Sunday, January 27, 2013

Autobiography Pt. 5: Protestants and Jesuits

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 and worked.   

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 implications.   

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 

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