What Does it Mean to Have Privilege?

Perhaps you have heard the phrase “white privilege” in recent years. Here is one definition: “The societal privilege that benefits people whom society identifies as white in some countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances.” (Wikipedia)

Even that definition is an example of white privilege since everyone who is not perceived as white is seen as the opposite; it makes “whiteness” the standard. Maybe we could use the term “people of color.” In the United States, we may soon be able to use the term “the majority of people.” Or perhaps another way to think about it is that white people are seldom defined by their race. They are just a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher, not an “African-American doctor” or an “Asian lawyer” or a “Latinx teacher.” I have had two experiences recently that reminded me of my privilege, both because I am perceived of as white and because I am perceived of as old.

I live very close to the presbytery office in the West Loop. That means I walk on the sidewalks in this neighborhood frequently. There are people of all races and lots of ages on these sidewalks, although I think this neighborhood trends more diverse and younger than some. The University of Illinois at Chicago campus is very close to us and there are always lots of students around.

Usually when I walk around here, I am pretty invisible. I am not young enough to attract the attention of people who might be romantically or sexually interested in me. And I am both female and white so am not seen as threat by most people. Of course, I do still have credit cards, a phone, and some cash with me and I am a woman, so I might be seen as a target by someone who wanted to cause me harm; but my status as an old white woman may protect me from threat. I walk down the street most of the time without attracting much attention at all.

A few months ago, I was leaving the building where I used to live, which is about five blocks from the office, at the same time that the night doorman was leaving the building. He was walking to the CTA Blue Line near the office so we walked those blocks together. We were talking about his grandchildren and about my grandchildren as we walked down the street.

After a block or so, I noticed that I was no longer as anonymous as I usually am. I had lost the privilege of not being seen. The person who worked in the building where I lived was black and male. Almost every white person we passed look directly into my face—they never looked at me before—to be sure that I was all right. It reminded me to a very, very small degree the difference between this gentleman’s walk down the street and mine.

Then one of my grand-daughters came to stay with me during her spring break. She is eleven and about five feet tall with very blonde hair which she had up on top of her head, making her look taller. She and I went for a little walk in the neighborhood. I was suddenly reminded what it is like to walk with a young girl/woman, to see through her eyes a world full of people who are interested in her in inappropriate ways. I kept seeing men’s heads turn to follow our path in a way they never look at me when I am alone. It brought to mind, again, the privilege I have of walking through the street unnoticed and unthreatened.

White privilege means we see people like us on TV in the starring roles, find personal care products in the store that cater to the needs of our skin and hair types and, perhaps more importantly, that we can walk into a store or down the street without attracting undue attention. We can spend much of our lives either in the zone of not being seen as presenting a threat to those with whom we might be walking; or not being the object of unwanted surveillance.

We all seek to discern God’s will for our ministry in this country in this century. The issues of privilege and racism need to be a part of that discernment as we work to bring hope to all people in the name of Jesus Christ.

Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago
312-488-3015


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Confirmation Examinations

I took a week of vacation during Holy Week. It gave me the chance to be part of a special event for my older grandson. On that Tuesday evening, he and the other confirmands at his church in Iowa met with the session to complete their confirmation process. It was one of those nights when my daughter and her husband could not get everyone where they needed to be on time, so I got to help.
 

I went to a junior high track meet to see my grandson run a long relay race. Then I was part of his conversation with his coach about when to leave since we could not stay for the whole meet and get to the church on time. The coach already knew that my grandson had to leave, but was not too gracious about the fact. We barely had time to get home for him to get a shower and review the questions in his confirmation notebook. Then it was off to church for a potluck dinner provided by the session. Each student had a mentor who was there as well. My grandson was nervous about having to answer questions in front of the session. I told him that nobody flunks this meeting. He had attended confirmation class regularly and the session members want him and the others to join the church.
 

I told him about my memories of this night in my life. I went to a big downtown Presbyterian church and I am a baby boomer. There were several dozen in my confirmation class. In Sunday School for the previous eight years, we were required to memorize a Bible verse each year. So we all “knew” these eight Bible verses that we had memorized together. I was afraid we would be quizzed on all of those. Instead, they just lined us all up and asked one question of each of us. No problem.
 

My grandson and I got to the church. Each confirmand was to sit at a table with their invited guests, their mentor, and other session members. Since my granddaughters were still being ferried around to their various events, this meant that my grandson was the only young person at his table. He tried valiantly to enter into the conversation the adults were having, but they were not very good at including him. Then at the appointed time, the pastor stood up and called “these brave young people” forward to face the session. By this time my daughter had arrived and I had a long drive back home, so I excused myself. Before I left I reminded my grandson that he would be fine and that we are proud of him. The way the evening was set up, I would have been nervous to step up and be examined!
 

This experience reminded me of a couple of changes that I made as a pastor to the way that churches traditionally conduct confirmation. At one big church where I was the interim, there were a dozen or so confirmands. Part way through their year of training, I realized this church had the tradition of the confirmands writing a statement of faith. I could see them getting nervous. I told the session that it was fine to have the kids write a statement and that each session member would write one as well. This would be the basis of their discussion when the confirmands came to be examined. After all, why should we expect 13-year-olds to write a statement of faith and not ask the same of the spiritual leaders of the church?
 

The second innovation happened when my husband and I were co-pastors in Burlington, Iowa. My husband still has confirmands engage in this practice where he is pastor now. In the Burlington church, there was a person who loved to sew. Each year we had her make a plain white stole for each confirmand. They were encouraged to decorate it with symbols or words that had meaning to them in their life away from church and in what they learned and experienced at church. In came stoles with soccer balls and musical notes and crosses and words about communion and so on. This stole then became the basis of the examination by session. The confirmands could talk about their whole lives and how their faith and their day to day life intersect.
 

I hope that you have a confirmation class or student in your church this year. I hope that you will be creative about how they have a discussion with the session about what it means to follow Christ in 2019 in North America. I hope that you will also challenge your session members to share their own faith with these new disciples so that, together, you can continue to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ.
 

Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago
312-488-3015


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A Parable

I heard a parable some years ago that helps us to reflect on the life of our congregations and all of our ministries. Are our churches and hospitals and schools and social service agencies for the people who are members or are they for the members and for people who need to hear the gospel and to know they are loved by God because they know who Jesus is?  Here is the parable.
 

There was a rocky coastline where there were many shipwrecks. The people who lived on the shore knew how dangerous it was along their coast. A lighthouse was there to warn sailors away, but sometimes the sailors were foolish and sometimes there were storms that smashed the ships of even the wisest and most experienced sailors against the rocks, destroying their ships. People needed to be rescued.
 

The people on the shore decided that they would form a life-saving society. They bought small boats that could be rowed out even in the harshest conditions. They trained to row out and to meet the needs of those whom they had saved. They had a plan for how they would help those who were saved to get back on their feet.
 

All of this training brought the life savers together. They enjoyed one another’s company. They needed a place to meet so they built a clubhouse for themselves. They started to plan regular meetings. They had parties together. They had potluck suppers. The clubhouse needed new curtains and a new floor and it got to be too small so they expanded it. Their regular calendar of events was full. For a while, they still dropped everything and rowed out to sea whenever they saw a ship in trouble. But then it became too much to fit into the schedule of their own training and their parties and their potluck suppers.
 

Shipwrecks still occurred. People still needed to be saved. But the life savers had become a club and they could not set aside their Tuesday night card tournament or their Sunday morning gathering or their Friday night potluck to row out to sea. If shipwrecks happened at a convenient time and in a convenient place, they still tried to get out to sea. But as the years passed, the row boats first sat idle and then were put in a museum to remind the lifesaving club of what they had once been.
 

What did the founders of your church hope to accomplish by starting a church in your neighborhood? What did your non-profit set out to do? Is that original vision still at the heart of your work? Has it evolved into a new vision that still brings the good news into people’s lives? Or has it become a club, more focused on the needs of its members than in bringing hope in the name of Jesus?


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Finding Bright Spots

Are you a gardener? Then you know what I mean by “that smell.” It is the smell that makes gardeners breathe in deeply in the spring and probably even close their eyes. It is the promise of what is to come. It is the reward of making it through another long, cold winter. It is part of what makes you get out your gardening gloves even when you have to still wear a warm coat so that you can get started on what lies ahead.
 
If you are not a gardener, then you may not know what I am talking about. It is the smell of warm, damp earth when you first turn it over in the spring. All of the hopes and plans for the gardening year ahead are held captive in that first smell.
 
I read a book about change, one of the ones by the Heath brothers. (If you have not read these, you might look for them.) I find their writing to be very accessible and their stories to be encouraging. For instance, one of the stories they tell is about a study that was done in Viet Nam in the last century. There were toddlers in many villages that were failing to thrive because of malnutrition but there were a handful of places where the toddlers were healthy. Someone from a Western aid organization was sent to find out what was causing the difference.
 
This aid worker knew that he would not be the best investigator so he enlisted some local women to observe what was happening in each place. They noticed a few small changes that made all of the difference in the lives of the children.
 
First, it was the custom for children to feed themselves from the common rice bowl as soon as they could sit up. In the cases where children were thriving, adults were helping them to eat and making sure they ate enough. Second, most families ate twice a day and expected their toddlers to eat only twice a day. This was not providing their children with enough nutrition since they could not consume enough calories in only two meals per day. The toddlers who thrived were fed more often. Third, the children who were thriving were eating slightly different food. Their parents were including tiny shrimp that live in rice paddies and some greens with the rice that the children were eating. Those small changes made all of the difference. The foreign aid worker had looked for bright spots and found what was creating them.
 
One of the ways to identify the bright spots within our ministry settings is to first define what a bright spot would be. Here is a question that the Heaths say that therapists sometimes use with their clients: “If you woke up tomorrow morning and your life had changed to be the way you wish it was, what would be the first small change that you would notice?” In other words, what bright spot would you see?
 
So if you walked into church, or the health facility where you work,  or the educational institution where you carry out ministry, and it had become exactly the way you hoped it would be, what would be the first thing that you notice? What small change would show you that things were different? For instance, maybe it would simply be that people are smiling and engaging with one another in a way you have not seen for some time. The therapist’s question is then, “What small change might you make to begin to make that happen?”
 
The bright spot I notice in my garden every spring is that smell of overturned earth. I have to actually go out there and get my trowel into the dirt to enjoy it. That first small change of spring shows me that the soil is ready to bring about the beauty that will be produced. It shows me that there will be warm, sunny days to work with my flowers. It shows me that the promise of new life will be fulfilled.
 
What is the first small change that you would notice if your ministry setting became a bright spot for you in a new way? What can you do to help bring that about? How will you continue the work of bringing hope in the name of Jesus Christ?
 

Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago
312-488-3015


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How Do You Demonstrate “Welcome?”

I once knew a congregation that was struggling to find its footing. It had once had 300 members and was now holding steady around 60 members. The church is in a small town and most of its members were either born in the town or surrounding area or lived there for decades. Some of them have adult children and grandchildren in town. The children had grown up in the church but none of them now attended. I thought it was kind of odd that none of these people were around anymore. Then I heard a story of something that happened when those children of the church were teenagers and I wondered no more.

A person who is still active in the church had been the youth leader for these people who were 10 or 20 years younger than him. In the Christian Education area of the church, he had the teenagers do a project in which they took great pride. They painted bright colors in abstract patterns on the cinder blocks that made up the walls. This leader of theirs went into the building by himself one evening to tidy up the paint a little and get the new artwork ready for the congregation to see it on Sunday morning.

An older member of the church happened to come into the building while this tidying was going on. The older person was appalled by the bright colors and abstract nature of the work. The youth leader told him how much the kids had enjoyed doing it. The older member said that it was not in keeping with the dignity of the church. The youth leader went home, thinking that this other person did not understand but hoping that others would appreciate the work.

The next morning, the youth leader arrived for worship only to find all of the hard work and bright colors painted over with the same neutral color that had been there before. The older member had hired painters to work late into the night to restore the walls to what he thought they should be.

Now I know why none of those adults in that town who were teenagers in that church come there for worship. Would you?

Ironically, decades after this incident happened, the older member—now quite elderly—made a substantial donation to the town library. In order to honor him, the library has named the children’s section of the library after their donor. Really, you cannot make this stuff up.

Every church wants more members. Most churches want younger members and their children. Sometimes new members, no matter their age, will upset the status quo. The way we react when they do will tell them who we are and whether or not they are really welcome. Growing churches can tolerate a little bright paint on the walls as they continue to find ways to bring hope in the name of Jesus Christ.

Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago
312-488-3015

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