Editorial

Lessons from a white, Republican male

I often tell people I’m from Kensington, a neighbourhood in Philadelphia. It’s technically true, though in actuality, my relationship with this wrong-side-of-the-tracks corner of the city, one of the poorest and most violent parts of town, is complicated and tenuous.

I used to just tell people I was from Philadelphia. That was truer. But while attending Eastern University – a hotbed for Christian activists in my home city – I began to realize that roots in the poor part of town were considered by my peers to be a badge of honour. The Simple Way faith community had moved to Kensington and were generating buzz. Other evangelical activist friends were working fast and hard to place Kensington on their resumes – volunteering there for various projects. And so claiming my Kensington roots, shaky as they are, became an avenue toward upward mobility by embracing the exact opposite.

I often tell people I’m from Kensington, a neighbourhood in Philadelphia. It’s technically true, though in actuality, my relationship with this wrong-side-of-the-tracks corner of the city, one of the poorest and most violent parts of town, is complicated and tenuous.

I used to just tell people I was from Philadelphia. That was truer. But while attending Eastern University – a hotbed for Christian activists in my home city – I began to realize that roots in the poor part of town were considered by my peers to be a badge of honour. The Simple Way faith community had moved to Kensington and were generating buzz. Other evangelical activist friends were working fast and hard to place Kensington on their resumes – volunteering there for various projects. And so claiming my Kensington roots, shaky as they are, became an avenue toward upward mobility by embracing the exact opposite.

The place I am actually from is the transition zone between the suburbs and Kensington. Growing up, my connection to Kensington rarely amounted to more than an awkward Christmas gathering at my dysfunctional aunt’s place (three blocks from where The Simple Way is now located) or a glance out the window of the train on the way home from a Phillies game.

My father is the one who is actually from Kensington. B-Street to be exact. It is a history I know little about. It didn’t come up much. It was something in the past. Now, my dad is a middle class, Republican, suburban evangelical – a few of my not-so-favorite things.

While my university experience increased my interest in my dad’s past, it also increased my discomfort with his present. I became zealous in my quest to take down the American empire and restore global justice, and therefore conversations with my conservative dad never went that well.

So when my dad and I decided to meet in London on my way back from four months of “service” in Uganda in 2004, I felt a bit nervous about the conversations we would have during our time there. Ironically, we stayed in the “other” Kensington – one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in London. After a week of lecturing my father on the needs of Ugandan children, my father calmly told me some of his story of growing up in Kensington. It’s a story that’s not unique in Kensington. But it was my father’s story. And it was different than the reality I had known in my life. He told me about nights doing homework under bar stools and of not knowing his father’s name. He finished the story with the internalized and stoic understatement, “I’ve had a hard life.”

Back in university after my return, I resumed my empire toppling activities, frequently joining social justice and antipoverty demonstrations on the streets of Philadelphia. Often, after spending time downtown at a protest or handing out peanut butter sandwiches to homeless people, I would stop by my dad’s office at Philadelphia’s electric company, which is owned by one of the largest energy companies in the world.

During these visits, we usually found ourselves disagreeing on a variety of predictable issues. And in the deep crevasses of these conversations I often had the nagging feeling that there was something wrong about a middle class, university- educated son telling his once-poor father what the poor need and don’t need.

I’ve moved away from Philly but I still go back to visit. On my most recent trip home, fresh back from Palestine (another activist badge), I met my father outside the train station. The bridge leading from the train station to my father’s office is home to many homeless folk, and as we approached bridge I reached in my pocket for change with the intention of being charitable and proving something (I’m not sure what) to my dad. But as we crossed the bridge, I noticed that each homeless person we passed greeted my father by name. He was a celebrity on the bridge. And not a single person asked him for money. He was simply a friend to his neighbours. It occurred to me that he did something few activists do – walk the same path five days a week for 30 years.

We stopped and talked to one woman, Rona. My dad introduced me and she mentioned that she had heard all about my upcoming marriage and my work with the church. She was not particularly interested in my work with the poor, but instead told me how wonderful my father was.

I realized later that for all the times I had protested in support of the poor, not one poor person in Philadelphia knew me by name. I subsequently found out my father had refused the request of executives in his company who asked him to kick the homeless people off that bridge to make it “safer” for downtown residents. The story of a middle-class, white, male, evangelical Republican wouldn’t often be held up as an example for activists. But his example teaches me much.

It teaches me to stay in one place. Transience is dead. Activism belongs to those who have committed their lives to people and who have learned to stay put. It is those people who, despite discovering that the poor are no more romantic or Godly then the rest of us, stick with them anyway. It is those people who can enter genuine relationships with the poor and speak with integrity.

The rest of us would probably do well to not speak for a while, to just hold our ideals close to our chests for a time. We need to learn to quiet down and slow down … to a halt. To stay still for a while – maybe even for 30 years.

Dan Leonard recently moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is a member of the Geez board.

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Issue 12, Winter 2008

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