Stephen Hess

The Journey West County

Today, I was thinking back on the summer of my sophomore year of college. At the time I was a Young Life leader in the West End of Richmond and an intern at the Youth Life Foundation of Richmond on the Northside. It was perhaps the first time I could see first-hand the gaps in racial and economic experiences in our country. In the mornings, I would teach at the learning center to grade-school kids in this poor black neighborhood and then in the afternoons and evenings, I would hang out with rich white kids in the suburbs. It was a disorienting experience for me. In some ways I found myself becoming resentful of the Young Life students with whom I was spending time. It was hard to appreciate the “challenges” they would bring up as they were driving around in more expensive cars wearing more expensive clothes than I had. What I didn’t realize at the time was how self-righteous I was becoming. Because I was spending time with people who were younger and more affluent than I was, I wasn’t examining my own lifestyle closely. At least 2-3 times a week, I would get Starbucks on my way into the learning center. For all my (internal) grumbling about these white, suburban kids, I was the white teacher (from the wealthy white, suburban university) commuting into this poor black neighborhood to teach English while sipping on my $5 lattes. I think the Lord brought this memory to mind to show how my own comfort and “commuting” are barriers to greater personal awareness, understanding, and engagement with issues of racial and economic division and injustice. Beyond what I’m spending and consuming, I think I (almost reflexively) try to find (a false) comfort around these issues by comparing myself to others. As if in an inversion of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, I find my sense of self in not being like those “Pharisees,” who are in this instance, older, more conservative, white evangelicals. But this “at least I’m not like them” kind of thinking is just a mental exercise. I might not be putting my foot in my mouth, but I’m also not changing anything about the way I live and how I use my time and resources. Figuratively (and often literally), my feet are just up on the coffee table in the comfort of my home. And I think this theme of comfort is closely related to this theme of “commuting.” Given the makeup of my current neighborhood (suburban white) and that of all the other neighborhoods I’ve lived in throughout my life, I have the privilege of staying “socially distant” from all of this. I am grateful for The Journey, but I know that (at least in the past), I’ve been able to use our multi-site makeup to associate with “diverse” community but not actually covenant in diverse community. I get to be “aligned” with black leaders like Curtis, Sabrine, Carlos, Courtney, and William without being “allied” with them. And truthfully, I put those words in quotes because I’m trying to make distinctions with concepts I don’t fully understand. As a white male, privilege looks like moving in and out of these conversations at my own leisure with little to no emotional impact. And I also have a personality type that tends toward extreme compartmentalizing in relationships which can take advantage of the kind of compartmentalizing there has been in our church’s history to avoid real, meaningful engagement in these matters that is costly and consistent. As an enneagram 5, I have a core fear of being perceived as incompetent. I need to put my own image-maintenance to death, acknowledge my ignorance, and accept leadership. Even now, these matters are things that I can “commute” back and forth from, so to speak, and I need a lot of help to stay present.