“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.” St. Augustine of Hippo
We have all seen movies like Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, or Blindside, right? You know the ones, where the white outsider comes into the urban environment and saves the poor people of color from an otherwise hopeless existence. It has been described by some as “The White Savior Industrial Complex.” Hollywood loves these storylines. And so does the church.
But these kinds of stories give the false impression that people of color are just waiting for a white savior to come and rescue them from their situation. These movies might inspire on some level – it’s great that white people are concerned and eager to help – but they give a paternalistic picture of urban communities as mere recipients. They do not show the heroic community leaders that are in every urban neighborhood, people working hard with little resources and little recognition to improve their communities day in and day out. They are leaders and mentors that we have a lot to learn from. They are the real stars that we rarely hear about.
Pat is one of those people.
I met Pat at my church and I could tell she was someone with a special heart for God and people. I wanted to spend more time learning from her so I ended up quitting my job so I could do an internship with her and be more involved in my neighborhood. I asked my wife if she thought we could live off her salary so I could volunteer doing things in the neighborhood that were important but that I would never get paid for. My wife said we would make it work. I believe it’s more important who we become than what we do, so I decided to do things that would help me become the person I wanted to be rather than simply seeking out a job that paid well. I saw something in Pat that I wanted in my life. So I volunteered with her doing pastoral care at a local Christian health clinic.
While working with Pat, we visited the hospital a lot. We would go to pray with people who had been in car accidents or who had babies that were sick or even young people who had been shot. Pat would tell me stories about her visits that taught me what it meant to be a pastoral presence in a person’s life. She would rub patients’ feet who had poor circulation, make repeated trips to let people know she truly cared for them, and she would always pray with them before leaving.
I did a lot of data entry for her on the computer because the clinic was moving to an electronic system where they had to track visits. Pat could not justify spending time entering her visits in the computer when she could be spending that time with actual people. She had just the right amount of rebel in her that I’m pretty sure is essential for anyone who wants to make any real change in the world. So I entered names in the computer so she could have more face time with people that needed her care and support.
She would host a support group for people with stress, anxiety, grief, and depression. Every Wednesday we would gather with a group of people who had experienced incredible loss or who were going through unimaginable situations. Pat, who has endured her share of grief, would run the meeting like a pastor and counselor. She would speak to their hearts and to their spirits. I was there to make coffee, pick up donuts, pass around the sign-in sheet, make people feel comfortable, and just listen. Because of Pat’s experience having lost a husband and daughter, she spoke from a different place and people trusted what she said.
Many elderly women and single moms came and would share the anxiety they had trying to get by. Or they shared about horrible tragedies and losing loved ones to shootings or drugs. I started to see that poverty had an emotional as well as physical toll. As much as people needed <i.things, they also needed comfort. They needed to be heard, cared for, and consoled. The support group was a sacrament of grace for those going through the hardest times in their life, and Pat was their priest.
After class, participants would tell Pat about a need they had and Pat would not stop until it was addressed. Whether it was finding furniture for a family whose house had just burned down or helping a single mom to find a job, she was relentless. Pat is an advocate for people who have no one in their corner. We spent a lot of our time in the clinic, but my favorite times were when we went out to get a resource for someone. One time we went to deliver a wheelchair to an elderly woman who couldn’t get around. Another time we picked up boxes of donated school uniforms and took them to a family of 7 that had just moved to the neighborhood and had no money to purchase uniforms. We delivered turkey baskets on holidays to elderly folks and collected funds for families that couldn’t pay bills. Pat was not just meeting needs, she was bringing the good news of the Kingdom. She embodied God’s care, justice, and peace in ways others could tangibly feel.
Pat is connected. We would drive down the street and she would tell me the names of every single person that lived on the block. She told me when she first got the job she went around and learned about every organization and church in the community. She learned the community block by block.
Once while we were riding in the car from the hospital I asked her how she deals with all the death, tragedy, and heavy emotional issues she faces on a daily basis. She told me about her personal practices for caring for herself, like taking hot baths after really long days. She recommended a daily devotional that she starts out her day with, which I immediately picked up and started using. She taught me about being responsible to people but not being responsible for people (there’s a difference!). These were lessons that have proven to be invaluable to me in my ministry.
Pat is one of those remarkable people that gives a community hope. She tirelessly gives and gives with little regard for herself or need for recognition. She is a true inspiration.
I see so many white people coming into the city and starting new churches and ministries right off the bat. A lot of them are very cool things, too. But sometimes I think we miss out on a lot of wisdom when we do not first become learners and humble ourselves under the leadership of those who are already here. It just might be the cure for the White Savior Complex.
Being mentored by Pat and seeing the way she lives her life for others has deeply impacted me. Her life is an art of loving people and I am trying to follow her lead.
Shawn Casselberry is National Program Director and Chicago City Director for Mission Year, a yearlong opportunity for 18-29 year olds focused on intentional community, radical discipleship, and social justice in the urban context. Shawn is speaker, writer, community drumline instructor, and youth advocate. Shawn and his wife Jen relocated 9 years ago to North Lawndale, an under-resourced neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, where they are learning to be good neighbors. You can follow him on Twitter (@scasselberry).
Photo Credits: Paramount Pictures, Alcon Entertainment