Thursday, November 12, 2015

Yesterday, I Made an Assumption

Yesterday, I made an assumption.

I was riding high on my white savior complex
Proud of all the work I had done
All the talking
All the listening
All the organizing
All the helping
I had done it.

I was building relationships with guests,
But we had parted ways.

Yesterday, I made an assumption.

Two young, black men. 
Taut bodies with long dreads cascading,
Sweatpants and t-shirts, with gym bags on their backs
Riding bicycles
Perhaps they were going to the gym to strengthen their muscles.
Maybe they were athletes in high school?

They aren’t like me.
They would think it weird that I talk
to people
On the street,
On the sidewalk,
On the bench,
In the park.

I help people.
I do service.
I am a volunteer.
I work with the church.
I make friends.
I am different.
I am good.

The young men stop.
Open the packs.
I see pieces of plastic loops.
Plastic bags of food.

They give the packages
to people
On the street,
On the sidewalk,
On the bench,
In the park.

My interest piqued:
"Are y’all with an organization?"
One responds,
"It's just God's work.
He started, and I joined him.
Have a blessed day."

Yesterday, I made an assumption.

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where I meet guests and friends

Monday, November 2, 2015

Separate But (Definitely Not) Equal

Joining the YAV program was the beginning of my waking up process. I found a home in service and mission in solidarity and alongside communities who are already doing God's work. I was able to freely express myself, my theologies, and ask really difficult questions. I already knew I was going to the Philippines for a year when Ferguson happened and I felt thrust back to the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. At Dis-Orientation last year, we discussed militarization of the police, white privilege, and delved into the nuances of the racial reality in the United States.

Then I lived in the Philippines for a year.

I was finally out of the environments that had formed the previous twenty-two years of my life. My theology grew and changed. I was in a place where I could ask questions and discover theologies that were not simply reactions to the more conservative bubbles I had called home in South Carolina and Washington and Lee. Not only was my progressive, open theology still narrow, but I discovered different flavors of liberal theology and ways of reading sacred texts: feminist theology, queer theology, womanist theology, liberation theology, empire critical theology, and the list continues. No matter how much knowledge I thought I had accrued over my years of dedicated study and thought, I was still a spiritual infant. God was still working.

In that ethos, I found my worldview recalibrating. I questioned what I had learned in history classes taught by white, conservative teachers in the South Carolina public school system. Over time, I found that my news sources came from voices of people of color. Facebook learned which of my friends' shared articles would attract my click of interest. I was waking up.

I stayed woke as I watched tragedies, disappointment, and unrest grow in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, Baltimore, McKinney, and Charleston, among other places. I wrestled with my privilege, implicit biases, and ways I had previously lived my life in Rock Hill and Lexington. God used my time away to melt me, mold me, fill me, and then it was time to use me.

Upon my return, I was shocked by what I found in my hometown and places so near and dear to my heart. I heard ignorant white high school boys make anti-gay and racist comments about young black girls with no reprimands from adults around, including myself. As I made trips to my favorite places, I noticed a distinct lack of color in the spaces that I call home. I frequented "nice" spaces in towns across South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, and because I woke up, I was taking notice of how white my world is.

Then, I moved to Washington, DC. Again, I am a privileged minority in my community, but it comes with less reverence from the majority. I feel out of my place in my majority black and Latin@ neighborhood and grapple with how my presence interacts with the gentrification occurring just a few blocks away from me that will creep north soon.

In our first week in the city, we went to a poetry night at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant named for Langston Hughes. We listened as people of color took the stage and voiced their anger, passion, frustration, desire, and art. It was beautiful. I took pictures and videos of particularly moving performances and posted them on Snapchat, where one was featured on the Washington, DC local Snapchat story. Over 60,000 people viewed the video of Kenny Sway making music. Then I posted to my personal social media accounts that I had made it to the local Snapchat story (a feat that surprised me, especially in my first full day living in a city that has multiple geotags and a local story). I had consumed amazing art from a young black man and given him a larger platform for people to see his work, but I had to take credit for it. I socially profited from his work. Even though I cited Kenny Sway as the artist, it shocked me how slimy I felt.

I am still struggling with the best ways to interact with the vibrant culture I find all over the city. My favorite coffee shop in our neighborhood is a black-owned business and features local black artists' work on the walls and musicians almost every night of the week. I love the community I have found at Culture Coffee, but I question what my presence and the presence of my predominantly white friends in a strongly black space does to the atmosphere. How can I best learn more about and appreciate black or Latin@ culture without contaminating or appropriating the experience? How do we appreciate the value inherent in each culture without diluting the experience? Does that simply lead to segregation?

These are the questions that I ask myself on a daily basis. For the first time in my life, I am living in an urban city and face issues of gentrification, poverty, homelessness, privilege, sexism, and God's face in the city every single day, and I love it. In this environment, I can finally receive an education on the diversity of history, culture, and stories of multitudes of black people that has simply not been an integral part of my life story until I woke up. Though I will never be black or know what it is to live in a black body in this world, I can get a glimpse of the experience of growing up in inner-city Baltimore in the 1980s through the eyes of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Through his words in Between the World and Me, I can start to understand the nuances and diversity of black experiences that can be found at Howard University, what Coates calls Mecca, where I frequently get lost while riding my bike. Learning more about the stories of black men wrongfully condemned to death row from Bryan Stevenson's book Just Mercy forces me to realize that systemic racism is not something that died with Jim Crow. It happened when my parents were my age and clearly continues to this day through the industrial prison complex.

Where is God working in all of these spaces and where is our place in it? Where is the dominant culture overpowering the conversation and how can we use our places of power to ensure a place for more unheard voices at the table? What are the stories we must unlearn and relearn in order to have a more realistic picture of our history? Who is in your spaces and would others who may not look like you feel comfortable in that space with you? How are we perpetuating the standard of separate but (definitely not) equal spaces in our lives? Is it time to wake up?