What Am I Doing Here?

Second only to “Now, if you’re from Baton Rouge, where is your Southern accent?” the question I’ve been faced with most since moving to Baltimore has been the plain-spoken, “Why are you here in Baltimore doing community organizing?” 

Mel and Liv at the October community organizing training in Baltimore, sponsored by Johnson C. Smith Seminary, Metro IAF, and NEXT Church.

Mel and Liv at the October community organizing training in Baltimore, sponsored by Johnson C. Smith Seminary, Metro IAF, and NEXT Church.

I think my answer to this--why, Liv, are you called to community organizing?--is largely dependent upon who asks the question and what is presently aflame in the world. I’ve wondered a while whether there’s something disingenuous about maintaining a sugary-cereal-aisle volume of responses that I can pluck from and tailor dependent upon the identity of the person asking, the most recent failing of the government, or the latest affront to justice of which I’ve recently become aware. I’ve decided, for now, that having different responses for different days and different people is alright as long as each response is as true as the next. As long as I can position each “why community organizing” response in relationship to the others, trying always to keep track of the largest narrative, this cereal aisle can be as big as it needs. In no way is one response that I cite, one reason for acting publically to transform the world, entirely unique, each bears a plane that somehow connects it to the others. From what I can tell, there seem to be three threads that connect all of my reasons for seeking to organize to one another. So, I’ll tell you three of them. One about public crying, one about a cafeteria epiphany, and something about God and organizing. 

First, I am here because I’m a pretty big purveyor of public tears. I’m telling you... music, beautiful or difficult pieces of artwork, word of injustice here or there, a good story, a sappy segment on the news, films-- you can bet I’ll weep! A homegoods store, a church service, while exercising, walking from point A to point B, I’ll cry right then and there! Now, for a while my tears were something I was embarrassed about. I had practiced all sorts of ways to suppress the tears, to coax them back up my cheeks and back into my eyes. I didn’t want people to know that I was such a softie, crying about something they didn’t seem so moved by. I’ve come to appreciate my tears as external indicators that I’m listening and that I’m called to feel and to find means to metabolize that feeling into productive action and productive lament. I’m here because I’ve found myself with plenty to cry about lately and I’ve got to let these tears be seen and put these tears to work. 

Second, I’m here because I think of myself as the most privileged lady there ever was. For whatever reason, this realization came to me as I hurriedly ran across campus one day a couple of years ago on my way to grab some astoundingly subpar food form my school’s cafeteria. I had been thinking about how hard it felt to talk to some people in my life about Trump’s election. Why couldn’t they see everything I saw? How this news would affect minorities, how the wealth gap would likely increase, how this couldn’t be good news for our environment. I then wondered why I could see and feel all of the looming doom and why, of all times, I was most troubled by it during the middle of my time at a very cushy and elite college. Making my way toward an unsatisfying meal, it hit me that the very reason I felt a strange sort of ease and clarity in understanding what Trump’s election meant for the marginalized was the exact same reason other’s saw their way of life under fire and felt no problem with the election of an explicitly bigoted individual. Because I’ve practiced seeing things from the margins, I’ve been primed to see structures of power a certain way given my identity and the circumstances surrounding my upbringing. I know and feel and, to a certain degree, understand the mechanics of oppression because, as a queer lady, I’ve sometimes felt small and forgotten and like the mechanisms of society weren’t built with me in mind. I have been permitted behind the curtain to know and feel othering in my body. Yet, this experience in itself made a privilege because the other pieces of my identity-- my whiteness, my able-bodiedness, my education-- prevent the totality of my experience from being one in which I am rendered entirely immobile by the manifestations of said marginalization. I am here because I have felt some of the ways in which exploitation and discrimination hurt but have privilege yet to make use of. 

Third, while I’m a ways away from piecing together anything resembling a complete statement of faith, I am here because I know at least one thing to be true: the work of the church and the work of the community organizer are one and the same. The just world that God calls me to believe and act toward, rooted in the hopeful ethic of Christianity, is brought into being with the skillset of the community organizer. It is my belief in the efficacy of community organizing that bolsters my hope in what the church and what Christianity can be. And, it is my faith in God and the ever-courageous presence of the Holy Spirit that tells me that there remains a more just world that is worth organizing toward. 

-Liv Thomas, Hands and Feet Fellow