I’m lumbering down the stairs of my apartment at 6:45 in the morning when the phone rings. “Hello Mr. Ross, when are you coming?” The first time a call came in at this hour, it gave me a jolt. This is Shabani’s third sunrise dial this week. Never have I witnessed a child so eager to be picked up for school. Or church. Or in this case, both. All assumptions are up for grabs in the age of Covid.
When the California public schools opted for virtual class this past fall, the Saint Lukes Learning Pod was formed to support refugee youth struggling to keep up with the impossible demands of social isolation, language barriers, and parents who work in-person essential jobs. The sanctuary was converted into a classroom, we organized transportation, provided two meals per day, developed mask procedures, and of course, facilitated recess. After a few months of tweaking the space, I’m confident it’s the van rides to and from church that most excite the kids. The boys claim the back row. It’s the most advantageous dwelling place to mess with the girls, who pile in the row preceding and remain hyper vigilant to clamp any arm that reaches over the neutral zone. And so each weekday morning I drive the van all throughout the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego picking up students, rolling down the windows, and turning up the radio to hear whatever commercial pop melodrama gets filtered through fm radio while we make our journey to church.
Like many in the predominantly white seminary and church worlds I frequent, last summer was spent either sheltering in place, waiting in grocery lines, or protesting anti-black government policy and policing. In my experience, these were three basic paths of human doings. When I moved from Connecticut to California in August, I was both nervous and eager to learn ways I could continue the work on new land caught beneath the weight and financial incentives of the same carceral system. Being a lover of all things Jesus, I was also keen on connecting with spiritual community. These two passions came to a head when I walked in to outdoor worship at the Episcopal Church down the street from my new home.
Over the years, Saint Lukes has become a primary cultural center for South Sudanese Americans, and more recently to Congolese Refugees. The church has partnered with RefugeeNet, a nonprofit that works with families to resettle in San Diego from all over the world. The church also supports an urban farming and commercial kitchen project with International Rescue Committee. While the Episcopal Church at large has passed resolutions, and developed curriculum to envision the Beloved Community once preached by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, such a call often struggles to integrate on the ground. As white Americans, we have re-segregated ourselves over the last 50 years, and done our share of resource and freedom hoarding, only to discover we are far from it. When I joined worship that first Sunday, it felt like a spirit filled attempt to transcend racial and economic difference. A space where I was being invited to learn, grow, and shift my story in community.
My path of anti-racism as a white male began in the Fall of 2018 alongside my journey of sobriety. When I entered this season of mirror holding and truth telling, all of my other identity markers came along for the ride. The process has been messy, often kicks the trip-wire of perfectionism while clumsily straddling a line between getting off my ass to do something, and white saviorism. When healthy, I am guided by a longing for collective liberation. When unhealthy, I’m flailing through time and space to avoid shame. I am well trained to recognize racism somewhere “out there” or in the archives of history. Seeing myself as a culpable agent of anti-black violence and inequality today tends to draw silence as I struggle to face a world as it is.
Weeks into joining this new church community I was hired by the Learning Pod staff and found myself deeply ingrained in the lives of several families whose affinity rested more deeply with Africa than America. My role was not teacher, nor tutor, nor childcare provider, but some hybrid of each. As a staff we navigated changing progress reports and instructions from various teachers and schools to keep each child on their learning trajectory. I was trudging through my own zoom world at Yale Divinity School, reading a powerful book by Dr. Willie James Jennings called After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. The question that lingered while building our program was how to develop and encourage a place of multi-cultural belonging as a fairly ignorant white newcomer in a historically white denomination.
The question gained form in my third week in an unsuspecting conversation with a student named Martha. Martha is a wildly quick witted seventh grader with little patience for zoom school. She moved to San Diego from the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her family five years ago. It was the end of a particularly long week, and Martha was explaining why she stopped coming to church at Saint Lukes sometime the year before. “The worship just isn’t us”, she said. “Why can’t we do it our own way?” This curiosity caught me. I find the wisdom of youth shines brightest in the clarity and depth of their questions. To hers, I had no good answer. This was her call and her challenge to a greater sense of belonging.
My ability to convince students that relentlessly completing their online math modules was the key to liberation was extremely limited. The truth is, I would roll my eyes at me too. With Black History Month just around the corner, the staff brainstormed ways of building our own curriculum that would encourage our students. We hoped to bridge the gap between education and culture, and chart a Beloved Community that speaks to an East African context. The question began to gain focus. How can we give our students the keys, and encourage them to bring their sense of Africa – of home – to church?”
Many of the students love to draw, so we asked them to list some of their heroes they were learning about for Black History Month. I found high quality portraits of each person, printed out digital photos and began posting them on the back wall. Three pictures became ten, ten became twenty five. One student decided to draw a portrait of Toni Morrison. We posted that on the wall as well, and soon students were furiously drawing portraits of Chadwick Bozeman, Lupita Nyong’o, Muhammed Ali, Martin Luther King Jr, and all sorts of Black Panthers to honor their favorite movie. It became known as our Wall of Saints, and had expanded to a second wall. One of the oldest students who many of the kids look up to asked us to hang a photo of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian musician and activist who is regarded as the originator of Afrobeat. She brought her boom box to church and started teaching the kids different dances during lunch and recess hour. I found myself looking up many African figures, and learning East African history that I didn’t know. Students were becoming teachers, and the spirit brought our shared space a new life.
It felt important for us to capture the experience in some way for the families, and the congregation to be able to mark a difficult year with hope, and strength. Plus, what is school without picture day?! Our Program Director Amani, who arrived in San Diego from South Sudan in 1999, brought in Sudanese cloth to use as a backdrop. We had all of the students wear their traditional African attire, or what they called their “church clothes” to school so we could get portraits of each of them to commemorate the year in a new way. Another staff member Jolia made Mandazi – an African style donut – and African tea. While student grades had drastically improved since the program launch, very little math and science homework was done on this day as pictures were a big hit for all.
Though these small efforts helped breath life into the space, Martha’s question still rattles around in my head, and speaks to the immense work that remains. All of the book clubs and publications on decentering whiteness has done far less to challenge how I operate than the simple and bold curiosity of a thirteen year old girl whose eyes see the world clearest. Through her question, limitations of liturgy, and replication of power became obvious. The lack of trust we have in all of God’s people and cultures to reinvent praise and worship in authentic ways hangs in the balance. Martha isn’t interested in rearranging the furniture within a colonial structure. She is eager to accept God’s challenge and opportunity to build a new home. My role in this process is to incessantly remind each student of their innate vision and power to rewrite the rules that will get us there.