Armstrong: Our race problem, as seen by an African visitor to A.M.E. confab

The Rev. John L. Dees Jr. from Mobile, Ala., tries on a preacher's robe with the help of the Rev. Willis Camp III at the Robes of Faith booth in the expo hall of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

I'VE HAD A lot of emotions in the last few days, given all of the political unrest and demonstrations over the back-to-back fatal police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota.

Rage. Shock.

Sadness. Disbelief.

Then I wandered over to the big African Methodist Episcopal Church conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which ends Wednesday, and found another emotion creeping up.

Discomfort.

I started feeling that after I struck up a conversation with the Rev. Lekubela Moobi of South Africa, whom I found relaxing on a couch between sessions. He told me he was a delegate to the convention. It wasn't long before we began to discuss a topic on a lot of minds lately: America's lingering race problem.

As soon as he started, I found myself squirming a little. I mean, here I was talking to a black man from South Africa, of all places, who appeared bewildered by the state of race relations in the United States.

"Well, having been born in the struggle of the people of South Africa against apartheid and having seen how cruel the system is and how blacks are killed so easily . . . this is something that you expect Americans would be far from," he told me, looking perplexed.

"And it's really shocking that you seem to be struggling far behind the times, and I really can't understand it."

Protesters have taken to the streets of Philly and other U.S. cities since the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. At one protest in Dallas, a sniper killed five police officers.

On Saturday, about 2,000 A.M.E. conference attendees slipped away from the gathering to stage their own impromptu demonstration to express outrage at the killings. Similar protests have been taking place in Philadelphia practically daily - a development that Moobi has watched with a sinking feeling.

"It's something I experienced in my own country before the [Nelson] Mandela era, and when I see it happen, it brings back bad memories," Moobi said, referring to the apartheid rules of segregation in South Africa from 1948 until 1994. "America, we look at it as first world. You don't expect to see such happenings."

There's been no escaping it these last few days, even if Moobi was at a huge church gathering that included an address by Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Before he'd even arrived in the United States from South Africa, Moobi had been reading up on the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which got its start two years ago after the murder of Michael Brown, 18, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

"I have followed the Black Lives Matter from home and hoped it wouldn't come to this extent, but it looks like it will be here with you for a long time," he told me in heavily accented English.

Just two days earlier, he'd had his own racially tinged encounter at a local restaurant with "white people looking at you as if you are too foreign to be human," he told me. At the time, he said, he'd been trying to figure out how much to leave for a tip.

Listening to this African visitor to the City of Brotherly Love describe his unpleasant dining experience not far from the Convention Center made me feel ashamed of whoever it was who had the nerve to treat him that way. I mumbled something like, "I'm sorry that happened to you."

From everything I've read, South Africa still has a huge post-apartheid racial divide. Although millions of blacks have emerged from poverty, racism remains a huge problem for Africa's most prosperous and developed nation.

Still, given all of the incredible advances, including the presidency of Mandela, that Moobi's lived through, I wondered if he had any advice for America given all the current racial turmoil.

"I'm not hearing a clear voice of African [American] anger," he said. "Yes, because black anger must say, 'This can't go on beyond this time.'

"Your vote will tell us what you actually are saying. So my advice is, 'Vote right and don't go decades back from what you have already achieved.' "

Don't go back.

From his lips to God's ears.