My senior year at Queens University of Charlotte, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Center is a resource center for folks who are homeless or suffering from extreme poverty. The first few months, I was stationed behind the front desk welcoming our neighbors, handing out mail, and directing them to the proper location for showers, a meal, and laundry. The second half of the year, I spent as a counselor helping to guide our city’s neighbors to helpful resources, to obtain birth certificates and social security cards.
I come from the typical middle income household raised in rural West Virginia. I am a white male and have never really known hard times. Although my family was affected by the recession, we always had food in the fridge and never experienced homelessness. In fact, I admire the perseverance of my parents through job loss and a drastic lifestyle change. Even while I was in college (in a private institution) during my poorest moments, I managed to have money for gas and beer. Entering into this opportunity at the Urban Ministry Center, I had a very narrow perspective of poverty and homelessness. I still asked myself, “why can’t people just get jobs?” and was very unaware of my white privilege. I’m from a state that is 93% white and from a country with a higher percentage.
During my time as a counselor I met with folks from all races and from all backgrounds. Each session, I would meet with a handful of people and heard all of their stories. Each week, I would leave the Center with a feeling of despair and exhaustion from hearing the struggles of others. At times, some would just want to see me for free bus passes and telling them that I’m not able to give out freely, they would become irritated. I saw fights and witnessed several moments when I didn’t understand why some were not appreciative of the work of the Center.
I believe I could’ve walked away from this experience feeling justified that most people just want to “take advantage of the system.” I could have walked away feeling like there is nothing good hearted people could do unless people decided to help themselves. To a certain extent, I certainly believe that as humans, we must be willing to help ourselves and with that comes sacrifices. However, with deeper reflection I walked away from this experience with one of the most important aspects of life-learning how to listen to others. I gained an understanding that my story and the story of others is not the only story. As a white male living in this country, I can’t inject my own experience into the stories of others. I can no longer claim easy responses for some of our society’s gravest problems. As a white man, I cannot just ride into the problems of the world on a white horse with all the answers.
I am thankful for this experience as well as so many that have led me on a journey where solutions are not always neat and clean; On a path that has ultimately landed me in seminary where listening is often times more needed than having answers.