Justice: On Being Useful

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This post is the second in our series this month on the spiritual practices of activism that are rooted in and enhance our faith lives.

Katie and I met on Grad Cafe when we both were contemplating PhD work at Drew. She’s an incredible pastor and writer with a beautiful spirit!

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Jaapani püttsepa tööriistad / A Japanese cooper’s tools

“We think that because it’s private, it’s sacred. In Jubilee all things private became common. It’s yours until someone needs it.” ~Cláudio Carvalhaes

Several years ago, I became a single parent while attending seminary. I lived in the family housing apartments with my children, and in my last year one of my classes began at 8:30am, the exact time when my younger son needed to be escorted to the school bus stop. The family apartments were 15 minutes away from the lecture halls. My son was too young to meet the bus on his own. The class was a requirement to complete my degree and ordination. If I did not take this class, I had either wasted a ton of money on a degree I wouldn’t finish, or I would have to waste another ton to take one class the following year. I was out of money, out of time, and out of options.

So I sent an email around to neighbors and friends asking if anyone could watch my child for a half hour, two days a week, and escort him to the bus stop. One by one the emails came back with the sentence, “I’m sorry I can’t help.” Every last one of those emails came with a reasonable explanation of why they couldn’t help: this one had too many kids already, that one couldn’t commit twice a week for a semester, the one over there didn’t feel comfortable not knowing us well, this one also had a class, that one had to work, the one over there went to the gym at that time.

Honestly, I understood all the reasons, and I carry no ill will. I understood it was a nuisance favor to ask. I also knew how a total of 12 hours of someone’s time could have made a huge difference. I ended up hiring someone to “babysit”. You can’t pay someone to babysit for a half hour, so that was an expensive solution, with no money coming in to pay bills.

One person shook her head and said, “Man, that’s tough. I can’t imagine doing this as a single parent.” I never know what to say to that.

About the same time, I attended an event hosted by Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal where Vijay Prashad presented some thoughts on justice and activism, and afterwards he stuck around for a bit of Q&A. I didn’t have any specific questions, but I stood nearby and listened as people asked their questions.

One young student shook Dr. Prashad’s hand and asked, “I want to make a difference, where do I start?”

Dr. Prashad smiled, and said:

“Look around you and see what needs to be done. And then do that.
And enjoy the work. You’re allowed to enjoy the work.”

I’ve spent the last two years doing work with youth in and around Trenton, NJ. It’s a challenging space to work in with a constant culture clash between white suburban youth and black and brown youth from both the suburbs and the city. The disparity of wealth and resources is painful to see, white folks don’t want that to be true, and people of color are scrambling to get by and provide a life for their kids. So far this year there have been 14 murders in Trenton, all black and brown men who died too young from the violence plaguing our city.

When I look around me, it is easy to get overwhelmed by all that’s in front of me that needs doing. I remember all the times people have said to me, “Call me if you need help!” This has become a mostly empty phrase along the lines of “Let’s have lunch, sometime.”

I’ve realized, being on the under side of needing help, that people “help” for all kinds of their own condescending reasons. “There but for the grace of God, go I,” is a common refrain in social justice work, accompanied by a slight shudder and grimace.

One year, the police department in the wealthy township we lived in contacted me in November. They had received my name from the free lunch list as someone who might appreciate a Christmas basket. It would include a turkey, some fixings, and a few presents for the kids. That sounded good, so I agreed. The sergeant said he’d be in touch closer to Christmas with details, but I could count on the basket.

December 22 he called again and said he’d be out with some volunteers the next day to deliver. And they sure were! About 11am, into my apartment complex came a firetruck and a police car, sirens blaring, lights blazing, with a pick up truck bringing up the rear. Santa was perched in full regalia. They pulled in to the front of my house, Santa jumped off the truck and yelled, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” And then 10 volunteers streamed out of vehicles and into my house to deliver the turkey and fixings and presents.

My kids were transfixed.

The neighbors were too.

I wanted to disappear.

The sergeant met my eyes and got his people out of my house.

I didn’t accept that basket the next year.

Thinking on what it’s been like to be poor the last few years, I’ve moved away from asking for help, accepting help, or offering help.

These days what I’m interested in is, “How can I be useful?” I’ve been looking around to see what’s in front of me and trying to do that. Even if, and maybe ESPECIALLY, if what is useful is inconvenient.

Being useful cuts right through discussions of privilege, who has what, who has an obligation, why someone has need. It’s just a simple matter: if I have something that is useful to someone else, to the community, to a justice movement, then I give it. No justification needed.

No need to explain why you are a single parent. No need to explain why you don’t have the money to get your kid to camp. No need to beg me for that 12 hours of time. If I got it, you can have it. There’s been other’s who’ve done for me.

Useful cuts through the donkey dung of the white savior complex. If I’ve got something that can be useful to the community, then the community can have it. If not, then what is most useful is sitting my butt in a chair until I can be useful in a different way.

Simple, but not easy at times. Plenty of days I don’t want to be useful when I could. And plenty of days when I wish I was useful when I’m not.

But when I find myself saying, “I’m sorry I can’t help because (insert reasonable reason),” I remember how expensive it was to ask for what I needed and the shame I felt for needing it.

And when I find myself reveling in my supposed usefulness, I remember that Santa firetruck brigade and the neighbors looking straight at my poverty on display.

How can I be useful? What in front of me needs to be done? What do I have that is needed by others? In this way, in these small steps, we can change everything.

The Rev. Katie Mulligan is a youth and young adult pastor for three churches in and around Trenton, NJ (Ewing, Lawrence Road, and Covenant Presbyterian Churches), and a chaplain at Rider University. Her writing on lgbtq concerns, intimate violence, and theology can be found at http://insideouted.blogspot.com and she is otherwise known as @grammercie on twitter. She is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and ordained as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Also, cats. The reverend adores cats.

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