I’ve been home from the Appalachian Trail now for about four months, and I’m still working to settle back into a “regular” life. When you’ve spent months on end hiking up and down mountains, getting caught in the rain, and living a life of complete adventure, coming back to sitting at a desk eight and a half hours a day, commuting back and forth via car, and regaining weight at a rate that leaves one feeling like a beached whale much of the time is, for lack of a better term, a “downer.”
So why did I do it? Why not stay out on the Trail, or if I had to come home for the winter, why not take a short term job so I can plan on going back out to hike next summer? Why not take a temp job near a trail town so I could still get hiking in on the weekends instead of returning to my home in Kentucky, far enough away from the Appalachian Trail to make short excursions difficult if not impossible? For me, it all comes down to privilege.
“Privilege” is a loaded term, both in our current societal discussion and for me as a whole. I did not grow up in a wealthy or even firmly middle class background. While I love my family and my parents worked hard to provide a healthy environment growing up, and had a strong social net that helped them achieve that, we nonetheless certainly had our difficulties and struggles. So when I hear the term “white privilege” it can certainly bring a conflicted set of emotions to the forefront. Having periods of homelessness not to mention years with pediatric cancer in my life means I might balk at the idea of saying I am from a privileged upbringing. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an adult though is that saying I was privileged does not mean I had it easy. It simply means I had opportunities and advantages that someone else in a similar situation would not necessarily have had.
Now for most of my adult life, this was not a debate that carried much meaning for me. I struggled through most of my adulthood just to get by. I first left for college at the age of 17 believing I had been “called” by God to serve in the ministry, attending a traditional Bible college to major in preaching ministry, however even with financial aid, I simply could not get by paying tuition, and I had to drop out. I was determined that I was still supposed to push forward on this path though, so I took a job initially washing dishes and unloading delivery trucks for the campus cafeteria. This allowed me to stay on campus and audit courses as a non traditional student. I was never able to complete an accredited degree, but I was still able to spend years studying the Bible and learning through a dedicated community. (This is also when I began to hone my cooking skills with the help of Brian, Chef Eddie, and the rest of the kitchen crew to boot) Eventually, I left the campus to pursue ministry, taking first a job as an associate preacher and youth pastor at a small country church in southeastern Indiana. After a year there, I moved to take a job working on a large staff in children’s ministry at a megachurch in northern greater Cincinnati. But even this was a struggle, as I repeatedly was laid off while working for churches, and never had a ministry job that paid more than the cost of gas and a portion of groceries. I continued to work full time jobs, usually in the food service industry, and usually for low wages, as I had to find jobs with little responsibility to allow a flexible schedule to be as open and available for these ministry positions as possible. In addition, to this, I began taking classes through another unaccredited training program to try to further my training.
All of this led to burnout. I was constantly broke and tired, and growing increasingly frustrated with God. I certainly didn’t feel privileged by any stretch of the imagination. I felt used up and wasted. Finally, after another layoff, I gave up. On the Church, on God, on my faith, all of it. So I took an opportunity to jump into a full time tech support job and never looked back. I pursued a more stable family life and 9-5 existence. I’ve detailed elsewhere how this eventually lead to my returning to my faith and eventually casting that 9-5 aside to pursue the outdoors, but even in this phase of my life I think I would have struggled with the idea of being privileged. I still made little enough money to barely pay the bills, constantly had to work to find affordable housing, and felt at all times that financial ruin was merely a car breakdown away.
Hiking gave me distance though. Especially in my first summer on the trail, I had time to finally get some sections of my life into a broader perspective. What’s more, I took the time to consider the absolute blessings I’d had in life. True, there were several struggles, but if it weren’t for the family and church support we’d had as I was growing up, the fortunate chances I’d received, and the hard work and upbringing of my parents, my situation could have been much much worse, and what’s more there was no connection between those opportunities and the work I’d personally put in. I definitely worked hard, but those unconnected opportunities made the difference.
On my second hike, this question of privilege became far more prevalent in my own thoughts and meditations. I spent a significant amount of time reading and learning about backgrounds outside of my own, putting a concerted effort into reading more non-white and even non-Christian authors to gain greater perspective, to say nothing of broadening my own social interactions. But I still came back to the issue that while I could certainly admit to some privileges in my life, I couldn’t help but also count all the disadvantages I’d also had. Then came the story of Esther.
Esther has always been one of my favorite books of the Bible. Setting aside any moral or spiritual lessons, it is simply good story telling, in a succinct passage you get a story of a young woman forced into extraordinary circumstances, and an entire people group saved because of how she reacted to those circumstances. But listening to the story again while hiking, I heard it from a different perspective than I usually had considered it before. Esther was a victim, pure and simple. She was as a Hebrew woman disadvantaged in her society both because of her race and her gender, she had little or no voice on her life, and because of her beauty she was taken advantage of, and forced into a life of captivity in a palace, where she was required to serve for the sexual gratification of a king she may have had no reason to love or respect. Indeed, despite marriage playing a central role in the story, love does not – nor would it have for any royal marriage of the day. Esther is merely seen as a package to display the power and influence of the king, she is treated as a mere object for the court’s amusement.
But the story isn’t about Esther fighting against her oppression, rather it’s about her using her privilege. Despite her clear victim hood, she still has privilege over Mordecai, her uncle, who even though as a male he has more autonomy in their society, and doesn’t have to fear his own abduction and sexual enslavement, does have to fear the execution pole of Haman. Esther is someone who utilizes her incomplete privilege to help someone else. The key theme verse of the story is Esther 4:14 “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Privilege, be it white privilege, financial privilege, does not make you the bad guy, nor does it mean you are living the easy life. Instead, Scripture makes it clear that privilege such as this is simply an opportunity for you to help someone else who does not have that advantage. A significant chunk of the Law of Moses lays out ways that privilege should be used to protect others, be it leaving gleanings in your field or ensuring that if you have a home it is built and cared for in a way that protects the community. This is a core principle of the Kingdom of God as displayed in the texts but does not often get attention in most western white evangelical churches.
So as I considered this perspective on my own privilege, I was forced to confront some uncomfortable questions about how I was living my life. I certainly had set aside some privileges to go out into the wilderness, no longer earning a regular paycheck or living in comfort, but I nonetheless was transferring that to a different set of privileges of freedom and rest. What’s more, I did not set aside these privileges in the service of others, but did so for myself. I certainly met several wonderful individuals who told me that my journeys and my writings inspired them or gave them hope, but that had not been the core concern when I set off on my journey. My core concern was largely self serving.
So what to do then? As I continued to pray and examine the world around me, I became increasingly troubled. Following the news back in civilization did not give me good heart either, rather I became increasingly concerned that there were things to be done and I was hiding out of the way instead. So I made the difficult decision to come home. I wasn’t sure what my next step would be at that time, but I felt the need to lean into my opportunities a bit. I would return to a stable job with some decent (though certainly not great) pay, and work for an open schedule that would allow me the opportunity to put myself at some kind of service to others. Again, I am not in a place of complete comfort and certainly not wealth, but I was able to establish a base from which to work.
I’ve pursued a few smaller opportunities, giving financially to organizations I feel are doing necessary work, as well as giving time, going into a local homeless shelter to help out during extreme cold, going on outings with local churches to give out food, and generally try to look for opportunities in my daily life. But I couldn’t help but feel like more was called for.
After returning home, one thing I found as crucial to jump into as quickly as possible was to establish new social connections, and as a part of this jumped at an opportunity to join a monthly book club. The first reading choice was “Kindred” by Octavia Butler, a fantastic book I’d highly recommend that further brought these issues to focus for me. The main character finds herself dragged through time as an African American woman in the American slave south who repeatedly saves the life of a white slave owning ancestor. There is so much to unpack in the story, but the dynamic of privilege kept coming to me. How the main character was certainly not “privileged” as we might normally view the term, but she certainly had a situational privilege which she put to use to save her white ancestor, a decidedly unworthy recipient of such care. What’s more, a secondary character, her white husband who was also dragged back in time at one point in the story, is disturbingly unaware of how the position of his own skin color affects the different experiences they have in the past, that is until he is forced to remain there for an extended period of time, at which point he throws himself into helping on the Underground Railroad and providing cover for slaves where he can.
I again was forced to ask myself if I was sufficiently using my position of privilege to pursue a better world for others. If I was considering for “just such a time as this” I was intended to do.
My journey as someone who gave up on my faith and returned to it has gifted me with a special perspective on a number of points because I was forced to re-examine many assumptions I had originally brought along with me. Ideas of what Christianity is meant to look like is often colored less by the Scripture and direct experience of God and more of the cultural conditions in which we live. The early Church struggled with the idea of separating life of a Christian from Jewish dietary and holy day practices, and modern American Christians, at least in the social context I was familiar with, carried it’s own baggage. Perhaps chief among these is a devotion to nationalism and respect for military power. The more I have examined the teachings of Jesus, the more foreign these concepts should seem to be as often taught in the Church. Again, I want to stress, this is based on my own church life, I know of many traditions, even in the United States that do not carry this particular set of assumptions.
Because of this clash of viewpoints that I see as core contradiction between my own faith background and a more “true orthodox” teaching of Scripture as I’ve come to understand it, the greater need I’ve seen for the celebration of a devotion to peacemaking in the Christian life. This then lead me to considering the emission of Christian Peacekeeper Teams. CPT works in areas around the world to pursue a goal of building peace through nonviolent means. They have long term and short term missions available. I certainly could have simply donated funds, but I felt the need to involve myself in a more hands on way. After some prayer, I applied to join their delegation to the Palestinian region. This is a region that has often been on my heart as echoing too closely the tragedies of the Old Testament as the people of God fail to fulfill the promises given to Abraham that through his line “all nations on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18) The recent news of the so-called “Muslim ban” and the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel brought to highlight how my own community of white evangelical Christians in the United States had served to exacerbate the pain of this difficult, fraught, and complicated issue rather than serving as a voice for peace and mutual service.
So that’s why this year, instead of heading back out into my beloved Appalachian Mountains, I’m saving my vacation time and working through the year to prepare for a new journey, that will take me even further from home than I ever have been before, both literally and figuratively. While I’ll still occasionally use this blog to talk about local hiking, cooking recipes, and occasional Bible studies, I’m also going to be working to keep you all up to date on my preparations for this new journey, and what I’ll be learning along the way.
I am also going to be asking you to help out. I am devoting my own finances to this journey, but would like to invite you to participate as well. Donations can be made at https://cpt.org/donate just be sure where it says “If you have a special purpose for your donation, please let us know. I want my donation to be dedicated:” please include a note “James Scott October Hebron delegation.”
I look forward to your questions and our discussions as this journey progresses, I am going to do everything I can to share as much of it with all of you as possible!