What I Learned about White Privilege on My Summer Vacation

This summer I had the opportunity to co-direct a summer camp at a school that serves underprivileged students grades K-6. Many of our campers have experienced abuse, gun violence, hunger, or even homelessness. They are who you are talking about when you pray at the dinner table, “and please, God, provide for those without food or fellowship tonight.” 

The school exists as an alternative to the Toledo Public School System which, as you can imagine, is a large district with little resources and lots of obstacles. We provide a place for students to learn and grow, as well as transport them even if they move during the school year. If you aren’t familiar with poverty, it is a common occurrence that families will move several times a year due to eviction, inability to pay rent, or the conditions of the property they are renting being so unsafe or unsanitary that they are forced to move out. In a public system, they would likely change schools at the elementary level several times and the learning loss would be profound. Our school provides a continuity of education and hopefully over time, lessons the learning loss divide. We are what is called a Community Charter School. We are not a private, Christian school but if you ask me, God shows up on the regular for our students and staff. And summer is no different.

For context, I am a 38-year-old white woman from a dairy farming town in Michigan with a background in movie theater management and youth ministry. Equipped for leading a summer camp of predominantly Black children from the city? Hardly. But Ephesians 2:18 reminds me, “The Lord is the one who goes ahead of you; He will be with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” So the night before I was supposed to take the entire camp on a field trip to a splash pad and found out that splash pad wasn’t going to be turned on, and I had to run around to every store gathering items to start our own water park in the backyard of the school, I just kept in mind that someone had my back. And that someone could turn water into wine so I was pretty sure He could help handle my task. It turned out to be one of the best days we had all summer. Kids and water are pretty much a slam dunk in the summer. It was one of those moments where you think, “I bet God is smiling on us right now.” 

I watched for five weeks as older campers who we have sometimes labeled as “tough students” giggled and laughed at the simplest of activities. They broke down some of their hard exterior to engage in crafts and team building exercises. Some shared about their home lives, while some never spoke about home at all and I got the feeling that this was their escape from whatever was happening there. We had a young camper eat three breakfasts almost every day and I watched as his counselor quietly packed him a sack of food at the end of the week so he had something to eat over the weekend. Corporal works of mercy abounded in a 100-year-old school building in Ohio this summer. 

And here is where I might lose some of you but I don’t write what is safe, I write what I know. In my nearly four decades of life I have not had to struggle in some of the ways my campers struggle. I grew up with two working parents who provided for me a wonderful house in an excellent school district. They were available in the evenings to help with my homework, to drive me to and from practices and rehearsals, to teach me to drive. Many of my campers do not and will not have these things. Remember when you were a kid and you went to someone’s house and they just did things totally different than your own family and you questioned if they were normal or if you were normal? (Like when I went to my Protestant friend’s house for dinner and they did a spontaneous prayer before dinner and not the same one my family memorized and repeated each night.) The campers I served this summer would be absolutely flabbergasted to walk into what my childhood home looked and felt like. 

So are you ready? I’m going to say it…here it comes…I did have and currently have white privilege. I was able to get into good colleges because my parents could traverse the confusing FAFSA form. I was able to get into good colleges because I had a well-rounded academic career because of all the driving me to and from extracurriculars. I got into good colleges because my parents helped me financially while I attended. There are so many people that will tell you they came from nothing and made something of themselves and that it wasn’t based on their color. I think most of those people are omitting parts of their story. And I don’t believe we need to feel guilty if we’ve benefited from generations of education or affluence or stability. But we need to be aware that is not the case with many of our Black neighbors.

So what does this have to do with our faith? I truly believe the current racial climate is at a crossroads. And I think that if Caucasian people of faith would examine their hearts, they would find that maybe there is some work to be done when it comes to how they view people of color. I think we need to start showing our children pictures of what Jesus really looked like. A child born in the Middle East, right near the border of what we call Africa. I think we need to start having conversations about how many of us have profited by the generations of home ownership our families may have had and how Black Americans didn’t receive full voting rights until 1966. When we talk about and put into perspective the idea that God is the Father of us All, it makes it more difficult to look at others with contempt or fear or ignorance. 

The summer camp moment I felt the Holy Spirit the most was when we took the campers rock climbing. Most of them had never had the opportunity to challenge themselves in such a way and it was absolutely beautiful to see them, in the most literal of ways, climb their obstacles. Seeing the campers as my brothers and sisters in Christ gave me new appreciation for the rainbow of color God has created in both nature and humanity. He is an artist with an infinite palette. The looks of determination and pride as they scaled the wall nearly brought me to tears. Because what I know, and I suspect some of them know as well, they will have a lifetime of obstacles to climb. 

It’s a messy cause to champion. It’s an incredibly nuanced conversation, this thing called Race. I do, however, believe that we have all the resources we need to help turn the tide of racism in our country. Those resources are things like compassion, empathy, listening, and advocacy. Sadly, many of our laws and institutions are not equally effective for Blacks and Whites. Recognizing bias is difficult, but it’s the first step in helping to include all our brothers and sisters in the journey toward the Kingdom of God.

Written by the Holy Rukus