Ron and Liessa’s StoryBy: Tuvya Zaretsky
Tuvya: Ron and Liessa Randle are a Jewish-Gentile couple from St. Louis, MO. Lisa is Jewish, and Ron is African American. They have two adult children and a growing crop of grandchildren. The Randles were married just 11 years after the landmark civil rights decision in the U.S. Supreme Court, Loving vs. Virginia (1967) that overturned state laws barring interracial marriage. Things have changed, but this couple experienced intermarriage challenges in the midst of those culture changes. So, they have a unique perspective to share within their story of finding spiritual harmony.
So, Liessa, tell us about what went into your identity development and cultural formation.
Liessa: I was born and raised Jewish in St. Louis, Missouri. I grew up in a religiously Conservative Jewish home. Our community was a 95% Jewish. We had lots of Jewish support around us. I attended Hebrew class and religious school at our synagogue. I was a Bat Mitzvah and our home was kosher. I loved and celebrated all of the Jewish holidays. Judaism also gave me a belief in God. I knew there was a God, somewhere. I was immersed in Jewish culture from birth. My dad’s family was from Russia, and my mom’s family was from Austria.
Tuvya: Ron, same question: what went into your identity development and your cultural formation?
Ron: I come from a family of five, and both parents were believers in Jesus. The social fabric of the black community, particularly during segregation was centered around the church. My dad was a pastor. That had a powerful impact on my life. From an early age I knew there was a God who loved me and that was reinforced throughout my family. We were a huge family. My grandparents had 11 kids. So, we had lots of cousins and we understood the importance of family and extended family.
So, growing up we learned all about doing what the Ten Commandments said. That exposure to the Old testament gave me some understanding of Judaism and support for Israel. We had a love for Jewish people and respected that Jesus was a Jew.
Tuvya: Did you have contacts or friends who were Jewish?
Ron: Yes. My first impression of Jewish people was in the stores around our community. I came to love one couple, a Jewish family that owned one of those stores. They were so warm to my grandparents. That Jewish couplewere very open to engage with our family and other African Americans in the community that shopped in their store. They were so kind and sweet. You have to understand, that was the first impression that I got that some whites could actually be friendly with us.
Tuvya: Segregation was prevalent throughout Missouri at a time. The civil rights era was challenging the way relations had been for too long. Ron, how did you experience racism?
Ron: I remember not being able to eat in some restaurants or not being able to park our car at my school. We regularly heard things on radio and TV that indicated Black Americans were regarded as second class. Those may not seem to others like personal attacks, but the institutional nature of it leaves an imbedded fear. I still deal with this in my life today. It just left me with a fear and uncertainty, sometimes suspicion, about why something was being said. The August 1963 demonstration for African Americans’ civil rights in Washington, DC had an impression on me. It was a seismic event that signaled the change coming and then the Civil Rights Act was passed the next year. My parents intentionally moved from the inner city to a community where I was attending a predominantly all-white integrated high school. Those are some of the indelible impressions of my childhood.
Tuvya: I’m glad that we can have this conversation now. Your experience as a Black American, married to a Jewish American can help a lot of Christians empathize with and appreciate your unique journey. Liessa, did you experience anti-Semitism growing up in St. Louis?
Liessa: I lived a very sheltered life growing up in a predominantly Jewish community. We stayed with our own people. We kept kosher so we never went out to restaurants. Actually, I didn’t personally experience anti-Semitism though I was aware of the Holocaust from an early age. Probably the first I experience of anti-Semitism was when I went to college in Iowa. That was the first I heard of really negative perceptions those people had regarding Jews. It was a little shocking to me.
Tuvya: What do you think was the origin of those negative stereotypes about Jewish people?
Liessa: Well, I heard many of them say, “I never met a Jew before you.” Then, they would check what they had heard by asking me things about what “Jews” do, think or look like. It was weird and a little humiliating to hear the strange stuff they thought.
Tuvya: Yeah, those moments of cross-cultural discovery can feel very unsafe. And they have an impact on us. Ron, do you recall how you and Liessa came to appreciate your common experiences of social segregation.
Ron: I think something subtle attracted us to each other. We recognized we both had a sense of what it felt to be persecuted. Liessa attended high school with Black kids. So, her family taught that all people are acceptable. She never heard a derogatory comment in her family about people of color. And my own family had to deal with the daily reality of segregation. So, my dad emphasized for our family that these things are true, but God is in the midst of it all. His love for us transcends everything that we were experiencing. He made certain we understood that God is really for us. And that helped great degree.
Tuvya: So, Ron, you grew up in a family where you dad was a pastor. Yet, there’s a point in which you owned your own faith in Jesus. What brought about that shift in your life?
Ron: It was at a funeral of a friend of mine who had committed suicide. I’d struggled, trying to understand who I was. At this funeral, the pastor gave a simple plan of salvation at the end of his sermon. His message was from Ephesians 2:8 and 9, “By grace you have been saved through faith and not of yourselves. It’s a gift of God not of works lest any man should boast.” The tenth verse said we are “His workmanship.” He designed us to do good works, which He planned even before creation for us to do. That was very powerful to think God has a purpose and design for me. From that point on, I knew that Jesus was the Messiah and that my life was destined to move in some direction associated with Jews.
Tuvya: So, Pastor Wayne and Carolyn Carson at Clayton Community Church in St. Louis had a significant ministry to you and Liessa, didn’t they?
Ron: Yes, Wayne and Carolyn took such an interest in my life and invested in me. I mean, they really invested in me. These were two people from the South. They grew up thinking about Jews and Black in a traditional Southern way, but Jesus really changed their lives. They saw something in me, nurtured me and helped me grow spiritually. And they had a matchmaker’s hand in my relationship with Liessa. I once asked them, “Do you think Liessa Rubenstein will go out with me?” Carolyn said, “Yes” even though she hadn’t talked to Liessa. Then, when I asked Liessa to go out, she asked Wayne, “Does this Ron Randle ask everybody to go out, or am I special?” And that’s how we started dating. We were married eight months later.
Tuvya: Liessa, Ron said that after growing up in a Christian home, God called him into his own relationship with the Lord. A bible message during a funeral, helped Ron to hear of God’s specific plan for his life. That reset the course of his life. Liessa, you were raised in Conservative Judaism. How’d you come to believe in Jesus?
Liessa: I don’t remember seeking anything spiritual in my life when I first heard people talk about Jesus as the Messiah. I saw people passing out little Messianic Prophecy Bibles and I thought, “I want one of those!” I got one but never read it. Sometime later, someone asked me if I’m going to heaven. And I was thinking, “Yeah!” I just figured “I’m Jewish. I’ve got an ‘in,’ right?” I even once went into a Catholic church. I lit a candle to see if there was something spiritual that would happen. Nope, nothing came of that.
Shortly afterward, somebody engaged me in a conversation about Jesus. I said, “Look I am not giving up being Jewish.” My tradition was plain, Jewish people don’t believe in Jesus. We don’t even say that name! Jesus.
Then, a friend gave me a little pamphlet containing the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet. I’d never ready anything from the Old Testament. It was a description of the Messiah and how he would suffer and die for our sins. I could see it was an exact prophecy of Jesus. A light turned on in me that showed Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. I accepted Him as our Jewish Messiah.
Tuvya: You mention that your family didn’t talk about Jesus or say the name Jesus. Was it difficult sharing your faith with your family?
Liessa: After I became a believer, it was very hard for me to say Jesus too. It took me awhile to overcome that. And it was six months before I tried to bring up the subject with my mother. She was always the one to say, “Jews don’t believe in Jesus.” You know, we consistently heard, “Jews were persecuted because of Jesus and by Christians.” In my family, we made the connection between “Christians” and the Holocaust, with the persecution of Jews through pogroms. We just thought the people who did those things believed in Jesus. It was always “us” and “them,” Jews and Christians. Of course, now I see the difference between “Christian” and “Gentile.”
Tuvya: That’s pretty common Liessa. Modern Jewish culture just did not distinguish between non-Jews, gentiles, and Christians. The Jewish point of view often used the term “Christian” as just a generic reference for everybody else.
So, that lays the groundwork for your relationship. May I assume your first meeting was through the church you were both attending?
Liessa: Right, it was the Church pastored by Wayne and Carolyn Carson in St. Louis. Their interest in Jewish people drew Ron to ministry among Jewish people. And the first person who shared the bible with me was part of that congregation too.
Tuvya: Wayne and Carolyn were both from the South?
Ron: Well, Carolyn grew up in North Carolina, and Wayne grew up in Miami. They were influenced by common cultural attitudes about race in those days. Wayne and Carolyn’s views changed as they saw the diversity of God’s Kingdom changing when Jewish people started turning to Jesus in the 1970s. That prompted them to move west to St. Louis where they started a ministry to Jewish people. That ultimately developed into something much bigger, including marriage for me and Liessa.
Tuvya: Were you married in that church?
Liessa: That’s a funny story. As we planned the wedding, my mother was still angry at me for believing in Jesus. So, we thought small, planning for a wedding with 40 people. I didn’t know where to have the ceremony. My parents were divorced. That added more stress to the wedding plans. As the date got closer, I was getting more nervous. At one point, there was so much family tension I actually didn’t want to go through with a ceremony. My Dad offered us money to elope. Well, that finally sounded really great to us. So, that’s what we did!
Tuvya: What sort of challenges were making you nervous as you planned the wedding ceremony?
Liessa: My mom and some other Jewish family members were upset that I’d become a Christian. And they blamed pastor Wayne Carson. So, they didn’t like that we wanted him to officiate the wedding ceremony.
Tuvya: They were afraid of what he would say about Jesus?
Liessa: Right. That, and internal family conflict, wasn’t how I wanted to remember our wedding.
Tuvya: While researching the challenges reported by Jewish-Gentile couples, I found one of the four most difficult periods of their relationships was in navigating the multicultural worlds in wedding planning. First, there are the unique cultural preferences of the two primary parties. Then you have the two immediate families, their extended relatives and all of their specific cultural expectations. On top of that is all the complexity of trying to accommodate different ethnic cultural traditions and various ritual practices, religious preferences, different expressions of spirituality and the various family identities. It is usually much more to navigate than people anticipate. I’ve got to ask an obvious question on your case. Was there resistance in either family to a Jewish-Black marriage.
Liessa: My mom wasn’t bothered that Ron was black. Just that he wasn’t Jewish. My family asked so many times, “Will he convert?” They knew I wasn’t practicing Judaism. It was such an odd question.
Ron: My family was more concerned about the seven-year difference in our ages. They saw Liessa as this young girl, who happened to be Jewish and a believer in Jesus. They wondered about any impact from a difference in our spiritual maturity. But they saw how deeply the life of Jesus had affected Liessa. Also, they had some concern about another inter-racial marriage. My sister endured struggles from her marriage to a white man in 1969. That was just two years after the Supreme Court ruled to overturn state laws barring interracial marriages.
Tuvya: I want to underscore that legal moment. In 1967 the Supreme Court ruled, in Loving vs. Virginia, that states could no longer prohibit mixed-racial marriages. Prior to that ruling, culture and practice in 16 states the republic held that inter-racial marriages were illegal.
Ron: That’s right. So, when Liessa and I got married, in 1978, interracial marriage was accepted in St. Louis, but it was still rare to see a Black and Jewish couple.
Tuvya: And on top of that, Jewish people were trying to understand, “She’s Jewish, so how is it that she now a Christian too?”
Ron: Yeah, though it was never strange to us. It made sense, because we both love Jesus. Since He brought us together, we knew He would show us how to bridge the cultural gaps that were there. He has been faithful to do that.
Tuvya: The two of you share a faith in Messiah Jesus. Would you agree that your cultural distinctions and your ethnic differences blend together within the dignity that God has invested into both of you?
Liessa: Yes, I agree with that. Our shared faith helps us value each other as the Lord sees us.
Ron: Yes, it helps us work through our cross-cultural differences knowing how much God loves and sees worth in both of us. When I married Liessa, the condemnation of segregation was still deeply affecting me. The culture around us was slowly changing. Still, some people were lagging behind the new direction. Some reacted as though Liessa and I had crossed the line by doing something that might be legal but, in their culture was still objectionable. We knew God looked on us with His love and acceptance. I might still need to work through deeply painful cultural reactions from the past. But Liessa and I are in this relationship together and our faith in God tells us He is with us too.
Liessa: I think it’s easier for Ron and me to understand our distinctive cultures. We are both from minority people groups, black and Jewish. We are both from communities that experienced persecution. I think that kind of common understanding brings us together.
Tuvya: No doubt about it. The shared experience of being regarded by some other people with less than the dignity, which God invested in us, is a bond that we can understand. How have you passed that awareness on to your children?
Ron: Liessa and I were very intentional with our kids. We celebrated some of the Jewish holidays. We were intentional about observing Passover, because we wanted to create spiritual identity with meaning for them. That goes beyond just race.
Tuvya: Your situation is unusual except when compared with other Jewish-Gentile couples. Thanks for sharing how your spiritual harmony has helped you successfully integrate your bicultural ethnic differences and your very special spiritual perspectives? This has been terrific. Thank you both.