The Gift of Showing Up

© Alison Hancock

Our lessons in faithfulness can come in unexpected forms. When I joined the board of a local urban farming project years ago, on one level I was building on dual passions for urban agriculture and connections across barriers that divide us. On another level, I was practicing discernment and listening for where I was called.

It has been quite a journey. The farm, then a White-led initiative in a Black neighborhood, was full of everything that is right and everything that is wrong in our society. It has been a rich and wonderful experience, and nothing about it has been easy.

As we struggled with the problems of any small nonprofit, with scarcity on all fronts, we also found ourselves dealing with gut-wrenching staff issues centered around gender and race, all within the context of an unfulfilled vision of local leadership and ever-present second-guessing about the appropriateness of White people like me being involved at all.

I had to look hard at the ugliness of racism as it affected all of us in so many ways. Several years in, I found myself leading the board because no one else would do it, and we all knew I could. I felt the weight of the farm’s survival heavy on my shoulders as I tried to nurture new board members and staff of color, follow the leadership that was there, and hold everything together in the face of unrelenting challenges.

Our commitment to center the leadership of the farm back into its neighborhood led to a shared decision a few years ago to not make a new administrative hire until we could hire locally. This  led to more work for our one farmer, a greater burden on the few remaining board members, and an increasingly stressed situation for both program work and fundraising.

We’ve done amazingly well under the circumstances, made good decisions, and survived. The potential remains enormous, and I’ve never regretted the choice to put so much time and energy into nurturing this jewel of an urban farm. I’ve loved being around all the people who love it, and have known that it was a gift in my life. One fellow board member, who clearly values me but just doesn’t reassure or comfort my Whiteness, has shone a light on parts of me that might otherwise have gone unexamined. Ours is a hard-won relationship to treasure.

More recently there has been a turnaround—with new local board members of color, some very successful grant writing, and a vision on the part of our new board leader to adopt a cooperative model. That first newly expanded and energized board meeting brought more unexpected emotional work for me. Now, rather than feeling overwhelmed by just trying to keep the farm afloat, I was overwhelmed by feelings that I was no longer needed—clearly the wrong color, in the wrong place.

I fought my way, slowly and painfully, to the perspective that it’s not my job to act preemptively on the assumption that I’m not welcome, even if I’m White, even if it would feel easier to give up and disappear. It’s not mine to make assumptions about how others perceive me. That’s their job. My job is to keep showing up as fully as I know how, despite my feelings, and to let others take the lead in evaluating my contribution and working out the racial composition of the board going forward. At some point, everything I’m doing now may well be adequately and more appropriately done by others, but I can still be fully present till then. I can continue to treasure the relationships that have been built through struggle over the years. I can even make new ones.

In the midst of all this hard work—emotional and otherwise—I had the opportunity to support a young climate activist friend. His vision, commitment, and initiative had put him in the center of the national climate movement, with all its contentious issues around turf, leadership, and direction, and with opportunities to make race-related mistakes at every turn. He was engaged in a delicate and racially charged alliance-building project and glad for the opportunity to get some attention.

What became abundantly clear was that living through the challenges in my own little corner of the world had set me up to understand the challenges he was dealing with. By bringing my own hard-won experience to the table, knowing in my bones something of what he was going through, he could rest in feeling seen and understood. He could use the space I was able to offer to look at his hardest feelings, regain perspective, and think freshly about next steps. As I stretched to bring everything I had to support this man I loved, doing work that mattered deeply to me, I was thankful beyond words for the gifts I had been given by the farm.

We rarely know where a leading will take us. But this experience has taught me something about being faithful, about listening for how I am called, about not giving up when times get hard, about staying alert for ways I can grow in faithfulness, about not laying the work down until the call to do so is clear, and about being open to receiving unexpected and priceless gifts.

Pamela Haines

Pamela Haines, a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, has worked for 20 years building leadership for change in the early childhood system. She is a writer with a passion for justice, and her latest book is Money and Soul: Quaker Faith and Practice and the Economy.

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