spend a lot of history class reading indigenous scholars, partly because I hated the degrading lens through which slavery was taught. I couldn't put this language to it back then. I just knew it was wrong.
One of the goals of a good high school is to inspire students to be a lifelong learners. As many black students begin their own study of black history - usually trying to restore the dignity that felt stripped away in those US history classes - we realize that in many cases we were taught a sanitized version of history.
BACK TO HIGH SCHOOL
If you made a list of the top basketball players in Robert E. Lee High School's history, my name wouldn't be anywhere on the list. If you turned that paper over and used the back as well, my name still might not appear. Still, I did get to play college basketball at a Division III school, Shenandoah University.
With a college degree in my hand that used to dribble a basketball, it was time to decide what to do. Ultimately, I was fortunate enough to do two things that I loved so much that they never felt like work.
The first was writing sports for The News Leader, and the second was mentoring kids at Robert E. Lee High School. I mentored at Robert E. Lee High School from 2003-2015. I loved the kids there so much I tried to get a job teaching in 2004-2005, until I realized I was perhaps the world's worst teacher. I just love Lee High kids.
I laughed until I couldn't breathe with Robert E. Lee School students. I coached girls' basketball at Robert E. Lee High School. I've cried with Robert E. Lee High School students. Sadly, I've helped eulogize a few Robert E. Lee High School students.
Outside of starting my own family, I consider my time with Robert E. Lee High School students the most significant thing I've done with my life.
GRAPPLING WITH THE NAME
I have five kids. For most of their lives, my kids attended some form of private school before transferring into Staunton City Schools recently. Although the "Save the Name or Change the Name," debate is heating up, it's always been a topic of conversation.
However, when my kids were in private school, I wouldn't speak on it much, and when I did it was with the admission that my kids weren't in that school system, even though I care very deeply about all the kids in the community, not just my own.
Given my own current circumstances and our community's circumstances - as we move into the community listening series - I thought now was an appropriate time to add my voice to the conversation.
WHERE I LAND
"Biblical justice is doing the right thing for the right people to the right extent in the right way."
I'd vote to restore the original name.
Even more important to me than a school name is my relationship with Jesus Christ. I'm on a lifelong journey to figure out what following Him means. One scripture that sticks out to me is Micah 6:8: "Do justice."
Biblically, that means doing our part to help everyone in our community flourish and standing against injustices. The biblical imperatives carry even more weight when it comes to defending the marginalized in society.
It's my opinion that asking black students to join in a forced celebration even remotely tied to part of their historical oppression is wrong. I want to be clear that I don't speak for all black people, and even within my friend groups of black Robert E. Lee alumni we would not all agree.
And for my friends looking for an informed Biblical perspective, I would commend to you the following podcast episode from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. It gives helpful language to the difference between memorializing and celebrating, as well as helpful insight on how to move forward without erasing history.
WHY SPEAK OUT
It's easier just to keep quiet.
Why risk being misunderstood?
Why risk the possible name-calling and character defamation?
Why open yourself up to those to want to dehumanize you for having a differing opinion?
Why risk having previously open doors in this community close for you?
Because sometimes convictions cost.
In issues of justice, there comes a point where silence is betrayal.
There is no greater agenda here for me. I don't want any political position. I do vote every election, but I'm not a card-carrying Republican or Democrat. I'm just a Christian, who believes the Bible would encourage me to use my platform to pursue biblical justice. And to me, I believe the way everyone flourishes is with a name that the whole community can celebrate.
A FINAL WORD: LOVE THY NEIGHBOR
A quick glance at the yard signs around our city is probably a pretty good indicator that we are not all going to agree on the Robert E. Lee debate.
But there's this false notion in America that disagreeing has to equal despising.
That's not an option for the Christian. That's not an option for me.
Nowhere in the Bible does it say that I can stop loving people because of a sign in their yard.
Please hear me say this. Following Christ is a lifelong journey. I do not always get it right, so I have to do everything in humility, realizing that I don't know it all. While I've learned that I do have to take steps to guard my own emotional health, I'm willing to sit down and talk with people with varying opinions (hopefully in person and not social media).
I'm of the opinion that I can love justice and my neighbor.
Chris Lassiter is a Christ-follower, a husband to Emily (read her blog here), a father to five kids and a freelance writer for Young Life Relationships, HipHopDX.com, JamTheHype.com and other publications. His first book, You're Grounded, was published by Moody Publications in 2013. You can order the book here. His first kids' book, Grits & the Grimels, is out now.