White Like Me

By Ciara Rowley

I’ve been thinking a lot about my white skin lately.

Not that it hasn’t been a focal point in my life before. When I lived in China, my white skin was an instant claim to fame. I made friends, got free drinks and took countless photos with strangers because of my exotic white skin. Sometimes, people assumed I couldn’t understand what they were saying (which was usually true) or that I was lost or confused (also mostly true), but most of the time my white skin gave me blatant, shameless privilege.

But here in Atlanta, and especially in my neighborhood of Peoplestown, my white skin often feels like a barrier.*

In Peoplestown’s not too distant past, our neighborhood was a multi-racial, mixed-income community, with stores, shops and a theater. However, in the 1960s, the interstate, and later the Atlanta Braves stadium, decimated the community, physically dividing the community and tearing down homes. These changes did not happen without a fight, and city planners were met with riots and protests from residents, fostering Peoplestown pride and empowerment. While the community organizing had some voice at the negotiation table, the urban renewal projects had lasting, devastating effects.

Today, Peoplestown is the home of many of same families who lived here for generations. They know firsthand the glory and the struggles of our neighborhood. Our community is largely African-American, and because of the interstate construction, cut off from downtown commerce and largely under-served.

But for many, the greatest threat to the culture and sustainability of their community is gentrification. Newcomers: middle class white people moving in and demanding this neighborhood look like the ones they came from. And demand they do. I’ve read rude, racist comments on the neighborhood Facebook page from new, white homeowners. I’ve heard my white neighbors plan to send health inspectors to shut down old, dirty corner stores, the only place residents can buy food for three miles, because they sell loose cigarettes. I’ve witnessed people with my skin disregard the experiences and opinions of older, respected African American residents at community meetings.

And I wonder, when my Black neighbors see my white skin, do they think I’m them? Am I really making myself available to be known, to be understood? Am I making an effort to know and understand my neighbors, Black and White alike? What is my role in building the Peaceable Kingdom in Peoplestown? Or does the problem come when white outsiders think they have a role in African American communities, when we assume we have “the cure”?

*This is not to say that I do not recognize my white privilege. I know that I am more likely to get hired, less likely to get pulled over and can find more role models who look like me in the mainstream media than People of Color.

To learn more about Peoplestown and the history of its residents, visit The Peoplestown Project.

Partnering with God

By Ciara Rowley

Sometimes, the most difficult part of my job is helping kids with their homework; after all, I haven’t had to do long division or give examples of homophones since I played with troll dolls (you know trolls, right? You rub their hair for good luck?). I like to think it’s a lesson in humility and patience, for me and the children. They stare at me, wide-eyed and expectant, while I try to remember how to divide fractions: do you have to have a common denominator? Why do the words “cross multiply and divide” come to mind, and what do they mean? I consult the internet and say a quick prayer to God: “Dear God, please give this child more competent teachers than tutors.”

Sometimes, the hardest part of my job is leading children liturgy. During the Spanish service, I take all the kids out of the chapel and bring them into the room to bring the Gospel to their level. But how do I bring the story of the wedding feast to a group of preschoolers? The Kingdom of Heaven is like this: a king invites everyone to a wedding, but one of the guests isn’t dressed properly, so he beats him to death. “I think God is telling us we need to wear a pretty dress to parties,” one the kids suggests. “And it’s always good to be respectful at a party, and help clean up,” another adds. The Bible: A Modern Kids’ Guide to Social Affairs. Maybe so. Your guess is as good as mine.

Sometimes, I struggle most with the behind-the-scenes elements of my job: helping the director write grants, recruit supporters, and maintain social media. I have to put on my business slacks, warm-up my professional, adult phone voice and become smarter than my laptop (no easy feat, I assure you). I have made shady deals with the complex copy machine in the office, offering my firstborn son in exchange for properly scanning, printing and copying everything I want on the proper paper, in the correct order. I built a website, edited the volunteer training manual and once (with the help of my dear friend Google Translate) summarized the life of Saint Edward in Spanish. Most of the time I’m quite certain I’m in over my head.

But God is using me anyway.

That lesson really is the most beautiful thing about my site placement, Path To Shine®. Lesley-Ann, the director, built PTS because she felt a call from God to do so. She is not an educator, has no nonprofit experience and doesn’t speak Spanish. She always says, “When you say ‘yes’ to the call, and partner with God, good things happen. All the success of this program has been the work of the Holy Spirit.” And so part of my journey this year has been learning to listen to Holy Spirit, to pay attention to my intuition and to trust in God. I’ve learned to ask for help, to try things that I could very well fail at, and to look for success in the smallest things. I’ve had to let go of some of my ego, and to my own idea of what “success” looks like, but through that process I’ve grown closer to God. And I’m excited to see where that intimacy leads me next.

No Cash Prize

By Ciara Rowley

All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord's Supper), and to prayer. Acts 2:42 (NLT)

Why would a group of college-educated young adults devote a year to service and discernment in the name of God? After all, Millennials have a bit of a reputation for being self-serving and lazy. For me, one of the greatest gifts I get out of my service is community.

Community- (n)

  1. a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.
  2. a group of men or women leading a common life according to a rule.
  3. a television comedy series created by Dan Harmon

I was raised as an only child of a single mother. I spent most of my childhood playing Barbies, reading and making kind, but rather dull, imaginary friends. There are lots of great things about being an only child like Christmas morning(!) and never having to share the bathroom when I was getting ready for school. But sometimes it can be lonely, and I always longed for things like “family game night” or dinners around the table talking about our days.

The community I am a part of with The Road is what I always imagined having a big family would be like. We share meals, worship, work through problems, argue, binge on baked goods, and explore Atlanta together. Our home (even in the still, numbing snow days) is a respite where we can be ourselves and feel loved because of it. I can ask stupid questions, make ridiculous claims and make fart jokes without fear of eye rolls or judgments. I can relax and shed my layers. I know that I can let my guard down and be myself. As a Road Fellow, I gained a community where it okay to admit your flaws and show off your talents.

I learn so much from my housemates. Maris has taught me I really do like brussel sprouts. Carlton taught me how to dance. Addie has taught me Cassey Ho’s workouts are tough; I’m not just being a baby. Alex has taught me not all frat guys are shallow or stupid. Danny has taught me you can still make pretty decent bread without a recipe. And Chelsea has taught me the Midwest is full of good-looking people. Together, we have learned the value of being open, listening and finding God. I don’t feel as if I’m competing with the amazing folks in house, rather we are all growing and exploring together.

So why would someone want to spend a year with six strangers without a television camera or competition for a cash prize? Family dinners. Dance parties. Affirmations. Compline. Push-up pact. Compromise. Early morning talks. Frisbee games. Long walks. Super Bowl parties. Understanding. Burrito night. Quiet conversations. Impromptu singing. Laughter. Group workouts.  Morning prayer. Private jokes.

And Unconditional Love.