I am not from Saint Louis, I have lived here for almost 2 and 1/2 years. For the first year and a half, I very much felt like a foreigner to this place. I lived on campus of a school and worked in the suburbs of Chesterfield. I tried to focus my attention on the city, by going to a church closer to the city, but I was still in the seminary clump every single Sunday I went to church.
A tension played out between disappointment and apathy (we can call it something similar to white guilt). When I was looking at seminaries, I was looking for a counseling program closer to a city, closer to where racial tensions and poverty played out– my goal for counseling was to make it accessible to those who needed it and could not afford it. I have been interested in community development for a long time– finally here was a vocational skill set for me to become involved in the broken areas of city life.
But gradually, oh so gradually, my heart became hardened toward the city.
But my heart had already been hardened toward God for a long bit,
And it was out of this deeper place, that hardening took shape.
To think of how I used my white privilege in this place in the past 2 and a half years is astounding. And now that I reflect on it, I realize it has been a lifelong trajectory.
I will say that at Covenant, I have had passions come up that took my work to the suburbs– not because I was wanted to be there specifically, but because that was where the ministry opportunities came up.
But this does not ignore how I have “used” this city, for my own good, for my own benefit, and no one else’s.
Initially, in seminary, I was scared to travel alone to the city. For shame, I did not confess that to anyone. But there was something in my vulnerability as a petite white girl with childlike facial features that made me scared to become a victim if I went out and participated without any friends with me.
Maybe there is wisdom to that, but I had also found churches that allowed for service in relative safety, like New City’s work day, that I was reached out to, to become involved in. I went once and it was like a white girl pat on the back.
But then I made excuses each month. I was too tired to go. And for me this time in seminary, this time of counseling and exploring my own story was about me. And if I was tired, I could use that as a way out. In fact, I did not have to give up my Saturdays at all. I eventually needed them to work and make money.
Now you may be wondering why I am talking myself down so much. If you know me, you know I am not from a wealthy family, and I need to work to make seminary work. In fact, where I work provided a turning point for me to know St. Louis better.
When I started to work at a coffee shop in Clayton, I became more grounded in a community around me. Even if it was in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods around here. I became in touch with people who have been in the St. Louis area their whole lives. I became aware of the concert venues, bars, coffee shops, and cultural events around me– and I would go out by myself to these various places.
People no longer questioned me as an outsider to St. Louis, but they very much asked if I was from around here– sometimes people would even ask me that STL question “where did you go to high school?” or even where I went to undergrad. When I told them about the little liberal arts University on the East Coast that wasn’t an Ivy league school, they suddenly knew I was not from here.
I started to take pride in actually looking like I fit into this city, but in the past couple of weeks, I have started to see it the other way around. This city is systemically screwed up. There are majority white neighborhoods and majority black neighborhoods. We even shop different places in the same neighborhood (i.e. the Wal-mart in Maplewood and the Whole Foods 5 minutes away in Brentwood). With the exception of the few friends I have met through church and seminary, most of my friends here are white. I struggle and try too hard to get along with the cook at my work, who is the same age as me but she is black.
Going to the city meant going to places where I as a consumer could enjoy, it was not about putting myself in uncomfortable places to engage and listen to hurting people around me– eventually people who I forgot was there. I made up for it by going to churches in the city, but I was only involved for as much as to benefit myself. Depression has been a thing, it has been real for me here. But I am starting to wonder about this loneliness I have as a single woman in St. Louis– if serving more would perhaps give me the unity and community I so desire.
The problem of white privilege did not start here in St. Louis, it’s been pervasive throughout my cultural story. In the DC area, there are systemic issues, too. But I have not seen them as starkly there as I see it here. I have lived in mostly white suburbs in the DC are, but they aren’t as close as the white suburbs here in STL. They are several, several miles away from the diversity that is so characteristic of the DC region. But the stark differences between the white, black and other cultural communities in St. Louis are neighboring issues. I live in Richmond Heights, a majority white neighborhood with a little bit of diversity. It borders Maplewood– which has a lot more diversity, and Clayton which has more of a mixture of whites and Asians. We have all these little towns with their own police departments and fire stations which further separate us from each other. St. Louis also never had a true civil rights movement like all the other big cities in the 60’s– it is like we never fully integrated.
I became a resident of St. Louis this year, a resident of Richmond Heights, a worker in Clayton, a student in Creve Coeur, an intern counselor in St. Charles, and a church member in the Shaw neighborhood in South City– it just does not add up. All these places even though they are so relatively close to each other, are starkly different. In some good, unique ways, but also in some disturbing ways. I have done close to very little to bridge the gaps. It feels kind of like being a tourist to the place I actually live.
And I have become a resident of St. Louis, partaking in the systems of racism, barely thinking about it. And when I think about it, I just talk and slam my opinion in others’ faces, the opinion I feel so entitled to.
Lord, please soften my hardened heart. Please help me become a living sacrifice for your people, to do your work in the city. Lord, I know you have me in the suburbs doing different things– but please help me to have more bridging relationships with the rest of the city. Without just consuming the city for my benefit alone. Lord, I know a life with you is richer in community, and I have seen the sin of not being outside myself very much. Lord, help me to slow down, observe, listen and participate. Lord, when I am tempted to tell black or white people what to do, please calm me and help me look to you, being guided by your spirit instead. I have hardened my heart toward your people– people you call your own– call me to you, and call me to participate wherever you have me, not merely out of white guilt, but out of love.