Tuesday, April 28, 2015

'Praying with Our Feet' by Young Adult Volunteer AmyBeth Willis

Originally Published in the April 2015 edition of Presbyterians Today in her column 'A Young Adult Volunteer's Journey.' Watch for her next column in the May edition of Presbyterians Today.

In early December I marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in the chilly air, joining thousands of others shouting: “We can’t breathe! We can’t breathe!” Marching alongside me were two YAV alumnae who attend Union Presbyterian Seminary and Marranda Major, another YAV in Washington. The march was one of numerous demonstrations across the nation that day to protest the deaths of black men at the hands of police officers. Together, we were praying with our feet.

YAV Alum Lauren Voyles and YAV Marranda Major
march for racial justice.
This was my second march in DC; my first came the day after Michael Brown’s killer, officer Darren Wilson, was not indicted. I was so rife with grief and anger that I needed to act. Two YAV alumnae and I marched through the city that evening, fusing our anger, frustration, and sense of loss with that of hundreds of others. During the march, I became aware that my anger comes from empathy, not experience. My white skin allows me to trust that a police officer won’t shoot me for merely walking down the street.

The Washington DC Young Adult Volunteer board decided that the YAV house should be in a neighborhood that reflects DC’s demographics, meaning that we six white women stand out on our block. The growing Black Lives Matter movement has reinforced our commitment to engage our neighbors. Do we know them beyond an occasional hello? Are we making a point to talk with them about their life experiences?

Black Lives Matter also inspired us to spend one of our community days discussing how civil rights leader Willie Baptist’s thoughts on nonviolent movements relate to today’s movement for racial equality. We were concerned about the mainstream media’s apparent bias against the current movement and therefore committed to reading news from perspectives of people of color. We discussed how to be white allies to the movement, particularly as young adults of faith.

Each of our placements touches on racial inequalities in this country: Emily Powers and Mallory Price work primarily with older black men who live on the streets. Marranda’s work with NEXT Church emphasizes the need for racial dialogue in the church. Emily Wilkes, a Lilly Fellow, engages mostly white youth at the Pilgrimage, a Presbyterian ministry of service learning, in discussions about race and urban poverty. The wide range of public policy issues that Jenny Hyde and I advocate for--through the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness -- are impacted by race.

After seeing the movie Selma, we reflected on the power of ordinary people to effect change. In 1965 in Selma, Alabama, people our age were at the helm, risking their very lives. John Lewis was 25 when he was almost beaten to death on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. His example, alongside thousands of others, beckoned us to question how much we were willing to sacrifice.

Our community has begun to learn about issues of affordable housing in our neighborhood through a local tenant organizer. The lack of access particularly affects people of color. On February 6, we toured our neighborhood, learning about the struggles to keep rents low. The next day, we attended the "Housing for All" rally in downtown DC to push for affordable housing in 2015.

In the coming months, we Young Adult Volunteers in the nation's capital will continue to discover what it means to pray with our feet, our voices, and our lives as we seek to live faithfully into our calling to "love mercy and do justice." Will you join us?