I am three weeks into my 8-week practicum in urban ministry at the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal. I have been digesting many experiences and pieces of information, and am only now at a point where I can start articulating them to others.
So far, the guiding questions of my time here have been:
- How can I help those I am called to serve in ways that empower everyone involved, rather than perpetuating power dynamics and creating dependency? How do we transition away from charity and into solidarity, doing with as opposed to doing for?
- What is my appropriate role as a white guy involved in anti-racism and anti-oppression work? How does that role change depending on my context?
- How do I engage with people whose theologies are vastly different from mine in the interest of working toward common goals of justice and compassion? Or, to borrow some phrasing from one of the books I’m reading for my coursework, how do we save lives together when we have very different ideas on the saving of souls?
These are living questions for me, and I will not attempt to answer them at this moment. I am hoping to “live my way into the answers,” in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke. I am doing this by:
- Observing. I am taking in as much information as I can. I am watching and listening to my mentors at CELSJR. I am watching the way meetings are run at Justice and Beyond, a community coalition I’m attending weekly, and noting what works in facilitating dialogue. For my coursework, I am reading two books about the shadow side of charity: Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) and When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself. Both give practical insights on the cycles of dependency created by traditional models of charity, be they at the missionary or governmental level, and offer alternative ways of working for equity and empowerment. The latter book is posing some theological problems for me, as it is written from a conservative evangelical perspective; however, this is challenging me to lean into the second thing I’m doing in this process of living the questions, which is…
- Listening more than I speak. It is easy to listen when I expect to agree or be compassionate to someone’s position; it is much more difficult when I encounter a person or ideology with which I am in conflict. In these situations – be they reading a book written by an evangelical missionary, or engaging with a white workshop participant who believes that the way to alleviate racism is to be “colorblind” – I am challenged to lean into the discomfort rather than defending myself against it, to listen more deeply so that I can more deeply engage with the person or subject matter. In intercultural settings, I am listening more than I speak as a means of being aware of and responsible with my privilege, rather than acting as if I can “give it up.”
- Asking lots of questions. I’m asking questions of my professor, my site supervisor and staff, members of my local UU church, members of other churches, people at Justice and Beyond, friends, colleagues, fellow students, people I meet at Fourth of July barbecues, myself, my Higher Power… And I am doing so, to the best of my ability, after I have listened deeply and identified exactly what information or nuance I am missing so that I can question with respect and intention.
I will continue to update this blog as I live my way into more answers. I am shooting for once a week from here on out; some weeks may produce more, others less. This is not only to document my process for myself and those I serve, but also to create accountability to those of you who are donating to my GoFundMe campaign, which I have set up to help pay my living expenses for the month of August and part of September while I finish this practicum and transition into my student ministry position at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville. Please feel free to share the page with your networks and/or donate what you can to support my learning process, through which I am gaining valuable skills to bring back to my community in Tulsa and beyond.
Thank you for reading, my beloved community!