A few summers ago in Detroit, a circle of high school students from a local church gathered with community organizer Monica Lewis-Patrick, executive director of the grassroots We The People of Detroit. The conversation flowed into what it looks like for faith to infuse political action when the odds are stacked against justice, freedom and equity. This is an excerpt.
All we have to do is start connecting the dots and telling the truth. When I started working in social justice, I was working in education, with children that were mentally impaired and extremely violent. What I found out really quickly was that the people at the table didn’t give a damn about the children. It was about the dollars. Because I cared about the children, I had to educate myself in terms of how I influence the policy—or the people who drive the policies—to help my people get the change they need. To help the children I served. That meant going to meetings where sometimes I would be the only one there speaking on behalf of the population that I thought was most vulnerable and most in need. Was I scared? Yes I was. Did I always get the language right? No I didn’t. Did I always have the data on hand that they had? No I didn’t. But it was out of my heart that I spoke. And then from there what would happen is that somebody would give me a card or somebody would say, “You know, I didn’t know that part” or “Can we talk?” And then I had to dig up from my spiritual history or family history and muster up enough energy to go meet with somebody that has a title—that seems to have power—and say to that person “We don’t like this.”
Day 39 of our Lenten Journey continues beyond “Beyond Vietnam.” What now? For nine more days, we listen to voices calling us onwards, to live out the legacy of Dr. King. Today, we hear from Monica Lewis-Patrick (right), point guard of Detroit’s struggle for water affordability, excerpted from a conversation she had with a youth group visiting Detroit in July 2016:
People are driven by either two things: pleasure or pain. What has driven me over the past ten years living in this city is watching a lot of pain. That pain has sparked a passion. I’m 50 years old. I’ve done social justice work since I was 16 years old. In North Carolina, in Tennessee, the Deep South. I’ve been in Detroit for ten years and I can tell you there’s not a lot of difference.
What I do know is that people cannot come into the city with the attitude of being a missionary, that “I’m just going to do good in the hood,” and then go back to their community and live well or live in privilege. I think it’s only about immersing yourself in the community and culture and I think it’s only by allowing yourself to be courageous enough to interface with people that make you uncomfortable. I think sometimes it takes us out of our comfort zone—it’s not easy for us who are doing front line justice work to allow outsiders in because of distrust and co-opting and people taking advantage of our trust and the sanctity of these spaces. So it has to be a commitment and willingness to be committed for the long-haul.
I think the other thing about social justice work is that everyone has to decide what amount of themselves they can give to this work. But I think you’ve got to be fully committed, that it’s got to be a life-long commitment because people know the difference. They know when you are coming in to extract from their community so you can feel better about yourself or when you come to give yourself to that community, to let the collective heal so that we can feel better about ourselves. That’s the difference and we know the difference.