by Suzanne Belote Shanley
(an excerpt from a chapter in Loving Life on the Margins: The Story of the Agape Community by Brayton Shanley and Suzanne Belote Shanley, to be released this fall by Haleys, Athol, MA)
Attracting students to Agape from diverse ethnicities and economic backgrounds has always been a struggle. Students from urban colleges with larger mixed race populations aren’t necessarily individually drawn to a long drive into the deep woods with no street lights and miles away from the nearest store—too strange. Nevertheless, campus ministers and other faculty and staff committed to social justice faithfully bring college students of mixed backgrounds and races to Agape.
On one occasion, a contingent of African-American college students, mostly women from St. John’s University in Queens and St. Vincent’s College in the Bronx, came to a retreat accompanied by their young campus ministers on fire with the message of peace. We learned later that these retreatants were wary of being in the woods, and the mother of one of the students sent her with a roll of toilet paper! They thought they would be in cabins without electricity. Brave hearts, all.
During one of our discussions on nonviolence, I mentioned the theological concept of voluntary poverty as one which some Christians, and those of us at Agape, embrace as a way to identify with the suffering poor in the world. I realized, almost immediately, by the body language and facial expressions of the students that I had lost or unsettled them.
An African-American female student from Wesleyan University took issue with the term and my depiction of it as renouncing wealth voluntarily, strongly disagreeing:
Why would you want to be poor? I’ve spent my whole life being poor, wanting not to be poor, and now you (a white woman of comfortable means, not said, perhaps, but implied), want me to give up being involuntarily poor to be voluntarily poor. That’s just crazy. I’m not gonna do it.
Straightforward and honest, this student’s distress and disagreement registered with the other African-American and Latino students who nodded in agreement. I became a quick learner of the consequences of presumptuous thinking from a position of white privilege.
Chastened by this exchange and what I learned from it, I never again used the term voluntary poverty, (probably sanctimoniously—unconscious bias?) with a mixed-race group, or any group, for that matter. Instead, I acknowledged my failure to realize that coming from a position of white privilege, (even though throughout my childhood I lived in a project, in various rentals with my parents and three other siblings) required effort to find language that did not offend. In fact, I remember my own family’s involuntary poverty and the discomfort I initially had with the term.
Before social media documentation of racially motivated police killings, the Black Lives Matter movement, and university renunciation and apologies for their slave-holding histories, many of us in the peace movement began to identify the subtle stirrings of racism in ourselves. In the 80s and 90s we hadn’t found the right terminology. For that, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Black Lives Movement, which thrust into the vernacular the vocabulary of white supremacy. No longer a term just for right-wing extremists, with all of its controversial implications, we now felt its grip on us, well-intentioned white people.
We were learning about ingrained racism, hidden but identifiable in us. Even though we conceived of Agape as a departure from the mainstream consumer culture and in radical alignment with the underprivileged; we nevertheless had support from generous donors to further our efforts. We achieved the goals of growing our own food and construction of green buildings of permaculture design, through a solid economic support base and through income from teaching and creating workshops and presentations in various educational venues. A stark and necessary awakening had begun: most people of color would not have such advantages to begin a descent into what we called “downward mobility.”
It wasn’t necessary to denigrate our vision and call. Even Dorothy Day and Mahatma Gandhi were supported in their efforts at simplicity and renunciation of worldly things by wealthy donors. We quickly realized that we existed in a racist culture where a large percentage of its marginalized members, a majority of them people of color, could not “choose” what we had chosen.
A case in point is that students who come to Agape from urban poverty in the inner city see Francis House, a huge barn-like structure with cathedral ceilings, six bedrooms and three bathrooms and comment: “You live in a mansion.” Alethia, an African-American woman from Brooklyn, asked: “Is this your summer home? What do you do here?” Their message comes through: Alethia and her companions loved the tranquility (and hospitality) of Agape and Francis House, but even these benefits were profoundly removed from their reality.
We think of ourselves, maybe with too much self-regard, as attempting to live sustainably, building every structure at Agape from the ground up on donations, loans and our own savings; African-American and Latino students think of themselves as struggling to survive. The expense and benefits of solar energy and compost toilets are refined points in an elusive and unreal lifestyle to these undergrads from a totally different world from ours.
Our learning curve on racism and our own implicit bias had grown exponentially by the time we were invited in 2016 to teach at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. In a class entitled “Christianity and Politics” a majority of the students were African Americans. Greg, one of the students with whom we had struck up a rapport, was eager to share his perspectives on Agape. He listened attentively as I confided about my own sensitivities around language in talking about race.
After we began our slide presentation on Agape, depicting our all-white community living simply on a beautiful rural land, Greg raised his hand and asked: “Do you mind if I offer some gentle push-back?” Then, he politely and firmly stated: “African-Americans have no real concept of upward mobility. We are just trying to survive.” The other black students and their white professor heard Greg pointedly ask: “How does your lifestyle in the country, miles away from urban poverty, speak to us?”
Greg was teaching us once again that when we talk about downward mobility, people of color who have been discriminated against and robbed of the benefits of this culture don’t identify. We are going downward because we went upward given our whiteness and the advantages our skin color offered. We were people of white privilege, desiring to relate to a national racial divide, but our efforts did not speak to the experience of black communities.
We gained many insights from our sole African-American intern in our years as community, Edgar Hayes, who has been part of Agape for over 20 years and currently serves on Agape’s Mission Council. As an intern, Edgar offered a disturbing view of his life as a black male to a large group of college students including a contingent of mostly African-American women undergrads.
He shared that frequently when he passed white women on the street they often clutched their purses, moved quickly past him, or even to the other side of the street. He engendered fear in people he didn’t know, and the result was demoralizing to him. His comments elicited a discussion of white stereotypes of black men in society. Everything Edgar said resonated deeply because he was an African-American who grew up poor in New York. He framed the discussion, not us.