I remember when I first gained a real comprehension of social justice. I was sitting on the lawn of a church in Manhattan, surrounded by the other post-grad young adults who were about to begin a year of faith-based service corps in New York City. We’d been told to read the book Nickel and Dimed in preparation for our opening retreat, and were now getting ready to discuss it as a launching point for our upcoming year of ‘social justice, intentional community, and spiritual discernment.’ Nickel and Dimed is written by a journalist who goes undercover and attempts to live off a series of minimum wage jobs. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well. Since I’d just finished an 8-week stint as a ‘pizza delivery expert’ at Domino’s, I really felt like I had some perspective on the issue. (Ha!)
But as the reverend led us in a dialogue that day, I quickly realized that this whole social justice thing was something totally new. And that realization deepened over the next 11 months, which I spent living in the little Episcopal church that anchored much of the social justice activism of West Harlem.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew all about Christian service and charity. My childhood and teenage years were full of mission trips and youth groups outings to serve ‘the needy’. We talked often about sacrifice for the sake of others. And I don’t want to disparage any of these activities. As a teenager, I was profoundly impacted by the service projects that my friends and I would go out and do with our youth group. We helped build a school in Mexico. We visited a low-income neighborhood near our church once a week and formed relationships with the people who lived there by praying with and for them. We served breakfast to people who needed food. We even spent a weekend learning about the experience of homelessness, from visiting tent cities to traveling everywhere by foot. And much more.
But somehow, in the midst of all of these growing, compassion-building experiences, I missed the conversation on social justice. Maybe it was there, and I just didn’t have the ears to hear or the experience to recognize it. But I think it’s also possible that the conversation we were having wasn’t framed as social justice at all, but rather as Christian service. While Christian service is important and does incredible things in the world, I think it’s vital that we distinguish these conversations.
I am definitely not an expert, let me just get that out of the way. But I have gotten up close and personal with the Christian faith as it’s acted out of two worlds: progressive social justice activism and conservative religious service. And to me, they’re very different worlds. Christian service involves bringing your resources into a situation and contributing to its change. It starts within and moves without, as you give of yourself. It comes from a place of love, and a will to build God’s kingdom in our broken world. Social justice, on the other hand, isn’t about building. It’s about tearing down what man has made to unveil God’s kingdom in our world. Social justice requires that we open our eyes to the power structures that marginalize people – the ‘needy’ that we like to offer charity to – and do our part to dismantle them. It starts with a growing external awareness, and moves within. It’s about putting your resources into removing obstacles of injustice so that all humans, already empowered by God, can use their own assets to live abundantly.
During my year in the NYC Episcopal Service Corps, I caught a glimpse of faith-based social justice activism. It was foreign, and intimidating. For many, the call of social justice comes from a place of righteous anger; while I respect that, it’s not who I am. But I also realized during that year that the call of social justice for me starts in the same place that Christian service does – one of overwhelming love and empathy. It makes sense, in a way… when it comes down to it, in their purest forms, they’re moving towards the same endgame.