I was a refugee from Africa—born in Monrovia (Liberia), by way of Freetown (Sierra Leone) and Abidjan (Ivory Coast)—who settled initially in Palisades Park, New Jersey.
People often ask: what was the biggest difference coming from Africa to the United States? One big difference was that I was different. It made a difference in how people saw me. It made a difference in how people talked to me. It made a difference in what people expected of me.
Never was this truer than when it came time for school enrollment. I arrived in September, so school was already in session. I was nervous. I feared that everyone else was already learning new things. Even so, none of my worries matched the reality I encountered.
Sitting in a meeting with grown-ups, something never felt right. Before long, I learned that the school thought I would fit best in a developmental disability class. The decision was made without any testing—well, other than the skin color test that a refugee and immigrant from Africa obviously failed.
I was young, but not clueless. I knew this was not the class in which I belonged. Every day I completed all my work for the day within the first five or ten minutes. Then I would spend the rest of the day tutoring classmates and running errands for Mrs. Petruzelli.
At the end of fifth grade there was a standardized test for everyone in our school. I did well on the test. In fact, I scored so high that I was transferred into the gifted class for sixth grade.
Years later, I am thankful to God. In spite of my mistreatment, I learned patience. With my first real friends, I learned the importance of love and genuine friendship. I learned how to be a leader. I learned that being a servant and serving well, matters. I learned that all of us who can, must work hard on behalf of our sisters and brothers who society is geared to leave behind. I learned all of this from Jesus, but he started teaching me these things in Mrs. Petruzzeli’s class.
Hank Johnson is senior pastor of Harrisburg Brethren in Christ Church, a diverse, urban church of Christ-followers actively sharing Christ’s love and serving the needs of their local community and global neighbors. This is the first of three posts by Hank Johnson. To go to the second post, click on "Prophetic Witness."