I’ve been involved in an initiative here in Sarnia called Circles for the last number of months. It has been a great experience. It all started with a workshop I sat in called Bridges out of Poverty lead by a lady named Gayle Montgomery. What struck me about the session was that it was one of the first experiences I have had with social workers that didn’t make poverty out to be a disease and the only cure for it was middle class. She almost had an awe about people in poverty and she came across as a person who learned much from those who came out of poverty. She was able to explain to me why social classes were so messed up and why I could never seem to make sense of it. She put on the table the value of the rich, middle class and poor and compared them and put it all out in the open. From Bridges out of Poverty I got involved with Circles and it has been another great experience. I was recently asked to speak to a group of a few hundred college students about my experience as an ally, so here is what I said.
I am a middle class kid. I grew up with a self employed father and a mother who was extremely motivated but refused to work so she could spend her time raising us children. I was one of the lucky ones who was raised in a home with two parents who spent a lot of time thinking and caring for their children. I am also a church kid. I grew up in a fairly conservative church and lived life like they hoped I would for most of my life.
These two facts about my life lead me to where I am today. I’m twenty-five, married, run my own media business and started a church downtown Sarnia called theStory. My life circumstances have never forced me to live in any way that I didn’t want to and in almost every case I can remember I seem to be on the leader side of every leader/follower relationship I am in. I’m comfortable, I’m content and I really could not have been setup any better in my life.
That is of course until I started seeing my faith as more than a self-help fire insurance formula. As I started reading the words of Jesus I began to realize that He and the entire Christian story constantly rewarded, blessed and commended people who were nothing like me. The poor were blessed. The persecuted were praised and the those that seemed to have missed the boat on almost every cultural and societal standard were turned into heroes. On the other hand, it was the rich and the powerful that were criticized and challenged to see the world differently. As I started to see my place in the world more clearly, I realized I was part of the top few percent of the rich and powerful and I never knew it, I was the same as those people who were being reprimanded. The more I studied my own life, the more I realized that everything I did, everything I was proud of existed and played itself out within a very small elitist bubble of the world. I was doing well in terms of what western, white, middle class, entertainment culture expected of me. However, in terms of living a fulfilling life that was focused on the good of others rather than making myself content and secure; and in terms of seeking the welfare of the world around me; in terms of actually making the world a better place, I wasn’t doing so hot.
At this point, I honestly cared about making a difference. I flew with my wife to Africa for a month and worked with locals there to help them with some work on the ground. I pushed my church to cook meals for the homeless shelter. I ran a conference in Toronto to help others like me understand how crucial seeking justice was in this world and how it should be central to their lives. All of these things were good, but they continued to remind me of the gap between my life and those who were non-white, non-middle class and non-western. It made me think I was somehow there to help them, share with them of all my blessings and help them get out of their dire circumstance and to look more like me. It was as if they were drowning in a river and I was standing on the edge from a place of safety trying to save them. This of course only breeds a sense of pride and perpetuates a system of oppressor and oppressed, the exact system I was trying to get people out of.
It was while I was in South Africa that I heard over and over again to not come into their country as if I have all the answers and am there only to help them. They told me that in all likeliness I would leave Africa being more changed than the people I was there to help. They couldn’t have been more right. Those who we lived with in Africa taught me more about being human, more about living in tune with the earth and more about happiness than any person has ever taught me here. They taught me that I am no different. They taught me that we are all floating down the river and we need each other to stay afloat. I am in need of them, and they are in need of me. For me to lose that, for me to ever actually think that I am there only to help them is to destroy their humanity in place of my own, which in return makes us both less human.
Circles then, was a natural continuance of my time in Africa. Everyone who comes to Circles, whether you are a leader, or you are an ally, is in the same river. I’m not in a better position to save anyone else. We are all floating down the stream. We are all looking for answers and we are all in need of support. Us middle class types have no idea how jaded and indoctrinated we are into a task driven, image obsessed, future focused, consumer saturated lifestyles. I need help to get out of this destructive way of thinking and living. Circles helps shape me in a way that nothing else has before to start seeing a broader perspective of the world.
Circles puts me into relationships with people who I would never normally interact with. There is really no good practical reason for me, a twenty-five year old, newly married, childless, self employed pastor boy to be friends with a single mom of two who is trying to get into the hair industry. We are so different, and we need different things. However, this is where I need to be. I need Crystal in my life, and I especially need her sons, Ethan and Keegan. They keep me balanced. They teach me about life, passion and responsibility. They help me see the world differently. They challenge me. They offer me friendship. In many ways I need to be more like her in the way that she is motivated, in the way that she is a mom and in the way that she interacts with the world around her. Circles is also important for Crystal. She is now connected to a larger family who loves her deeply. Her boys have even more role models in their lives. She’s got newer social connections that will help her in different ways. One of us isn’t controlling the other. One of us isn’t using the other. Together, we have built a friendship that is inter-dependent on one another, which is the way that all relationships should be.
Circles is practice for real life. If you want to better contribute to a healthier humanity, then Circles gives you that opportunity. It tears down cultural barriers that normally exist to confuse and bring conflict to different social classes and brings you to the same level as everyone else; constantly humbling you to see your own weaknesses and flaws. One of the greatest lessons we will ever learn in life is that relationships are really the only thing worth pursuing. It is in relationships that we find out who we truly are and it is in relationships that we enact the some of the primary purposes of our being. Circles brings these opportunities right to you; an opportunity to be in a relationship with someone who is nothing like you but with someone that you eventually won’t want to live without.