A few years ago, I made my first trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and stood in awe next to Lake Michigan. Even before that first visit, I had always been intrigued by the Great Lakes. Then, the natural wonder that I had only ever read about became a concrete, tangible reality exposing itself to all my senses. Moving forward to this past week at Dunkirk Camp in New York, I felt an overwhelming awe once again as I sat next to one of God’s most amazing natural wonders. If all of God’s majesty can be found in a single grain of sand, when the paintbrush turns to create something like Lake Eerie, it can easily overwhelm the senses. As Friedrich Schleiermacher might claim, it approaches intuiting the infinite.
In all the natural beauty, I found myself discerning how to make palatable a very real component of modern society – privilege. Sitting on the beach during sunset on Lake Eerie had me looking around and considering all of those individuals who cannot afford such an experience. While some camps have avenues to allowing under-privileged young people the opportunity to go to camp through scholarships, these allowances become the exception for the community they represent. How does one teach privilege when it is not just a matter of economic wealth? How does one see past the lenses of apathy and complacency created by their own privilege to find momentum to change societal structures in such a way that provides greater and more equitable opportunity? The sunset on Lake Eerie, beautiful as it was, did not answer. Instead, it provided even more questions.
Going camp to camp this summer highlights one resounding theme – camps are very Caucasian and often represent a vast majority who have the economic means or avenues of privilege to go to camp. Yes, it may be that in some situations families have worked extra hard in order to provide such an opportunity for their kids. Yes, earned income is not usually easy income and because of this, accepting privilege becomes a matter of understanding that it does not correlate to how hard one works. This means that a discussion on privilege finds barriers before it ever makes it to understanding.
Writing this blog comes from a calm, quiet reflection during mid-summer retreat. It comes from a place where I myself feel quite privileged. Looking back not just on my most immediate camp experience but to all of them thus far, I wonder what our denomination can be doing to create more equitable avenues to a true state of inclusivity. A conversation a few weeks ago continues to have me considering what it might look like for our denomination to truly diversify. Specifically, I wonder how an entire denomination is expected to diversify when that diversity does not always equate to financial sustainability at church level.
Imagine a new church start that brings in members of color and varieties of non-binary gender conforming or non-hetero normative people. Marginalization of these groups can perhaps leave the congregation as a whole financially bankrupt from the start. Yet in a movement toward churches without walls, we begin to see that this is most common in the church that exists for the marginalized and low-income. I believe sitting on the shore of Lake Eerie, I was gifted this pondering. We as a denomination can be doing more to afford opportunities to the marginalized. Our future as a denomination demands it.
My family group at Dunkirk talked about a few of these issues. This was easily the most fulfilling part of my visit. Again I was surprised by the depth of consideration young people can give during a reflection on equity and equality. If our young people can give such a consideration to these very real and tough issues, why can we not be doing more? When churches fail not because of lack of mission or membership but because of financial strain, we fail as a denomination. A church without walls, for example, can stand as a church with a minister who acts by vocation. Progressive as our denomination may be, this seems unacceptable and outdated. I believe in a vision that creates more equitable distribution of resources so that Pastors in even the most marginalized communities are sustainable. I believe in a future that allows for any and every child in our denomination to go to church camp regardless of financial disposition to afford such an opportunity. I believe, friends, that we can be doing a better job of distributing resources in a more equitable way throughout our denomination.
The young people of Dunkirk were so willing to enter this conversation. My job this summer is to inspire such conversations about society at large, but I am failing if I do not invite our entire denomination to also engage is this very conversation. I find myself reflecting on equity when there are congregations with huge endowments and who also hold valuable idealized visions to serve the marginalized but perhaps do not know the best means to do so. I ask where there is equality without figuring out equity together as a denomination. I ask those reading this – what can you do in your home congregations to support Pastors serving by vocation and create a space for all children to experience summer camp? How might your own church help support the efforts of other financially strained churches? Are you a church that is itself financially strained? If so, what do you see as equitable for our denominational future? You, friends, are the answer(s) to these difficult questions.
As I continue my discussions this summer on privilege, I remind myself regularly that the marginalized do not have the convenience of remaining apathetic or indifferent. Nor should they ever engage in the luxury of complacency, as Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently stated. My hope is that those who are able to set aside these difficult conversations because they are unaffected will come realize that there are groups who cannot do so. It is for this reason we are called to care. My friends, it is for this reason we have such a peace intern program. My youthful family at Dunkirk entered this conversation with me, so I ask – will you join us in the conversation?