By Hailey Joy Scandrette
A few days ago I was at a leadership training hosted by Faith in Action Bay Area, an organization that trains clergy and congregations to organize around issues of injustice in their communities. During the training, we were asked to turn to the person sitting next to us and explain why we were there–what in our lives had awakened our hearts to the pain of injustice and the call to act in the name of justice? We were given five minutes to think about it, during which I felt like I was scrambling to find the pivotal moment in my story. I tried to pinpoint one big, dramatic shift that would explain why I am the way I am, and why I care about the things I care about. However, all I could discover is that my story doesn’t have just one; instead a few little stories stood out to me as moments that each signify something I’ve learned in my journey.
Unfairness has always bothered me. When I was six years old, clubs were all the rage in our homeschool group. For a few months the weekly meetings at the park witnessed the self-sorting of elementary-school aged kids into boys vs. girls, vegetarians vs. meat-eaters, those who liked mustard vs. those who liked ketchup, and so on. What began as a fun little trend soon became a source of animosity and exclusion. I was uncomfortable with the idea that any of us could derive pleasure from excluding others. It seemed unfair, especially given that in the context of the playground our “clubs” were completely arbitrary. I was torn. Making clubs was fun, but I didn’t want anyone left out. I decided to start a club that everyone who wanted to join could be a part of. This, I thought was the kind of club Jesus would start. So, one day I took it upon myself to run up to every kid at the playground and ask if they wanted to join my “Jesus club”. (In retrospect, I’m guessing that I got a lot more funny looks from members of our San Francisco secular hippie homeschool group than I was aware of at the time.) Although I met with scorn from one or two older kids, I remember feeling so excited that I was creating a space for everyone to belong.
It’s that concept of belonging that sticks with me, except that when I look at the bigger picture, the “club” is what Jesus invites us all into–a way of life, a sense of belovedness, the kingdom of God. I’ve only realized in the last few years that this belief in inherent belonging is a cornerstone of my worldview. I’m not sure when or how this belief was solidified for me, but as a teenager and young adult it’s become increasingly clear to me that if I believe that all people have inherent worth and are loved by the Creator, that means that, as a follower of Jesus, there is no such thing as “not my problem”. If God loves every single person on the planet more than I can even imagine, then their suffering is not something detached from my life. We’re all connected because we all belong. Humans are ridiculously complicated, but I will risk saying that this one thing is painfully simple: As Christians we’re called to love–love our neighbors, love strangers, love those who do us wrong–and to me that means that if someone is facing injustice, I am called to action.
Overwhelmed Idealist Tendencies
When I was fourteen, I participated in a six-week workshop with my parents’ nonprofit that focused on engaging more deeply with what Jesus had to say about justice. That year, the particular issue that we educated ourselves about and sought to act around was human trafficking. We learned about who is most impacted by trafficking, how trafficking works in our current system, what kinds of trafficking are prevalent, and what kind of obstacles victims face when and if they obtain freedom. We fasted from non-fair-trade coffee, tea, and chocolate, and discussed ways to reduce our consumption of unethically produced goods (unfortunately eliminating consumption is impossible in our current system). I remember feeling overwhelmed, but also confident that if I could just get enough people to care about this issue as much as I did, then we’d be able to abolish modern slavery, right? I educated my friends, recruiting them to write to legislators to express concern about the issue. My best friend and I devoted hours to research, so that we could better understand how trafficking worked and how it was tied to our own lives. I really thought that if we were just motivated enough we could make big changes. However, the more I dug into the giant binder full of research we’d collected, the smaller I felt. The issue was too big, but I couldn’t bring myself to narrow it. Focusing on any one group or location felt like I was neglecting everyone else. Eventually other commitments and the hustle and bustle of being teenagers distracted us from our goal of ending slavery once and for all, and the large green binder was left to collect dust on my bookshelf.
The experience of being overwhelmed to the point of ineffectiveness seems pretty universal for people first gaining exposure to issues of suffering and injustice. The balance between being aware and motivated to act, and becoming overwhelmed by the heaviness of suffering and injustice is one that I am still learning to find. Additionally, I am still coming to terms with the fact that I can’t do everything. Secretly, I would like to be able to do exactly the right thing all the time and be aware and active in work on all the issues, but that is not only impossible, but a recipe for ineffectiveness. Finding the couple of issues that both speak to me and that I have the skills needed to focus on is a process that I am allowing myself to still be in the middle of.
Extracting from the Abstract
As a teenager, I knew I cared about immigration reform as an issue. I knew that many people in my neighborhood had immigrated without papers and that because of this they were denied rights that I took for granted. I had friends at the community theater where I performed who I knew had parents who were undocumented or who were undocumented themselves, but it was an abstract concept with vague implications.
One night, after finishing a four-week run of shows, a group of expressive teenage actors gathered in my small living room. Some of our castmates had already gone home and the remainder of us shared chairs, sprawled over each other on the couch, or sat on the floor. The tone of our conversation had turned uncharacteristically subdued as one friend shared her fears of deportation and her concern that she would never be able to attend college because as an undocumented teenager before the DREAM act, she wouldn’t be able to receive financial aid. She’d lived in San Francisco since she was a small child. It was her home, but as a teenager she had realized that her entire future was at risk if the wrong people discovered that she didn’t have papers. With our arms around her we desperately tried to think of ways to fix the situation. One of the guys offered to marry her to help her gain citizenship; they were both 18. She laughed tearfully, but he insisted he was serious. We all assured her that if they married we’d make sure that from the outside it looked 100% legitimate. Fortunately later that year California enacted the DREAM act, but my understanding of immigrant rights issues had shifted from abstract to specific, no longer represented by unnamed faces and faceless stories, but by someone I’d sang with, danced with, laughed with, and cried with. We were kids, but she was already dealing with a world of obstacles that I would never face purely through merit of my birth location.
As someone with a great deal of privilege–my race, sexuality, gender identity, and religion are all widely accepted by the powerful systems of oppression in the US– the process of understanding issues that don’t affect me as concrete realities instead of abstract hypotheticals is ongoing in my journey with social justice. I feel that it’s important for me to recognize that the work of educating myself on other people’s experiences of injustice is never over. The fact is, I will never be done learning to love my neighbors. I will always have space to grow. And for me, a huge part of that growth comes from allowing the weight of people’s stories to impact me and move me to see things differently and to take action.
Although I can trace some components of my journey with social justice back many years, I feel that in most ways I am just beginning to learn what it means to love people well. I am still learning what my role is, both as an agent of the healing that I want to see in the world and as someone who, by virtue of my privileges, benefits from systems of oppression, whether I like it or not. I’m constantly discovering new things about myself and about the world, which can be exhausting and exciting and discouraging and motivating all at once. For now, I am trying to trust that as I struggle to find my place in the world in this chapter of my life, I will be led to opportunities to act on behalf of justice and to love the people around me in new and radical ways.
Author Bio: Hailey Joy Scandrette is a senior at San Francisco State University studying US History, and Counseling. When not ears deep in primary source analysis and note taking, she enjoys thrift shopping, writing, climbing trees, and going on long walks with her friends and family. She is passionate about social justice, living incarnationally, loving and serving others, and almost anything else that she has any opinion on.