Skip to main content

My Testimony: The Summer I Came Face-to-face with My Privilege


Personal photo published
with permission of the pastoral family

In the summer of 2015, right before my last semester in college, I went on my first mission trip. Part of the requirements for the mission trip, which was also an internship, was to write a sermon/speech to present at the end to my church.

I reread it the other day, remembering many memories that were buried underneath years of other events. I still keep in touch with the pastoral family I stayed and worked with that summer. I thought, “Hey, this is kind of good. I should share it on my blog”, which led to me finding the picture I’ve included in this post.

I want to thank the family again for everything they’ve done for me in the past and still are doing for me in the present. I treasure you all!

Now, without further ado, here goes…

(Note: I did update and fix the grammar now that I have more experience as a writer. I tried to keep the essence of my work, though.)

---

This summer I did an internship with the Yakama Christian Mission on the Yakama reservation in the State of Washington. I stayed with a pastoral family on a farm and got to experience and learn so much, as well as meet so many people, that I don’t know where to begin.

I guess I’ll start with how there were certain things I expected when I applied to my internship. For example, I knew I had to get up at 5:30 or 6:30 in the morning to feed the cows or water the hay field. I knew I had to learn to drive stick shift because that was the kind of truck loaned to me. I knew I had to learn to use different tools and that I was to lead youth groups that would probably know even less than me.

What I wasn’t expecting was how tough this all was! I was still on Eastern Time, which was three hours ahead of Western time, so it took me weeks to go to bed at night and get up in the morning without feeling totally confused.

Going from automatic to stick shift was also difficult. Plus, the truck was old and cranky, with a trunk that never wanted to open and a steering wheel that made me sweat just turning it. (You can read about my vehicle adventure here).

In addition, keeping track of where the tools were, as well as remembering how to use them and the safety rules I needed to teach to the workgroups, was more problematic than I originally thought. It was all distinct from what I expected.

What I also wasn’t expecting was how the lessons I’d learn were going to be completely life changing and mind shattering. They were lessons I didn’t expect to learn, but am so glad I did.

When I applied to the missionary internship, I had a specific kind of mindset: “As a Christian, what am I supposed to do to get to heaven?” God was way up there in heaven and I was way down here on earth. What could I do – and what could I not do – to get up there? It was all about my own personal salvation. It was all about the afterlife, not this life. That’s what I thought Jesus was all about.

This summer gave me a different look at Jesus, God, myself, and the world around me. First, I learned that Jesus’ message was not just about the afterlife, but justice in this life. That’s why he challenged the priests and government by healing on the Sabbath and flipping tables in the temple out of righteous anger. That’s why he spent time with people considered the lowest in society, like tax collectors, lepers, and prostitutes. He wanted systemic change in the unjust world around him.

But how could he see all of the world’s injustice when the religious leaders in his time were so oblivious? It’s because Jesus had such an incredible relationship with God. The religious leaders were so focused on purity and portraying God within them that they couldn’t see that God was already all around them. I struggled just like those religious leaders.

This is where I learned another lesson.

God is all around, in everything. I was so focused on getting up to wherever God was that I hadn’t realized God was already here. But this summer, working with youth groups from all across the United States, spending time in a community of indigenous people and Mexican immigrants on the Yakama Reservation, helping out with animals from cows to goats to chickens, and simply being part of the land around me, from the sunsets to the mountains, I finally got it.

I could finally understand that parts of the Creator are in all of creation. (You can read my blog post about my creation revelation here).

After my realizations, I wondered why it had been so difficult for me to see the world this way before. After reflecting, I realized it all had to do with privilege.

Let me tell you a few stories to help explain.

There was one white, American youth group from Oregon. They grocery shopped as a group on the Sunday they arrived and were expected to live off that food until Friday when they left. Their leader expected them to cook every meal themselves, incorporating any leftovers from the day before so there would be no food wasted.

Since I ate many meals with them, I saw how serious the group adhered to these rules when we had breakfast burritos with pasta for breakfast one morning. At the end of the week, they gave me some fruit and a few bags of bread they couldn’t finish. That’s it.
           
A few weeks later, there was another (mostly) white, American youth group, only they came from Illinois. Now, this group also went shopping at the beginning of the week and were expected to cook. I joined them for dinner once and we went out to eat at a Mexican restaurant, which I found exciting since I hadn’t gone out to eat much throughout the summer.

Later, I learned that this was not the only time the group went out for dinner. In fact, the leaders decided to take the group out to eat dinner every night. By the end of the week, they left me with so much food that I wasn’t able to finish it. The list included bread, fruit, cereal, popsicles, milk, juice, chips, even hot dogs and buns that I didn’t know what to do with since I’m a vegetarian. (Speaking of, you can read about my experience with vegetarianism and animal treatment during the summer here).

This is a perfect example of two different kinds of leadership with two very dissimilar teachings on privilege. The Oregon group learned about valuing their food and working hard to limit their waste, lessons they may not have practiced at home, but could at least take back with them from the trip. The Illinois group, however, learned they didn’t have to leave their comfortable practices from home even when they were on a mission trip.

It seemed as if the Illinois group wasn’t as aware of their privilege as the Oregon group.

Still, neither group was as aware of their privilege as a couple I met, Sarah and Dan. Sarah’s a Pueblo Indian and Dan is Caucasian. They run a farm together, doing their best to do justice by raising cattle humanely and growing only native crops, as well as traveling as missionaries to work in South American countries.

Years ago, they hired a Yakama boy to help them on the farm. This boy had working parents and several siblings, but he still worked because they lived at such an extreme poverty level. For example, the boy was fascinated by Sarah and Dan’s house, saying things like, “Wow, you guys have doors on your cabinets.”

The boy became friends with Sarah and Dan and worked hard – that is, until he stole money from them. Twice. Both times the couple spoke with the boy and his family, struggling to maintain the relationship with him.

When I asked Sarah why she didn’t turn him in to the police, she told me it was because of their privilege. They knew they were strangers in the Yakama Nation, living on land that had originally been stolen from this boy’s people. The boy couldn’t hurt them. He could literally burn their house to the ground, but they wouldn’t be hurt because they had insurance and money.

So, they asked themselves, who was really dealing with injustice – them or the boy? When Sarah asked me what I thought, I didn’t know what to say.

I was like the group from Illinois. I never thought of my own privilege. I didn’t even know what it meant to be privileged. For example, the word might have had to do with social class, race, and maybe gender at times, but not sexual orientation, religion, or even health.

I’ve always thought I didn’t have any privilege because I’m Hispanic, a woman, and/or because my mom and I used to struggle financially when we first moved from Puerto Rico to Massachusetts. All I could see was the people who had it better off than me, not families that had it worse off.

It wasn’t until this summer that I realized there were different levels of privilege, just like with the Yakama boy, Sarah and Dan, the Oregon group, and the Illinois group. I learned that everyone has some kind of privilege, even myself.

Yes, I’m Latina, but I was raised in the continental United States. So, I’m just as much American as I am Hispanic. My family is middle class now. Plus, I’m Christian and able-bodied. Clearly, I’m more privileged than I’ve ever wanted to admit.

Until I saw my own privilege, I couldn’t see how bad the injustice is in the world, just like the religious leaders during Jesus’ time. It was easier to think of privilege as something that other people had, not me. It cleared me of any guilt, any necessity to work for those who had less than me because I could simply lump myself in with them.

But even the way I was thinking before I went on this internship (focusing on solely getting to heaven) was part of my privilege. There are people who are barely staying alive in this life let alone thinking about the afterlife. But I couldn’t see these people being treated so unjustly because I’m privileged enough to be able to focus on myself.

This summer helped me realize I don’t want to deny my privilege anymore. I understand I may not have as much as others, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have any at all. I want to acknowledge where I’m privileged and use it to help those who have even less. I honestly believe if we humble ourselves and stop focusing on where we are not privileged, and recognize and use where we are, there would be more justice in the world – and isn’t that what God’s all about? Isn’t that what Jesus wanted?
           
Now that I’ve finished my internship and am back home, I’m still considering my next step. I’m struggling to figure out what God has created me to do in this world, especially with all I’ve learned and experienced this summer. Should I teach? Work at a non-profit? Use my writing somehow? I don’t know.

However, even though it will take time, I know whatever I do and wherever God sends me, I have one mission: to help bring justice to those with less privilege. How am I going to do that? I will figure it out based on my own circumstances, always aware of my privilege along the way. And whatever I do, I won’t do it to bribe my way into heaven anymore, but because I genuinely love and care for God and all of God’s creation and because I want to do what’s right.

So, my challenge for you, my church, is to find the privilege in your own lives and use it to do what’s in your means to help those with less. Because with privilege comes voice and once your heard, justice will occur. And let’s teach the generations that follow to do the same. I believe it’s the only way we can show our community that we see God in them and ultimately bring change for them. It’s how I now think we can be more like Jesus.

Have you taken a moment to reflect on where you are and aren’t privileged? Please feel free to share your stories and thoughts in the comments!

-->
To learn more about Yakama Christian Mission or JustLiving Farm, please visit their respective websites. You can also read their blog, Ridged Valley Reflections, here.

Comments