As a young person I spent numerous weeks in Charleston S.C. and the surrounding beaches. For many years it was a Davis family ritual to retreat to the coastal city and its beaches for vacation. Recently I participated in the Stewart Center’s annual end-of-school year youth trip. This year’s trip (Washington D.C. 2011, New York City 2012) was to Charleston.
While in Charleston, six of our middle school students and three chaperons toured Fort Sumter, visited Drayton Hall Plantation, enjoyed a carriage tour of the historic district, survived a ghost tour of the Old City Jail, ate a lot of seafood and played on the beach, among other activities. In other words, we had a great time. It was the smoothest, most enjoyable, and most enriching Stewart Center youth trip to date.
A traveling party like ours – two whites, seven blacks, six of which are fifteen or younger – does not easily blend in with the throng of tourists that overrun Charleston in the summer months. As a result of our group’s composition, we received many inquisitive looks and several friendly questions concerning our origin, identity, and the purpose for our visit.
Three conversations linger in my mind. The associate pastor of our host church, the owner of Jack’s Cosmic Dogs, and our waiter at Fleet Landing all asked about, and seemed genuinely interested in our group. Each conversation gave me the opportunity to gush about the Center and our youth program. During each exchange I moved the dialogue toward the nature of our program and proudly proclaimed that eligibility for the trip hinged on factors such as conduct, grades, service projects, and attendance. I talked about how we encourage the students to work toward a goal, and how character is developed when the students are continually engaged in the Center’s programming.
Since arriving at the Stewart Center, I have participated in countless other conversations where I have professed the value of our programming and lauded the achievements of our past, but for some reason the exchanges in Charleston left a bad taste in my mouth. I could hear my voice in my head as I spoke and I hated the things I was saying, and the way I sounded. The affirming nods and smiles from my conversation partners gave me added discomfort. Why were they so agreeable? Why was I so proud? What had I said that struck a chord with them? What about under-resourced urban youth working to earn a trip was so wonderful?
I was proud, and they were pleased, because of prejudice.
Obviously, under-resourced youth need to develop a strong work ethic; nobody that is poor knows how to work hard. Clearly our youths’ attitudes, clothes, hair and music indicate they do not know what it takes to be successful adults in society; poor black kids from Reynoldstown are the only teenagers who have ever listened to inappropriate music, disrespected adults or had bad fashion sense. The low social and economic status of our students’ families and neighborhoods have left them unable to achieve a meaningful life full of personal and financial satisfaction; our society resembles a caste system where persons rarely escape the social location of their parents.
I am so in love with the ‘power of exchange’ and so brainwashed by stereotypes that I quit seeing our students as people and began seeing them as a demographic. People that speak loudly in the public square have convinced me that any assistance breeds dependency and that ‘compensation for services rendered’ was Jesus’ golden rule. Our students do need to develop a strong work ethic, they do need to understand the value of a job well done and they do need to take responsibility for their future’s, but they also need to experience unconditional love. It is not a gift if you work for it, it is not grace if you deserve it .
My experiences with the youth in Charleston were about family; my words in Charleston were about programs. I was enjoying the teens as my Stewart Center family, not as projects, or students, or future leaders or clients. I was doing something with them rather than for them. Charleston is a place I associate with family and our recent trip highlighted the sense of family I share with the middle school students. Never during my childhood did I earn or deserve a vacation, yet my parents enriched my life and enlightened my mind through travel without jeopardizing my work ethic or needing to institute a leadership development curriculum. Our students are our family. They need guidance and discipline like all children but they also need to understand genuine love, else we develop adults that only respond to material stimuli.
Our students are people full of God’s potential, infinitely more valuable than the societal labels they bear. They are not statistics or projects. They are not numbers on a page or a fundraising tool. They are not a moving story or an adorable face on a video. They are not corporate or social, private or public, denominational or institutional. They are not a tax write off. They are God’s greatest creation. They are fellow humans, and they are Randy, Roderick, Maranda, Mayria, Kennan and Kenya…and that is enough. They are worthy of gifts of love. Jesus thought we were worthy, no strings attached.
Stewart Center middle school students, I love you. Period.