Pastor, author and former BYU star Derwin Gray on what it means to be ‘anti-racist’
The evangelical pastor visits with the Deseret News and shares his thoughts on how to improve race relations in America
PROVO — Derwin Gray possesses a unique perspective and is happy to stand as a voice of encouragement in these turbulent times.
Gray arrived at BYU more than 30 years ago as a young, African American football player from San Antonio, Texas, with a stuttering problem. As he likes to point out, he earned a 16 on his ACT exam.
But after a successful career as a defensive back at BYU and then the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers, “Dewey” Gray ended up graduating magna cum laude from Southern Evangelical Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree. A popular speaker, he’s been touted as the “Evangelism Linebacker.”
Gray married Vicki, who is white. They met during his freshman year at BYU. For the past 10 years he has served as the lead pastor of the Transformation Church just south of Charlotte, North Carolina. In 2018, he earned his Doctor of Ministry in the New Testament in Context.
Along the way, Gray has authored four books, including his most recent, which was published last week, titled “The Good Life: What Jesus Teaches about Finding Happiness.”
The book has been the No. 1 seller on Amazon.com in its category.
“It’s a great resource for people to learn how to develop racial reconciliation,” Gray said.
It’s a timely book, given the protests throughout the country and the world sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.
Gray spoke to the Deseret News about his book, racial equality, his experiences with race at BYU, and more. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: What is the focus of “The Good Life” and why did you write it? How will it help people deal with the current situation with race relations in our country?
Derwin Gray: I wrote “The Good Life: What Jesus Teaches about Finding True Happiness” in response to so much unhappiness I saw from people of faith and people who were not of faith, from young people to old people. I thought, “What does Jesus have to say about happiness?” ... I talk about how ethnic reconciliation is vital to Jesus. Particularly for my white brothers and sisters, I give them pathways in how to authentically build relationships influenced by the love of Christ and the gospel of Christ so that there can be ethnic harmony within people of faith, but also that spills over into the world. I had no idea how timely my book would be.
DN: What’s your perspective on what’s been happening in our country since the death of George Floyd?
DG: People have asked me if I was surprised to see an officer with his knee on a black man’s neck (and the black man) saying, “I can’t breathe.” I am not surprised by that at all. Those are things the black community has been saying my entire life and I’m 49 years old. I grew up in an area of town where people’s rights were abused often. I want to reiterate that for me and for the Transformation Church, we have a great relationship with the police department. The reality is, there are abuses of power. The protests that we see are not just about George Floyd. This is a protest of hundreds of years of systematic injustice and racism. So I’m not surprised at all.
DN: How did your time at BYU shape your views of racial relations?
DG: My personal experience at BYU was overwhelmingly great. ... But probably the biggest incident was my junior year. Players that I’ll leave unnamed, one was black and one was white, were having a heated conversation. The white player called the black player the “N” word. Before I knew it, you had seven or eight of us black players huddled together and there was a group of white players. A lot of the things said behind closed doors were exposed. Coach (LaVell) Edwards called me, as a team leader, into the office and asked me what I thought about it. I think there were some underlying issues but for the overwhelming majority of my time, it was a great experience there at BYU. One thing I will say — I think for a player like me, who scored a 16 on my ACT to get into college, today, I wouldn’t be able to even get into BYU. I think there is a need to give more kids like me an opportunity because it’s good for BYU to get out of the echo chamber of sameness.
Here’s the thing that’s so important. Academic development is not just in a classroom. Playing football and sports are a part of academics in that you’re actually learning. You’re learning teamwork, you’re learning sacrifice, you’re learning to process information, you’re learning grit. You’re learning all types of intrinsic and valuable things that can help you in life.
Today, I have a doctorate. I think 1% of the U.S. population has a doctorate. If you look at African American men, it’s much less than that. What I want to say is, it wasn’t that I wasn’t smart. I just didn’t have the resources available to me to enhance my capacity. That’s another thing about race. When you look at public schools in the United States of America, for the most part, they are funded by the tax base in which they are in. The way cities in America were developed was through a process called “redlining.” That means that minorities could only live within the designated redline that was attributed to them. If it’s a lower tax base, you have lower access to education. A lot of times, it’s not that minority kids aren’t as smart, they just didn’t have the resources or the tools. When you give us the resources and the tools and the tutoring, you can see what can happen. You can actually flourish. My experience from BYU, I was able to bring an outside culture that was not Mormon, to enhance and help. I, too, benefited greatly as well. That’s why I continue to be an advocate for BYU and specifically BYU football because it was an avenue for me to become the man that I am today.
DN: What are your current ties to BYU and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
DG: I was out there (last fall) for the Washington Huskies game. I ran out the (alumni) flag before the game. I beat everybody out there onto the field. I beat Cosmo and I beat the players and I pulled my left hamstring. It was beautiful. I showed no pain. As I came around the bend, I had a flashback. I thought the crowd was cheering for me but they were cheering for the players. I ran faster than my body was used to running.
I am a forever advocate of BYU football and Brigham Young. I believe it is a great opportunity and a great place, particularly for young black men, to be able to go to add value to the BYU experience. Homogeneity will keep us locked in bubbles of ignorance. When you can add diversity, the echo chamber has a new voice that can add life. I’m a huge fan of (athletic director) Tom Holmoe and (head football coach) Kalani Sitake. I love the school and I try to recruit as many kids as possible to go to the school. Obviously, I think there is a lot of commonality with the LDS Church and its desire to want to do good things on the planet. As an evangelical, New Testament pastor and scholar, sure there are some theological differences but there are commonality for the common good, which needs to be enhanced.
DN: You’ve said you want to see people not just be “non-racist” but “anti-racist.” How can that be achieved?
“It’s not enough to not be racist. We need to be anti-racist because racism is a sin. It’s a sin that says that not all of God’s creation is worthy of equal dignity of honor. To be anti-racist, I become an advocate and I break down walls.” — Derwin Gray
DG: There is a big difference between someone saying, “Well, I’m not a racist.” We live in a day and age where silence actually leads to violence. I believe that the gospel calls us not just to say, “I’m not a racist,” but it moves us to be anti-racist and an advocate for racial reconciliation and justice. One of the things I teach our congregation at Transformation Church is this, to love my neighbor as myself means that I care about things that hurt my neighbor that may not hurt me. That’s what love means. Jesus had no commonality with human sin yet love moved him to die for human sin.
Oftentimes with white LDS and white evangelicals, the plight of black men, black Christians in this country has been, “Well, I’m not racist.” It’s not enough to not be racist. We need to be anti-racist because racism is a sin. It’s a sin that says that not all of God’s creation is worthy of equal dignity of honor. To be anti-racist, I become an advocate and I break down walls. It means that when parents or loved ones or family members make racist jokes, you don’t get quiet, you confront it in love. It means that you become an advocate. ... Why is it that in the 1980s there was a war on drugs but with the opiate crisis, now it’s counseling and compassion? The difference is, in the ’80s, crack flooded black and brown communities while at the same time, cocaine was all over Wall Street but didn’t get criminalized to the same degree. Now, the opiate crisis has affected everybody, from the White House to the ghetto. All of the sudden it’s like, well, we don’t need a war on drugs; we need counseling. Those are big systemic issues that we have to deal with. People have to understand that not everybody in prison is guilty. There are people that take a plea deal rather than go to court. When you’re uneducated and poor and can’t afford a good attorney, you’re toast. I think Jesus cares about those things.
DN: What do you think about the movie “Just Mercy,” which portrays the issues with the legal system?
DG: I actually write about Bryan Stevenson in my new book. Think about this — 135 people who were wrongly convicted on death row who would have died, that he’s helped, think about all of the years of how many people that have died innocently. That’s where we say, “Wow, I want to become anti-racist.” As a Christian, that should be normative for us. What’s sad to me is that our nation has become so polarized politically that if you’re against racism, you must be a liberal. It’s like, no, I’m a Christian. I’m pro-all-of-life from the womb to the tomb.
DN: As you mentioned earlier, can you address the importance for people to educate themselves on the underlying issues affecting race relations?
DG: For my white brothers and sisters, who I deeply love, you can’t be selective in history. “I want to look back historically at World War II, but I don’t want to look at Japanese internment camps. I want to look at the founding of our nation but I don’t want to look at the blood of Native Americans that are in our nation. I don’t want to look at the building of our country on the backs of black slaves.” If we don’t understand all of our history, we’re doomed to repeat it. We’re seeing a lot of that repetition.
DN: What is the role of athletes and their platform in bringing about change?
DG: It’s very important. People listen to athletes. Professional athletes have an opportunity to move hearts. One of the saddest things for me with the whole Colin Kaepernick issue was, he and the rest of the players kept saying over and over that it was not disrespecting the flag to get on one knee. The flag represents liberty and justice for all. If that’s not being lived up to, and you’re participating in it not being lived up to, that’s far worse than getting on a knee. Getting on a knee is saying, “I’m using my platform and my voice to bring attention to a systemic evil and all you care about is me scoring touchdowns for your fantasy football league.”
Colin Kaepernick is going to go down in history. What he does off the field — and I don’t agree with everything — but what he’s done as a result of this, he’s being vindicated by the NFL right now. They’re apologizing to him. NFL athletes, professional athletes, have to use their voices. Wouldn’t it be sad if there’s enough evidence to accuse fans of saying, “Score touchdowns, put the ball in the hoop but when systematic abuse takes place, I don’t care.” Or how is it that (African American) Eric Bieniemy, who co-calls plays with the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, doesn’t have an NFL head coaching job and a (white) guy that was a special teams coach is the head coach for the New York Giants? Explain that one. That is utterly ridiculous. I think NFL players are probably getting close to the point of saying, “We’re not going to play if this doesn’t change.” Unfortunately, America changes when the bottom line is affected. When money is affected, then they’ll change.
DN: You participated in a protest over the weekend. What was that experience like? Are the protests helping?
DG: Yes, it was in my neighborhood in Charlotte. It was a beautiful experience because it was led by Gen Z and millennials. Black, white, Asian, Latino — it was absolutely beautiful. Young, old, it was multi-ethnic and multi-generational. Matter of fact, it looked like the church that I pastor. It was a collection of people and it was incredible. In the 1960s when you saw the protests with Dr. Martin Luther King, it was overwhelmingly black. These protests are multiethnic. It was peaceful, it was respectful. I think it’s a sign that Gen Z and millennials are saying, “No more. We need to be honest about this and we need to see change.” The image of a police officer on a black man’s neck was a symbol of what’s taken place for 400 years. I know there are people that are going to read this and say, “Well, Derwin, you’re a rich NFL player.” Stop thinking so individualistically and think communally and strategically. The reality is, the scales of injustice have not been tilted in the right direction. They need to be balanced.
DN: What did you think of fellow BYU alum, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, marching with protesters on Sunday?
DG: Let me tell you something. When Mitt Romney gets out on the streets protesting, saying Black Lives Matter, there’s change happening. I was excited to see that.
DN: How optimistic, how hopeful are you that race relations are going to improve? Are we going to look back at this time as a turning point?
DG: Yes. For me, my primary concern is the church of Jesus Christ and all of her various shapes and forms. I am a pastor. I’m more concerned at this point about the church living out ethnic reconciliation because I believe that from the church, it will overflow into culture. I’m very enthusiastic about what I see happening amongst Christians. I think it’s going to be a Jesus-centered, grace-perspective of a multiethnic, multigenerational movement that believes the gospel not only “sends people to heaven when they die,” but also “unleashes heaven here on earth while they live.”