I spent yesterday morning volunteering at Building Skills Partnership, an organization that offers ESL, computer and citizenship classes to – you guessed it – “build skills” among low-wage workers. I was paired with two men who were studying for their US citizenship test – one has it coming up next week, the other is waiting for his exam date to be set. I learned more about the citizenship application process in those two hours than I did in any US History or civics class I’ve ever taken. To say it was eye-opening is the understatement of the year.
I sat with a copy of the N-400 form that all citizenship applicants fill out, and we practiced me asking the men some of the questions they may be asked during their interview. Some were great ways to get to know each other, and felt like fun cocktail party chatter: “Where were you born? Are you married? How old are your children?” Some we laughed about together at their utter absurdity and dated-ness: “Are you a member of the Communist party? Are you a habitual drunkard?” Seriously, US Government, have we not updated these questions since the 1950s? Are you also going to ask what brand of cigarettes I smoke and where I shop for my saddle shoes?
Some questions were hard for me to ask out loud – they felt like a painful invasion of privacy I had no right to ask, and poked at intensely personal issues and painful memories: “Have you ever been to jail? Have you ever entered the country illegally? Have you ever been deported?”
Some questions took my breath away at the gravity and the implications: “Are you willing to bear arms on behalf of the United States, even if it is against your country of origin?”
Well, that just got real.
As I asked this question, I looked in the eyes of the man from Nicaragua who has been here just two years, and left his wife and two children back home, to look for a better life in the US. I also looked in the eyes of the man sitting next to him, who came here in late 1990s from El Salvador, seeking political asylum – his wife and four children are still there. His grandmother died a few years ago and he couldn’t go back to attend her funeral because if he left the US – even with the status of an asylum seeker – he wouldn’t be let back in. His parents are elderly and sick and he wants to go back to help care for them but he can’t leave the country while his immigration status is pending. I sat there and I thought about my own family, what I would do if my mom was sick and I couldn’t get to her, and that thought took my breath away.
I asked these men if they would renounce their countries of origin, the places their families still live, and fight on behalf of the US, and they looked me in the eyes and they said “yes” and I believed them and something inside me broke a little, some piece of my heart went jagged and cutting and painful and I needed a minute.
I sat there with a lump at the base of my throat, but sternly told myself “Get it together Mary – you can cry later, but this is not the time for tears – this is the time for listening and loving and laughing together, for helping these guys memorize their US History flashcards. I know this is upsetting and terrible and makes you feel so overwhelmed by your privilege and all of the freedoms you take for granted but suck it up girlfriend.”
So I did. I sucked it up. I took some deep breaths and I smiled and we moved from the personal questions to the US History and Politics questions. Turns out they didn’t exactly need my help with these – there are 100 possible questions on the US Citizenship test (applicants are asked a random 10, and must get 6 right to pass) and we went through every single one – between the two of them they missed 3. THREE. I, on the other hand, missed at least 15. I could not tell you the names of the thirteen original colonies or all the states that border Canada or who our local US Representative is. I’m sure at one point I knew how long terms were for Senators vs. members of the House of Representatives (most likely thanks to Schoolhouse Rock – #imjustabill) but I definitely didn’t remember. Talk about a humbling experience – good, eye-opening, but also painful.
As I sat there for those two hours, telling myself to get a grip when the tears came close to surface, I realized that in addition to the lump of grief in my throat for these men and their families, there was also a weight of guilt on my chest. It was the weight of guilt over the power and privilege that meant I had the luxury of forgetting how long Senators terms last and never bothering to learn all the states that border Canada. It was the weight of having the freedom to travel literally anywhere in the world I want to go, to be with my family no matter where they are, to be there when a crisis hits or just on a regular Tuesday. It was the weight of the opportunities and advantages I’ve been given that have led me to the relative comfort and ease and economic opportunities and nearly endless possibilities and freedoms that define my life.
When I was 16, our church youth group went to Tijuana to build homes for families in Mexico. 15 years later, with a Masters degree in International Development under my belt, I can unequivocally say that from a sustainable development viewpoint, this was a terrible idea. Busing American teenagers down to Mexico to build homes is not efficient, scalable or sustainable. When it comes to helping rural Mexican families get shelter, it’s not super effective. However when it comes to exposing upper-middle class teenagers to the realities of what life is like outside the suburban bubble – it was priceless.
After a week of dirt camping and no running water and meeting these lovely, kind gracious families who had nothing- and meeting girls my age who had babies – I was up to my eyes in perspective. After the week was over, we stopped at a fast food restaurant when we crossed the border back to the US, and when I walked into the bathroom, I was overwhelmed by the abundance. There was running water and soap dispensers and toilets that flushed and I felt so dizzy from the excess I had to grip the edge of the porcelain sink to try to get my bearings.
I realized after that trip that I had a choice – I could let my privilege, my one-percent-ness compared to the rest of the world make feel an overwhelming, crushing burden of guilt – or I could commit to using that privilege, stewarding it on behalf of those who don’t have it, giving it away, instead of using it to keep me safe, comfortable, protected.
My dad was full of sayings and quotes – “George-isms” – and one he repeated a lot was “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” I think about that all the time.
I don’t know why I’m sitting here with layers upon layers of privilege – race, class, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, citizenship – wrapped around me like bubble wrap, insulating me from so many of the sharper bumps and bruises that hurt the people around me who have fewer layers.
I don’t know why I had US citizenship handed to me on a silver platter while the men I met yesterday have spent hour upon hour filling out paperwork and memorizing facts and waiting to be reunited with their families.
I don’t know why, and I don’t think I ever will – but I do know I’m not going to shrug my shoulders and say “well life’s not fair” and just carry on with my life. I can’t do that.
Instead of letting that weight of privilege sit on my chest, rendering me guilty and immobile, I’m picking it up in my hand, and using all my strength to hurl that weight hard at the barriers that keep so many around me down. Instead of letting my privilege control me, making me apathetic or complacent or so overwhelmed with guilt I don’t want to face it, I’m owning it and I’m using it.
In the Christian tradition we talk a lot about “stewarding” our resources – using our time and money and talents to serve others in love rather than hoarding them for ourselves. I don’t want to hoard my privilege, to keep it as a protective wall between me and all the pain around me – the suffering and injustice that is happening across the world but also in my very own city, a 20 minute drive yet a world away.
I don’t have all the answers and I know I won’t do it perfectly, but I have to try. Day by day, decision by decision, person by person, I have to try. Now more than ever, as so many in our world reel with pain and fear of what’s to come – I’m popping that bubble wrap, bit by bit, and vowing to live a life that is defined by a love that pours itself out, that refuses to stay safe in the tower, but sits on the dirt floor.