When comfort becomes uncomfortable

Jacksonville Skyline

As a college student who spends eight months of the year roughly 700 miles away from home, I treasure summer mainly for the opportunity it allows me to spend an extended period of time in my beloved home of Jacksonville, Florida. For me, home is a place of comfort, rest, and security. Home contains sweet memories of the past and an assurance of security and stability in the future. Home is my anchor in the world. Besides my three years at UVA, I have lived all of my (almost) 21 years in Jacksonville, and 18 of those in the same house. To say that I have strong ties to this place is an understatement. So when the opportunity to spend another summer at home, this time working with an urban youth ministry, arose, I excitedly signed on to work with a group of inner-city kids I hadn’t even met yet, not really knowing what to expect but hopefully anticipating the adventures ahead. The internship through Project on Lived Theology checked all the boxes of an appealing summer gig: hanging out with kids, learning about urban ministry first hand, reading cool stuff with an awesome professor, and spending the summer at home with my family.

As excited as I was (and still am) to be home, I suspected the emotional, familial, and material comfort and safety provided by my home would create some tensions throughout the summer. The most obvious manifestations of the inevitable dissonance were geographic and material. The riverfront, all white, gated neighborhood in which I grew up and which I still call home is one of the many vestiges of the segregation that created and still undergirds most cities in the South to this day. Jacksonville is no exception. A city with a painful racial past, Jacksonville has yet to come to terms with what it looks like to reconcile long-standing racial, economic, and social differences. The people who benefit most from these differences, and thus those who stand to lose the most if things change, are the well-to-do white residents of Jacksonville who I have always called my neighbors, classmates, and friends, not to mention myself. This aspect of being home has not changed, but what has is my perspective on it. Instead of not having to think twice about the normalcy of my context, I now cannot drive through the gates to my yacht club home without the nagging pinprick reminders of the profound inequality represented by every aspect of where I come from.

The assurance of my physical comfort and safety acts as a buffer not only from the material inconveniences of the world, but the emotional and psychological ones as well. This safety has also become a source of discomfort throughout the past few weeks. As I finished up a particularly disheartening reading one evening, I really needed to clear my head. And so I did what I often do when I need to relieve stress: I went for a run. The sun had already set, so it was fairly dark, but I gave no thought to the time because my neighborhood poses no threat to my safety. It wasn’t until about halfway into my jog that I experienced the discomfort of the irony: even if I tried to jump the intellectual, emotional, and material hurdles necessary to identify myself with the poor and marginalized in this society, it is still all too easy for me to escape. That night, my escape was being able to go on a run without fear for my safety. My escape was being able to think about the parts of my life other than the internship in urban ministry that, realistically, only takes up a small portion of my daily existence at this point. My escape was, and will continue to be, my identity as an educated, white female. I do not want to hide behind fancy rhetoric about my white privilege that makes me sound more self-aware than I really am, but I do think identifying the ways that my identity provides me power and advantage is important. Acknowledging the implications of my place in society is a key step in the process of engaging in ministry with people whose experiences have been marred by the very structures that afford me these advantages.

So how do I acknowledge my safety and security, my privilege and power, in a way that respects the differences in experience between the kids I’m working with and myself, while not erecting an unnecessary barrier? That I still don’t know. I do not know how to react when the girls I’m driving home insist that we go to my house for a sleepover, knowing that they may not have ever been to my side of town before and unsure of what they will think of me when they see where I come from. I do not know how to handle the uncomfortable dissonance of doing my readings in my comfy bed or on my shaded porch, able to put down the horrifyingly unjust world that Pecola from The Bluest Eye inhabits and go for a walk by the river, or eat dinner with my family, or go for a swim.

I still love being home, and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, but I’m realizing that the comfort I’ve always been able to wrap myself in is the cause of the most discomfort I will experience this summer. At this point, I think that the best way I know how to move forward is to move into the discomfort, not away from it. When differences arise, I know I need to investigate those with humility and grace, asking more questions rather than trying to provide answers. I want to listen to stories and soak in their meaning, like dry Florida grass soaking up the afternoon rain. I want to build relationships based not on outward similarities, but on the “common longing for supportive connections with others [that] reflects a spiritual aspect of our humanity” (Traci C. West, Disruptive Christian Ethics, 62). I’m here to listen, to learn, and to love past the discomfort and the self-consciousness. Tension means stretching, stretching means growing, and growing means living, the way we were designed to live.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Speak to the earth, and it will teach you

Gathering Herbs

I follow her into the forest. Teresa descends a narrow, earthen path into the lush foliage surrounding the apothecary grounds. She reaches towards a nearby pine. From the tip of the branch, where the mature and deep emerald needles end, Teresa plucks a batch of soft, youthful and vibrantly light green ones. To my surprise she places them into her mouth and, in her gentle Southern drawl, begins to glorify their pleasant taste and extraordinary health properties. Sort of citrus-y… and full of Vitamin C, just like an orange. She tells me. If you were starving in the woods, you could survive on these alone.

As I gather a similar collection of budding pine and place it in my mouth, I relish the familiar taste of citrus astringency, the similar antiseptic quality of orange pith. The texture is waxy like a succulent plant and the inside is no softer than a very thin mung bean sprout might be. For the rest of the day I run back and forth between the apothecary and my favorite patch of pines. Another student laughs at my newfound addiction. At least it’s a healthy one.

Teresa and I spend many moments walking through the woods identifying wild, native herbs and nibbling on hidden superfoods like stinging nettle seeds. I am inspired by her sense of knowing and connectedness with the living scenery. But most of all, I admire her constant acknowledgement of herbs, plants, and other living organisms as divine emanations for us to learn from. To me, her relationship with the forest is captivating and reminds me of a passage from Vedic Ecology through during which Indian Environmentalist Pancavati Banwari is quoted as emphasizing our inherent unity with the forest.

[We] are also a part of that forest. It is not that [we] are outside the forest. In India, the world is mahavan [or the great natural forest where all species of life find shelter]—[we] can reorder it, but [we] cannot be outside it.” (Prime)

As I acknowledge my inherent connection to all of life, I begin to cultivate a deeper sense of responsibility and stewardship than I ever found through Environmental Science lectures or textbook readings. The direct experience that the very plants that grow outside my window can nourish and sustain me becomes the platform off of which I cultivate reverence and prayer for the artist behind the scenery.

Forest Flowers

7 But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
8 or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you.
9 Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind. (Job 12:7-10)


For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

On the Lived Theology Reading List: Reconciling All Things

Reconciling All ThingsA Christian Vision for Justice, Peace, and Healing

We live in a broken and suffering world, but how is genuine reconciliation achieved? And is it attainable apart from a biblical perspective? In Reconciling All Things, Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice argue it is not. Instead, they “cast a comprehensive vision for reconciliation that is biblical, transformative, holistic and global.” Incorporating the Christian story and their own experiences with peacemaking at home and abroad, Katongole and Rice create a rich, biblically-grounded resource faith believers and the church can utilize in working towards Jesus-centered reconciliation in everyday life.

PLT contributor Therese Lysaught reviews:

Reconciling All Things is a faithful book, glowing with the joy and hope that come from walking with God and God’s people in the world. Inviting all to join in God’s reconciling work across the myriads of ways we live in brokenness, Katongole and Rice do a new thing–they retrieve a deeply theological vision of God’s gift of reconciliation and show what the inbreaking of this gift looks like in the real stories of people who have embarked on this journey. These stories of pain and hope make clear that the real work of reconciliation is not as much about programs, strategies or fixing all things as it is about the ordinary, mundane, daily work of living faithfully and patiently in our local, particular, face-to-face contexts. And if we do, if we enter humbly into God’s work in the world, what can happen? New creation!”

Find a longer description on the book here.

Emmanuel Katongole, a Catholic priest ordained by the Archdiocese of Kampala, has served as associate professor of theology and world Christianity at Duke University, where he was the founding co-director of the Duke Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation. Katongole’s research interests focus on politics and violence in Africa, the theology of reconciliation, and Catholicism in the Global South. His others publications include The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa (2010). 

Chris Rice is the Duke Divinity School Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia. Chris Rice has written for such magazines as Sojourners, Christianity Today and Christian Century. His other publications include Grace Matters (2003) and More Than Equals (2000), coauthored with Spencer Perkins. 

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Always cut the tomatoes

TomatoesIn my first week at the Haven on Market Street in downtown Charlottesville while we prepared breakfast, one of the volunteers asked the kitchen supervisor if she should cut up the small tomatoes for the daily pan of cooked vegetables served at breakfast. The response was a resounding “Yes! Always cut the tomatoes.” It was a seemingly innocuous exchange between volunteer and manager, but the explanation was more profound. “I don’t know! A cut tomato shows a little bit more preparation and care than tossing them into the pan uncut.” The significance of such a statement was lost on me until I began to read through Ed Loring’s encounters with the homeless recounted in I Hear Hope Banging at My Back Door.

Throughout the Open Door Community, a Christian residential community in downtown Atlanta, hope radiates in all the dark and unseen corners of homelessness. Ed Loring, the community’s director, can be disgusted by “The Hell of Homelessness” (Loring, 20) which is devoid of comfort, a necessity that “can make us liars and cheats” (15) leading to inequality and oppression. In the same breath, Loring hangs on to hope that “the journey towards justice is the journey to life, to salvation and healing” (8). For Loring and the Open Door, this dichotomy is engrained in their eschatology. In their battle to end homelessness, there is a balance between the temporary pain, heartbreak, and struggle that sometimes characterize their present battle for the end of homelessness and the unflinching and perpetual hope found within the striving for future justice. They are “betting their [lives] on the victory of the cross, on the ultimate justice on Earth” (Loring 72). This hope cannot be shaken by present misfortune and loss brought about by ever-expanding injustice in Atlanta and beyond. It is also unhindered by the blunt realization Loring has that he will not experience the eradication of homelessness in his lifetime. “I can see it; I’ll never touch it” (72). In Atlanta, the Open Door Community has come to the conclusion that they will work their entire lives in order to see change in the deeply entrenched injustice found within their city’s institutions, but will never actually get to see it come to fruition in its totality. The Open Door Community sits in the hell of homelessness refusing to exhibit “a stunted moral growth as becomes those who flee social problems rather than resolve them” (46). They choose to promote “a suffering sacrificial love in accepting the consequences of life with, among, and on behalf of the oppressed and prisoner” (69-70). Encouraged by their encounters with people in Atlanta who are homeless, and spurred on by acts of kindness and love, the Open Door Community faces injustice head-on knowing that they will ultimately be victorious. This may not come during their lifetimes because they are trying to uproot injustice that has been entrenched in Atlanta for generations. Rather, they choose to listen to the hope banging at their back door even when the rest of the block suggests that despair and discouragement should be the appropriate response.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned encounter in the kitchen of the Haven. While there are notable differences between the two organizations–Atlanta and Charlottesville are two different places with different histories–this hope for the future is a distinct commonality. At its core, the Haven is supposed to be what the name suggests; a haven. Like the Open Door, the Haven is “a place of hope where people are given a respite from the daily challenges they face and access to assistance to help overcome them” (Haven Volunteer Manual, 7). In both situations, the desire to eradicate homelessness is the ultimate goal. However, what if these goals are never fully realized in Charlottesville during our lifetimes? Will we become discouraged if we do not see the Promised Land? That is why the tomatoes should be cut. It is a tangible manifestation of the hidden hope to which every volunteer and staffer at the Haven clings. A deep, transcendent hope that care and hospitality, kindness and sacrificial love will not return void. A hope found in the “simple moments and endeavors that redeem life and fill our cups to the brim of love and hope” (Loring, 20). Because we desire to see Charlottesville’s homeless population cared for and to have their immediate needs met, we cut the tomatoes. Because we hold on to an unflinching and undeterred hope that one day homelessness will be eradicated and every person in Charlottesville will have a home, we cut the tomatoes. Ed Loring hears hope when the homeless bang on the back door of the Open Door Community seeking respite; I see hope in the cutting of the tomatoes in the kitchen of the Haven.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.