I recently have been asked by a few people about how I became interested in antiracism. In helping myself move forward, I realize that I need to look back. Also, I hope to convey the sense that I too am on a journey; I am a work in progress. This is part of my story.
I had barely finished my first
semester of teaching, when I found myself meeting with the director of
service-learning at the Jesuit university where I worked. I explained my idea for a service-learning
ESL class, trying to determine if it would be eligible for the grant that had
been advertised to faculty. During that meeting, I got the feeling that I actually knew quite a lot about
service-learning from my own experiences a volunteer.
I intuitively sensed what needed to
happen in order to make for a good experience.
I needed to go with my
students and convey the idea that we were not “saving” the neighborhood. In fact, volunteers often caused a mess for
the cooperating organization. Volunteers
needed to be trained, they were unfamiliar with the neighborhood, and
ultimately, they went back to their own neighborhoods at the end of the day,
leaving community folks in the same circumstances as before. Since the students were not the workers “on
the ground” on a daily basis, the focus had to be getting to know people in the
community, learning about the community’s needs, and then finding ways to
partner with the community.
I could see how much I had
assimilated from my friends at a local, urban Presbyterian church over the years.
I had begun work with them as a know-it-all twenty year-old, but slowly they had been getting through to me. Here I
was, years later, quoting them almost verbatim.
I had told the service-learning director how my understanding of service
was deeply shaped by my Christian faith.
For my friends at the urban Protestant church, faith was the driving force and
underlying framework for all that they did in the neighborhood where they lived
Unlike other Christians I had
encountered in my life, these folks talked about “race” and racial
inequality. They were a racially and
socioeconomically diverse congregation, and were committed to racial
reconciliation, relocation into urban areas, and redistribution of wealth and
resources. They drew from a long
tradition in the Christian church, including African American theology,
although I didn’t realize it at the time. I only knew that the way they
theorized about racial stratification and oppression was very different from
anything I had ever heard before, and it had direct practical and moral
I had listened intently as the
service-learning director explained how Jesuits had a similar mission related
to service and education. In fact, the
grant was specifically targeted faculty who sought to connect their calling, or
vocation, and spirituality with their work in education. This was a new idea for me; up until that point, I had largely divided "career" and "ministry" into mutually exclusive categories. I applied for the grant and was one of four
recipients that summer, which opened the door to many other unforgettable experiences.
That next semester, I found myself leading a team of two teachers in the
fall. I had ambitiously planned five service projects per class, and I participated in almost all of them. The next semester, and following semester,
the service-learning component of the ESL program exploded. There was a service-learning component on two
levels, then three, and finally all five levels. The program simultaneously experienced a
surge of new students from mainland China; over the course of three years, the program
went from thirty students to three hundred. Almost all of them ended up raking leaves and hearing the story of the good Samaritan on various Saturday mornings.
The dynamics of this Jesuit-Protestant partnership were complicated for some. For example, anyone who had grown up in St. Louis, a Catholic town, could have mixed feelings about Catholic institutions, the big business side of things, Popes, and scandals. Growing up as a Protestant, I had to shed my own bias about the Catholic church. On the other hand, it was sometimes a challenge to explain why we were working
with a Protestant non-profit organization.
The reason for me was pretty obvious—they were the only organization
that would take more than fifteen ESL students at a time during a service project. However, for some of my colleagues, evangelical Protestants were just as bad as Catholics, or worse. To them, Protestants and Catholics might all be hypocritical, but at least Catholics didn't try to "convert" people.
Over the years, these tensions have caused me to read and listen more widely in search of an authentic faith, a Christian identity that is not based on hostility towards others. And I think it’s fitting that my roots
can be traced back to two groups seemingly opposed groups, Protestants and Jesuits. I find great inspiration from the tradition
of the Jesuits, as they were kicked out of most countries in the world for
advocating for the poor and the oppressed.
I love hearing what different Protestant groups are doing around the
world in terms of reconciliation, relocation, and redistribution. These people are
following the footsteps of Jesus, the rabble-rouser and revolutionary. Jesus, who hung out with all the wrong people. Jesus, who’s mission was to find the lost and
uplift the poor. I’m grateful for my
Protestant and Jesuit friends who pointed me back to Jesus.
Autobiography Pt. 6: Education