Sunday, August 10, 2008

Thinking about Privilege in Ministry

In these last 5 months since I've started at the Welcome Ministry, I often think about privilege. The other night, after locking my keys in my office for the 3rd time, I chose between asking a neighbor to let me in to sit in my building or using my key card to sit in the comfortable Munro Room at Old First. Eventually I found someone with keys, who graciously let me in and allowed me to get on with my evening resting after a few hours of inconvenience.

The same night, one of our homeless guests slept outside after waiting for hours in a crowded dirty waiting room to get a shelter bed that never materialized. Many of our guests do not get let into public buildings to use the restroom, let alone to wait for two hours for keys to arrive.

My enormous unearned privilege as a white, middle-class, over-educated professional who does not personally know addiction, mental health disabilities, or poverty sent the message to my co-workers, acquaintances, and strangers that I was not a threat and would follow the rules. But this is based on our prejudices as well as our experiences.

Why talk about this privilege at all? Why not feel comfort in the hard work I did in school, the employment with which I earn my income, or the time I took to improve my hygiene, and say that I earned the right to be treated respectfully? Because the reality is that I didn't earn it any more than my neighbors, and I don't work nearly as hard as our guests who recycle all day long, travel according to the schedule of which meal site is open for which meal, panhandle as the only source of income, or engage in sex work because they feel there is no other way to sleep inside or to have food to feed their family.

Yet, the little bits of the oppression our guests face have touched my life, which may be why I'm noticing these differences:
-As a transgender and queer person, I have experienced discrimination in the church and employment, as well as stigma at times in my life. Yet my ability to relocate to supportive communities and my other privileges have led me to be employed and housed. At times in my life when I did not have sufficient income to cover my expenses, my family has been available to assist, and I can be reasonably sure this will continue, allowing me to take risks to pursue careers based on interests and schooling rather than economic need.
-I recently celebrated 20 years of diabetes without complications- complications that I avoided due to excellent medical care and health insurance, disability discrimination protections, stable clean housing, consistent access to healthy food, and not being addicted. But I see family members for whom one or two of these missing who have not avoided complications, and I wonder how our guests with diabetes survive. Imagine injecting insulin when you can only shower once a week and have no privacy or bed- if you can manage to get the insulin and supplies in the first place.
-As a person on the autistic spectrum, I have experienced discrimination in employment as well as social stigma. But as someone with access to education, I have been able to find places where my disability is mitigated by privilege. Having access to housing has meant that I can avoid many of my sensory triggers- imagine sleeping in a shelter when loud sounds hurt your ears and you can't read the danger signs from other residents! Far too many people on the autistic spectrum, let alone people with cognitive, brain injury, or mental health disabilities are institutionalized or limited to few choices for independence and autonomy. Yes, today, even adults with physical disabilities are institutionalized not due to necessities of their disability care, but due to a combination of lack of social/medical support, social value, and poverty.
-As a person who grew up as a girl, I have seen sexism. As an adult who identifies as genderqueer but passes as male, I can avoid being minimized due to my gender as long as I don't out myself. But I am acutely aware that women, particularly women living in poverty, are still treated as children, steered into lower-paying work, silenced in education systems, and subject to violence and rape.

This is a short list, but an important one. We who are privileged to have jobs where we work in positions of power with people who have experienced great oppression must always consider these questions:
-What privileges do I experience?
-What power do I have over others?
-How can I use that power and privilege to get out of the way of the power of others, to convince others that this oppression is wrong, and to work towards truer equality?
-What power must I personally give up to do this?

I pray today confessing my abuses of power and privilege, and asking that the God who gave up all power in order to enter into our human suffering forgive me and empower me to enter into my neighbors' suffering. Let me be open to sharing the gifts of our guests and neighbors, and to work that the world might also know these gifts. God of the Israelites, of Jacob and of Paul, liberate us from our oppressing! Amen.

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