Kojo Asamoa-Caesar says he's no stranger to ugly remarks based on the color of his skin. The former teacher and school principal says over the course of his campaign challenging incumbent Republican Rep. Kevin Hern in Oklahoma's First Congressional District, he's heard more than his share of racist comments.
"It's unfortunate. It truly is unfortunate that I have become numb through this process of running for office," Asamoa-Caesar, who is Black, said.
Still, one recent comment left him surprised, less because of its contents and more because of who it came from.
"How can I help Kojo move back to whatever country he came from," the Facebook message from John Brown, director of human resources at Tulsa's Victory Church, began. (Brown is white.) Asamoa-Caesar said he was startled to see that sort of rhetoric coming from someone representing such a major local entity.
"Victory is a very influential institution in our community," Asamoa-Caesar said. "This is a global ministry."
His campaign posted a screenshot of the message to their Facebook page. Victory's lead pastor, Paul Daugherty, who is white, said he was returning from a family road trip when he saw he had a deluge of missed calls and text messages.
"And I was grieved for John, I was grieved for Kojo, I was grieved for how it was portraying not just Victory, but even Christians" generally, Daugherty said.
After a night of praying over the decision, on Saturday, Daugherty said, he fired Brown.
"I believe that's not John's heart, but he did say it, and there's a consequence for that," Daugherty said.
Daugherty said Victory ministers to people of all backgrounds, and was seeking a way to demonstrate that he condemned the remarks and was committed to reconciliation and atonement.
Meanwhile, Asamoa-Caesar found out he and Brown had a mutual friend, who told the men they had more in common than they may think.
"And so, in this moment, I thought: What a perfect opportunity, right, to say, 'let's come together and have a conversation, let's have a dialogue, let's be mature about it,'" Asamoa-Caesar said.
That's how the three men found themselves sitting down and talking over lunch in a lounge area of Victory's office on Thursday.
"If we say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, we have to own it," Brown said, explaining why he came and why he apologized. "I raise my son to say, if you make a mistake you've got to go make amends. You've got to do the right thing and take responsibility for it."
Brown said he is not a racist.
"If I could maybe make a cautious analogy: With my name of John Brown, there's probably more within me that falls along the line of abolitionist. If I'd have been around during that time, I would have probably been with him," Brown said, referring to the mid-19th century leader with whom he shares his name, who led raids and uprisings and assassinations believing violence necessary to overthrow the institution of slavery.
By way of explaining his Facebook remark, he said his comment was prompted by a pop-up on Asamoa-Caesar's campaign website, which Brown said he viewed on his iPhone, asking visitors how they would help send the candidate to Congress, which triggered a thought process of trying to express that he vehemently disagreed with what Brown saw as "socialist" policies.
"If I could just be honest, when I heard the name Kojo, I didn't know if it was a first name, a last name, and, quite frankly, I thought you were French," Brown told Asamoa-Caesar at Victory on Thursday, chuckling.
"I really didn't know his ethnicity at all," Brown said. "Had I known that there was a difference in ethnicity, I probably would have thought a second or third time, and in retrospect probably would not have done it at all."
Brown said he now understands the particular hurt in the particular phrase he used, a point Asamoa-Caesar wanted highlighted.
"I told both John and Pastor Paul this story," Asamoa-Caesar said. "In my statement requesting acknowledgement, apology and atonement, as part of the acknowledgement I wanted Pastor Paul to acknowledge the specific words that were used are a racist trope in our country. Historically it has been that."
"I think people who are going to be listening to this understand the historical nature of the words that are used... that those words seem to be used against people of color, right," Asamoa-Caesar said. "The immigrant from Norway usually doesn't get told to go back where they came from, but the U.S. citizen who is Black but whose parents immigrated from Africa gets told that."
"It is a totally inappropriate comment," Brown responded. "And the fact that we're in Oklahoma, I guess if we look back at the history of the nation, those who have maybe the biggest complaint in the world, within the nation, would be the Native Americans, because the majority of us have immigrated here."
All three men acknowledged that critics may see their meeting as a public relations stunt, but each denied that saving face or self-promotion was their motive.
"If we base all of our decisions to meet together, to forgive each other, to apologize, to atone, if we base it all on 'what are people going to think,' then I think we'll miss out on healing," Daugherty said. "To me, it's like, God knows our hearts. God knows the genuineness of our repentance and our forgiveness."
"If there are people who line up on one side that say, 'well, you sold out because you were trying to save your job,' well, that's not even on the table," said Brown, who noted he offered his resignation before he was separated from his job. "What's important to me is doing the right thing in the sight of my brother and in the sight of the Lord."
Asamoa-Caesar said he accepted Brown's apology.
"He didn't try to explain it away. He didn't try to make excuses. He said, 'Forgive me, that was a stupid moment, right, and I apologize,' and asked for my forgiveness," Asamoa-Caesar said. "And, so, me being the Christian that I am, we're taught to be Christ-like, and Christ says you forgive. It doesn't matter how many time somebody wrongs you or hurts you -- you forgive them."
"Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die," Asamoa-Caesar said. "And I want my peace."