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    Jan 28, 2018

    Privilege

    Privilege

    Passage: John 13:34-35

    Speaker: Vivian McCarthy

    Series: We Are One

    Category: Discipleship

    There is no doubt that acknowledging Privilege in the US is a divisive subject. Yet, until we grasp the realities of Privilege and its contribution to the racial divide in our communities, Jesus' desire that all people "may be one" is likely impossible.

    I need to be honest with you right up front. I have pretty much always ignored the implications of privilege. I just figured I didn’t grow up with privilege. My dad’s family moved to Baltimore because they couldn’t make it in Southwestern Virginia – hardcore Appalachia. My mother’s family struggled with many of the afflictions that come with poverty and addiction.

    I grew up in Brooklyn – not the one in New York. Brooklyn was a low income neighborhood – White neighborhood, and just one block from my house were the South Baltimore housing projects – the kind built just after World War II. Don’t get me wrong. We had a wonderful neighborhood, and thanks to the organization and choices presented by Baltimore City schools, I got a great education. My parents worked hard, my sisters and I worked hard, and we not only got along, we had a great childhood.

    But I didn’t see – even as an adult.

    By the time I went to Duke last summer to prepare to supervise our summer intern, I had certainly learned a good bit about privilege, but I still was giving myself credit for hard work and the gift of a decent brain.

    And then I met Dr. Christena Cleveland.

    Dr. Cleveland is the associate professor of the practice of organizational studies at Duke Divinity School. She is a social psychologist and reconciliation scholar-practitioner who writes and lectures widely on the theology and practice of reconciliation. Cleveland joined the faculty in 2015.

    I got a decent brain. She won the brain lottery! Not only that, she is able to look at social psychology and privilege in a way that is helpful. She doesn’t blame. Did I mention that she’s Black? She not only doesn’t blame, she helped me to see privilege from a wide perspective – showing how she, too, bears responsibility for privilege because it’s not a one-way, two-dimensional issue but touches many, many areas of life.

    She’s a great storyteller, and one of my favorite stories she told was about living in urban Minneapolis where she was in a very diverse community. A particular group of her neighbors was Hmong – people from southern China. If any of you saw Clint Eastwood’s movie Gran Torino, his neighbors were Hmong, and he showed just how easy it is for us to misunderstand and dismiss or even hate people who are so different from us – for no particular reason. But I digress.

    First, Dr. Cleveland shared the difference between hospitality and building deep relationships. She had a swing in her kitchen – which made her apartment a great place for people to come since it was the closest thing to a park in her neighborhood. You know, they had lots of parks in Minnesota – just not where the poor people lives. So, she told us how she likes to be hospitable and how that’s a very nice – even a Christian – thing to do. To treat people special.

    However, when she is hospitable, she is in charge. She decides what you will eat, when you may come, when you must leave (yes, she says she will throw you out when it’s time to leave!) and she said she came to realize that when she is being hospitable, she holds all of the power in the relationship.

    So, as Lent approached one year, Dr. Cleveland decided to give up some apps on her phone and take up a practice of building deeper relationship with her Hmong neighbors. They had invited her many times, but she had always found a reason not to go. After all – their food is different, their sense of time is different, they don’t tell good jokes and don’t laugh at her jokes. It was much more comfortable for her to treat them – on her terms.

    Then came the Friday night when she was tired and didn’t want to get up from her sofa. She says that she was "whining" to God, complaining about how hard she was and how she just needed to stay on her couch.  Then she says, "I am just sure that I heard the Spirit speak to me.  Christena Cleveland.  I crossed the metaphysical plane to come for you.  Now you just get up off your couch and go hang out with your Hmong neighbors.  It's the least you can do." (from Better Together, a keynote address at Duke Divinity School, May 2017)

    Delving into this subject requires us to examine our motives and our actions. To check our culture that implicitly tells people that they belong or they don’t belong. That they truly have a place or they are really just guests present at the whim of the people who really belong. Relationship or just being nice because we think we have to?

    We will be exploring more of Dr. Cleveland’s work in the small group as we work together on Monday nights. I hope those of you participating will enjoy and learn from her as much as I have.

    So, I’d like to share with you a video that hopefully will help us see. The subject of privilege makes most of us White folk more than a little prickly. Last week I talked about how far we have come since the Civil War, and most of us White folk think that we’ve come pretty far while our Black brothers and sisters don’t. Part of what prevents true equality is called Privilege.

    Let’s watch this brief video that offers an explanation of privilege:  Click here.

    That video is helpful in several ways. It doesn’t blame those who have privilege. It simply points out that not everyone has the same opportunities, no matter how much we think that is obvious or true.

    I do want to say that there are many factors in what makes people succeed. Remember the two Wes Moores that we read about a couple of years ago – two men who grew up a couple of blocks apart in West Baltimore – one in jail for life and the other a highly successful businessman who was encouraged to run for mayor of Baltimore City. It is clear that when families break down children are at higher risk for serious problems. We know that when kids live with substance abuse or domestic abuse, their life may not be stable.

    Still, we can’t ignore the fact that some people have more opportunity to succeed than others. We can’t ignore the fact that there are public or systemic issues that affect people who live in poverty. When a family is struggling to put food on the table or to care for a family member who is mentally ill, or living in substandard housing or crushed by despair, they are not thriving and often cannot bear the load. Not all schools are created equal, including not all public schools. Let’s watch one more short video that creatively illustrates how life circumstances can affect whether a person succeeds or not:  Watch here

    At least 19 years ago, while I was still doing program work for the annual conference, we were working on issues around public/private education, and I went to a meeting in Baltimore City. I have always been proud of the education I received in the city, so imagine my horror when the teachers at that meeting talked about the fact that they could not give homework because there were not enough textbooks to go around – even in one class, let alone the multiple classes they taught on the same topic – and the books they had were in deplorable condition.

    Since that meeting was so long ago, I decided I needed to check my facts before sharing that information today, so I went to an expert. Morgan Aasen teaches at Armistead Gardens elementary school in southeast Baltimore City, and I asked her if things had changed. This is what she wrote:

    It’s so true! In 4th grade we read novels. We got a new curriculum and only one novel for 80 kids. We are told to make copies of the novel with the limited paper we have (1 box of paper per quarter). Textbooks aren’t as much of a problem number wise at my school but yes they are outdated. It’s mostly the problem with the novels. Like how are we going to have time to make that many copies of a book that we should have if it’s in our curriculum.

    She added that they are required to read 4 novels during the school year.

    That’s what we call a systemic problem.

    Our series theme is We Are One. Jesus prayed for us to be one as he and God are one. In order to be one, we must love each other as Christ has loved us. So, picking up on something I said last week, How can we say we are one unless we concern ourselves with the injustices that play out every day all around us?

    Just as I said last week, this is not an exercise in Black History. This is not an exercise in being politically correct – I know I said this last week, but I think that phrase is code and is repugnant. Recognizing, examining and considering how to address privilege is an exercise in discipleship – in recognizing that every person is a brother or sister in Christ and precious to God. And it is an exercise in recognizing our own personal sin and our corporate exercise of injustice when we ignore or deny how privilege affects our sisters and brothers. Maybe by the end of this series I will have company in memorizing Micah 6, verse 8:

    What does the Lord require of you?  To do justice. To love kindness. To walk humbly with God.