As I felt and continue to feel at New Day with the kids, I actually have no perspective of value to offer to those who have actually struggled. As part of the preferred majority, I have a coddled view of issues bound up in racial, economic and religious discrimination. I haven't seen from what Drew Hart would call "the underside," that is the margin, the borders, the kicked-under-the-rug part of society. From here, one can see the ugliest parts of a so-called fair society, the acts willingly ignored by those who can look away. People who live on "the underside" must be familiar with the assumptions of both dominant and subdominant cultures out of the necessity of interacting with both worlds. They are most aware then, too, of the unconscious lies we can come to accept about "others" because they often have friends and family among those stigmatized groups.
I've only seen glimpses of "the underside" here in Johnstown (but a lot more than when I was living in the Mennonite sector of well-to-do Harrisonburg), so that while I am on the way to beginning to understand the complexity of the issues that plague the world, I'm far from the maturity I need to contribute to the discussions of how to move forward. Another reminder that "I don't know anything."
But while I am so far from being equipped to contributing to the dialog righting injustice, I am also aware of how with great privilege comes great responsibility. Uncle Ben told this to Spiderman, of course, but so did Jesus to his followers: "... From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked" (Luke 12:48b). We who have the truth of the gospel are compelled to take what we are given, each of us having been given a life so unique, and give it back through work for Christ. Our submission of our lives to mimic the sacrifice of Christ builds the "upside down kingdom" where we lose all to receive all, suffer greatly to experience depth, and serve others to be served ourselves. Each of us has been given at least something, and now we give it back.
I do know, wherever I go, whatever I find myself doing, I want it to be service. Of course, any work can be service, not every Christian can be a pastor or missionary, land must be farmed, clothes produced, power generated, roads plowed, public bathrooms cleaned, and so forth. Indeed, we are called to work the gospel into every act that we do, knowing that we represent the kingdom with our integrity and selflessness. Paul writes in Colossians: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters." This attitude of working for God and not self embodies the Christ-like surrender that we are demanded of in our whole life.
As I look to the service I will one day do, I never want to forget that it's not about me. What do the hungry need, the shelter-less, the injusticed, the ignorant, the lonely? Where are the least of these? That's where I want to be, continually reminded of my blessings, continually forced to admit my inadequacy, continually fulfilled only by God.
This acknowledgment of my gifts, and the desire to serve along with the realization my own powerlessness to grasp the complexity of unjust systems, makes a treacherous balance. In my zeal to serve, I might fall prey to the ever ruthless "White savior complex." In thinking that my way best, that to me has been given the light of God, that I can be the driving force of change in a broken world, I run the risks of harming communities out of my ignorance, of dehumanizing individuals I deem necessary to "save," of believing that in my (White) privilege I can discredit others, of even thinking that it is me doing the work and not God. How many well meaning youth groups or missionaries have set out with their agenda and enforced their way on people they targeted as in need? More insidiously, how often do we unconsciously assume that issues of the Black or poor communities could be remedied by replacing Black culture for White? Hart mentions often in his book the importance of empowering leaders already within marginalized communities, of giving value to the culture of peoples that has already been widely devalued.
The challenge then is the balance of give-and-take, serve and be served, which, when done in love, becomes the basis of a relationship. That's how we build any relationship after all; it is how we "do life" as some in the young church would say. You listen only to be listened to in turn, share something and get something shared back, laugh at their joke so that they laugh at yours, cook food to share to receive a meal another time, give of yourself in exchange for a living bond. By doing this intentionally with people unlike yourself, you are rewarded with a renewed view of life.
By sharing the perspectives of others, we also develop a sharpened awareness of injustices. Through dear relationships, the hardships we used to be able to comfortably shelve in our minds, become personal. Coming to know the hearts of the oppressed changes people from numbers, groups, and categories back into people with names and lives that are worthy of love.
So then, when I ask the questions of - How do I as a White person engage in dismantling racism? How can I as a rich kid understand the perspective of the impoverished? How can I as an educated woman know how to reach the illiterate? - Christ has provided me the answer. Seek out friends on the underside. Get up close and personal to the issues that affect the lowliest. Strive to improve the lives of others "as you love yourself" in the self sacrifice that speaks the gospel into every work you do. Flip the expectations of what is normal on their heads.
Of course, doing this takes immense courage and trust. It is not easy to choose to live in crime-ridden housing districts to be connected to the economically challenged community. It is not easy to attend churches that have really unfamiliar traditions and worship styles. It is not easy to look past potential danger to reach people. It is not easy to choose a career that might not guarantee financial security. It is not easy to build bonds with someone you have little in common with (see A Grasping for Common Ground). It is not easy to leave your comfort zone to engage with people. It is not easy.
I only pray I will have the audacity to live with the boldness my call deserves, not only as I look to the service I will one day do and the community I will be a part of, but also now in my work for Service Adventure and the community I find myself in now.
See Erin's full blog post here.