Former NFL and BYU football player Derwin Gray was sitting in a South Carolina coffee shop when an older white man interrupted him to ask what he was writing so intently.

Gray, who is Black, said he was working on a new book about healing America’s racial divide. The man denied that a racial divide exists. Then he described his approach to race relations, common among white American Christians: “I don’t see color.”

“Well, why not?” Gray said. “God didn’t make a mistake making me this beautiful cocoa-chocolatey color I am.”

What now? Black pastor and ex-BYU player Derwin Gray’s deep thoughts on racism

Gray recently returned to Brigham Young University and told faculty, staff and students that the coffee shop conversation revealed a better way for Christians to consider race.

“God doesn’t want us to be colorblind. He wants us to be color-blessed, because if we’re colorblind, we are muting the creative genius of our Creator,” he said.

“Besides,” he added, “I’ve never seen a white person (say to another white person), ‘Hey, man, I’m colorblind, I don’t see your color.’ We only say that to people of color. I know, passively, it sounds good, but it needs to be more of an affirmation and appreciation of God’s creative genius, that in each and every ethnic being on this planet and (in) culture, the image of God radiates and reflects. We can’t see the fullness of God if we don’t see the fullness of God in his diverse people.”

Four keys to move from colorblind to color-blessed conversations

Gray led BYU in interceptions as a sophomore, junior and senior defensive back, then spent six seasons in the NFL, mostly at linebacker and on special teams. His one NFL interception was memorable. Playing for the Indianapolis Colts in a 1995 game against the San Francisco 49ers, he picked off another former BYU star, Hall of Famer Steve Young.

It was in an NFL locker room that Gray began his journey to Jesus Christ and his current role as the founding and lead pastor of Transformation Church in Indian Land, South Carolina.

Gray’s book, “How to Heal our Racial Divide,” has been praised by some of the leading names in American evangelical circles.

He returned to BYU last fall to talk about love and race to the football team, volleyball team and religious faculty, saying there are biblical reasons to actively work to repair race relations. He also ran the Y flag out onto the field with the BYU football team before its game with Baylor on Sept. 10.

The day before, he shared four ways people can create color-blessed conversations.

Those four ways, he said, are to love, listen, learn and leverage your life for Christ.

1. Have faith in God’s love for you

“No. 1, and this is preeminent, the more secure we are in God’s love, the less defensive we will be in difficult conversations,” Gray said during an event with a broader swath of the campus community sponsored by BYU’s new Office of Belonging.

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“As followers of Jesus, our identity must always be rooted in King Jesus himself. Then that way, we can look sober-mindedly at things of the past that are great and things of the past that are not so great. When we’re secure in God’s love in Christ, that Jesus’ opinion of me is the only opinion that matters, that his love for me is not based on my worthiness, is not based on my grace, but is based solely upon his grace and saying, ‘I choose to love you,’ then that frees us up to be able to have difficult conversations,” he said.

Gray said accepting God’s love has additional power for minorities.

“When we’re secure in God’s love, we become unoffendable,” he said. “Let me say that again. That’s your challenge, people of color. The Gospel allows us to become unoffendable. That doesn’t mean we’re doormats. It means that somebody else’s words do not determine my worth and value, because the cross has already told me how much I’m worth.”

Gray paused and said he would preach for a minute.

“The cross has already told me how much I’m worth,” he said. “If King Jesus said, ‘Derwin, I’m going to die for you’ — ‘but while yet we were sinners, Christ died for us’, no merit in myself — can’t nobody call me anything that’s going to affect my being because my worth is found in the King.”

2. Become compassionate listeners

Gray co-founded a ministry with his wife, Vicki, who was a BYU shot putter.

They spoke to white congregations, Black congregations, Latino congregations and Asian congregations. The Grays knew the Bible taught that churches should be multiethnic, so he began to ask pastors why their congregations were homogeneous.

The answers weren’t Biblical. Some were racist. So the Grays launched the Transformation Church with a goal to create a diverse congregation. One way to do that, he said, is to learn to listen to another’s story compassionately.

The Rev. Derwin Gray, a former BYU and NFL player, speaks about racism at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
The Rev. Derwin Gray, a former BYU and NFL player, speaks with his wife Vicki Ensign Gray about racism during a presentation in the Wilkinson Student Center on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022. | Jaren Wilkey, BYU

“The word compassion is comprised of two words,” Gray said. “It means to suffer with. ... Compassionate listening means I’m willing to listen to the story of another, because I’ve never walked in their steps before.”

He pointed to Paul’s letters to the multiethnic churches that grew up after Christ’s death and resurrection and said fashioning unity in those congregations or in churches today does not require colorblindness.

“Jesus made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from two groups,” Gray said, quoting from Ephesians 2:14-16 and 4:3 and 1 Corinthians 12. “What we like to say at Transformation Church is that all of God’s people are a new race of grace and it comes out of the multicolored people of all the earth. So God’s family is made up of all the families of the earth. I don’t stop being African American. My primary identity is Christ-ness expressed through my history and through my culture.”

Russell Moore, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has called Gray one of the world’s most respected preachers. He praised Gray for relying on Christ’s teachings and example.

“Avoiding simplistic answers and despairing cynicism, this book shows us that racial reconciliation is a central theme of Jesus’ call to repentance and life together,” wrote Moore, the new editor in chief of “Christianity Today,” in a plug for the book.

3. Take time to learn about the other

Third, actively learn about and from others, Gray said.

“Do not be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people and don’t think you know it all,” he said.

Some white parents in Gray’s congregation who adopt Black boys are stunned when the boys reach their teens and others begin to treat them differently than their white sons.

“We just never knew,” they say.

Gray said the reason they didn’t know, even though Black Christians have been telling white Christians this for decades, is that the problem wasn’t theirs until it was.

One Black woman told Gray, “I feel like I have a Ph.D. in white people, and white people don’t even have a GED in minorities.”

“Don’t wait till the problem becomes yours to care,” he said. “If we’re truly the body of Christ, injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere, as Dr. (Martin Luther) King said, and we are to care about the other members of the body of Christ. We care about immigrant children at the border in cages. We care about babies in the womb. There’s no dichotomy. Democratic and Republican politics have no bearing on my ethics. Jesus does.”

Gray said he had no preference for a political party.

“I think the kingdom of God and our ethics are always going to challenge every political party on the face of the earth in various ways,” he said.

But he speaks out against political acts or movements that he finds acting against the Bible.

“In the Protestant world, in conservative evangelicalism now with the rise of Trump, there’s this idea that Christian Nationalism is a legitimate thing, and it’s an utter heresy,” he said. “It is diabolical.”

He called the great replacement theory, a conspiracy theory that whites are being replaced by minorities, a “demonic heresy.”

One evangelical leader said Gray has exemplified what he teaches.

“When I want to learn about healing, I listen to someone who has been a healer. That’s one of the many reasons I listen to Derwin Gray,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of Wheaton College’s Billy Graham Center. “He has not only advocated for racial reconciliation, he has worked toward it and demonstrated it in his life and ministry.”

4. Leverage your life courageously for the sake of Christ

Gray said the most challenging step to healing the racial divide is to be intentional and willing to step into the breach. His goal is not to share information but to lead transformation.

“With information, you can kind of keep at a distance, but transformation messes with you and it begins to move your feet to action,” he said. “We happen to be a people of gospel, good-news action.”

When a student asked what people can do to help create change, Vicki Gray suggested they pray for God to bring people different than them into their lives.

The Rev. Derwin Gray, a former BYU and NFL player, speaks about racism at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
BYU students, faculty and staff listen to a presentation about racial reconciliation by the Rev. Derwin Gray, a former BYU and NFL player, in the Wilkinson Student Center on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022. | Jaren Wilkey, BYU

“If racial reconciliation is a hobby and not a habit, it won’t be sustainable,” Derwin Gray said.

Using leverage requires courage because it can cost friends. For example, some people see Facebook friends make racist posts and decide to say nothing, Gray said.

The Rev. Derwin Gray, a former BYU and NFL player, speaks about racism during a presentation at BYU on Sept. 9, 2022.
The Rev. Derwin Gray, a former BYU and NFL player, speaks about racism during a presentation in the Wilkinson Student Center on the BYU campus in Provo, Utah, on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022. | Tad Walch, Deseret News

“We’ve got work to do, but it’s gospel work to do,” he said while referring to Ephesians 4:4-6. “It’s gonna take courageous people, and the most courage is found in love. Love is the greatest power there is. There’s no greater love than this, the one who is able to lay down their lives for their friends.”

Gray finished his BYU presentation at the Wilkinson Student Center by giving the audience what he called a soul tattoo and an action step.

“The soul tattoo, the big idea is this,” he said. “In Christ, you were built for color blessed conversations. If it doesn’t start with you, who is it going to start with? Our action step is this: Practice the four L’s, which are love, listen, learn, leverage.”

Derwin and Vicki Gray joined the BYU Maxwell Institute podcast last month. Listen here.