I’m “The Man.” Not a dude, no. But this kind of man: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man
I didn’t start out this way. I started out wanting to fight The Man.
As early as high school, I wrote a mock piece of legislation providing state-sponsored free childcare for low-wage workers. I am pro-worker-justice, anti-colonial, pro-God’s-option-for-the-poor. I have student loans. I was a feminist before I could tell you the definition of the word. I used to walk the streets and distribute clean needles, bleach kits, and condoms. I used to demonstrate in my clergy collar for worker justice. My parents taught me about boycotts (Nestlé and grapes, in my day), marching in gay pride parades with one’s church, standing for peace and against the war with other religious leaders, and solidarity among minority groups. I thought endowments were ridiculous because they enable the dying and dwindling and mismanaged to last far beyond their useful years.
But I’m now on the executive staff of a denominational agency. I travel so much I can no longer take office time to go march or demonstrate. My schedule is so erratic I don’t know if I can engage in long-term volunteering. The last time I marched, I decided not to get arrested because I want to keep my precious TSA PreCheck. I can see how endowments can be good for healthy organizations. I’m there when decisions are made that impact working conditions. I hear the back story to the unpopular decisions made by colleagues. I’m surrounded by things I can’t talk about (thus my difficulty in blogging regularly).
My 22-year-old self would be disgusted with my 36-year-old self. I have a certain affection for people who are the way I used to be, because I wish I had stuck with it. (A 50-year-old who acts the way I acted when I was 22, though, that gets old.) I have in-home laundry and a cabinet we use as a bar, for crying out loud. I wear makeup and heels. I catch myself telling my nieces I like their cute outfits. I worry about retirement. What is wrong with me?
Well, I work in an institution. I don’t just work here; I’m good at it. This is my skill set and my personality.
I’m fortunate to work with people who are, on average, more diverse by age and race than the average mainline Protestant church member. I work with people who are highly competent. I work with people who are passionate about their work, and will do it no matter what. I work with people who are fun and funny and brilliant.
Because I work in an institution and can’t choose my co-workers, I have colleagues who are despised by my closest friends. Liberal racist? Check. Means well but doesn’t get it? Check. Patriarchal? Check. Clueless about how to interact with people of color/gay and lesbian people/women? Check. Makes verbal blunders constantly and offends subordinates? Check. Makes decisions that don’t make sense to anyone on the outside? Check. Makes mistakes? Check. Made the right decision that was unpopular? Check. Decided not to upset the status quo? Check.
I don’t think this conglomeration of people is different than the average workplace. What makes my workplace different is the church’s claim to be reaching toward the reign of God, and its commitment to serving God and God’s people. When an institution serves a reason greater than the bottom line, or shareholder value, we at the institution are generally expected to mess up a little less.
Is the expectation fair? Probably not. We’re human. We are going to mess up. We are going to play into the same structural sins in which everyone else participates.
Yesterday, at chapel (I attended two weeks in a row! I’m a rock star!), we celebrated the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A line of the liturgy that stuck out to me is: “My dream is that one day soon I will find a way to stop just celebrating the dream and start living it.”
Now that I’m The Man, executive staff for a church agency, I’m afraid I got stuck in celebrating the dream instead of living it.
I’m afraid I have become the person who posts social justice rants on social media, but won’t be able to shift the culture of the institution to become justice-oriented. I’m afraid I will die and the church, the institution, will be the same messed-up place it has always been. I’m afraid that my soul will get sucked out and chewed up, just because I was foolish enough to think I could make a difference.
(Yes, I have only worked here 1.5 years. I’m aware that I’m being a little dramatic.)
A group of friends and I were attending a meeting at the church conference center in Stony Point, New York, when a grand jury decided not to indict the officers who killed Eric Garner. Because we were working a gajillion hours that week, and because we were with Stony Point people (pro-peace progressives), a large group of us took an evening to join in the vigil/protest/march in Foley Square. It moved beyond the square into a march, and the whole group kept up with it. Four of us women of color got separated from the rest and marched as long as we could before the police began arresting people: a denominational staff person, the vice moderator of the 221st Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, a dean at a seminary, and an antiracism/diversity consultant who has been a denominational program staff director.
In the midst of the march, I felt a sense of yearning. I hadn’t marched in awhile. I forgot what children’s voices sound like when they join in chants. I forgot how often I disagree with certain protest tactics, but agree with the long-term goal of changing cultures that devalue some lives. I forgot how much of a pounding my body can take walking over hard cold streets. I forgot what it is like to look at the face of a driver whose car you have just blocked, and see solidarity.
I came back to work the next Monday. I’m still just someone who fits really well into an institution. I’m good at being The Man. I love my work. I even love this church as it is. But I’m tired of celebrating the dream instead of living it.
I know others in the institution of the church want to live it, too. So how do we do that?