I recently concluded orientation for my year of service as a Young Adult Volunteer in the PCUSA. The week was an intensive dive into the many ways society privileges some of us and oppresses others and the ways we all participate in these systems. The leaders and speakers conveyed to us how everything from our choice of words to the way we walk may unintentionally convey messages of supremacy. They divided society into “The Center” and “Borderlands.” Those whom society favors and privileges lie in “the Center” and those who do not lie in “the Borderlands.” As a White, cis-gender, male, able-bodied, American citizen, I’m about as centrally located as one can get. I’m pretty much a cornucopia of privilege. It permeates my life so thickly so as to inhibit me from even realizing it most of the time. Orientation challenged us to see our privilege and live in the discomfort.
Furthermore, the orientation challenged us in our authority to serve as Volunteers across the country and around the world. The week went beyond simply telling us that we were not helping or providing charity. Rather, they challenged us to question what right we even had to enter the communities we were being sent to. Though we’re differently in naming the difference between us and the colonial powers that came before, are we no less harmful? While our intention is not to evangelize or even ‘to help,’ considering the amount of privilege we carry, is our presence, our assumed right to go where we want and support others in ministry, no less colonial?
The simple answer? Yes. It takes a good deal of privilege to do something like YAV. This fact became strikingly obvious our third day of orientation. We divided into several groups and ventured by bus into the Bronx. From there, we went by public transportation to various neighborhoods across Manhattan and Queens. My group went to Union Square, a popular hangout spot immediately adjacent to New York University. From there, we walked 9 blocks through the East Village south east to Tomkins Square Park to compare what we saw. Gentrification runs strong in the neighborhood–the first things we saw when we exited the subway were a Whole Foods and a Chipotle. What limited grocery options we did see were all advertised as “organic” and ultimately unaffordable to the neighbors who needed it most (honestly, I never knew so many things could be ‘organic’ until I went to a gentrifying neighborhood). The intent of the excursion was to expose us to communities that might differ significantly from our own and challenge us to recognize the discomfort we feel. Ultimately, however, my main takeaway was realizing how much privilege it takes for a white man like myself to waltz through a neighborhood just to see what’s different. Especially considering how the neighborhoods I’m accustomed to being in would react to an ‘outsider’ strolling through.
At the beginning of the week, the director of the program informed everyone there was a typo in the schedule and asked everyone to cross out where it said “Orientation” and write “Disorientation” instead. He told us our YAV year would be our real orientation. The way my world has been rocked and the ways I’ve been challenged to reconsider the ways my actions contribute to systemic racism has left me sufficiently disoriented and uncomfortable.
So here’s my charge going forward: to know that I am wanted but not needed in the communities I enter, to recognize that I’m part of the problem, to feel uncomfortable and to see how God moves in that discomfort.
I’ve already left for the Philippines, but you can still support me in a multitude of ways. First and foremost, if you’re the praying type (or if not), I invite you keep me and my fellow YAVs in your thoughts and prayers. You can also choose to follow my blog and get email updates whenever I post something (which should hopefully be more often than not). It’s also not too late to support me financially, which you can do so by clicking here and following the instructions where it says “give to YAV–Andrew Flanigan.” Anyway you join me in this journey would be greatly appreciated and I look forward to sharing this experience with you! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to send them my way!