On Trust by Lily Luo

On Trust: The Legacy of Sacred Whiteness and the Future of Life Together

Two years ago when I entered Life Together after graduating from Wellesley College, my body was already tense. Not because I didn’t know what to expect from the program, but because I knew all too well the mazes, pitfalls, and disappointments I would have to navigate in this, predominantly white, east coast, self proclaimed liberal space. After all, I had just spent the last four years both benefiting from, and being frustrated by a similar environment at my college.

Knowing this, I still chose to apply, to interview, and to accept gladly because I also saw within this space potential for a truly radical and liberatory exercise in connecting Jesus with justice, theory with practice. I was drawn to the vision of Life Together, a vision centered upon communal living, prophetic justice, and contemplative faith.

Throughout my first year with Life Together, I was incredibly enriched by the program’s focus on justice through community. I was enamored by our shared commitment to participate in a long lineage of brave Christians who spoke truth to power and radiate Jesus’ promise of divine Love.  

At the same time, my body stayed tense. That feeling I had that perhaps such a program was not made for someone like me, that perhaps there was something a little too foreign or exotic for my environment, never left my body.

Towards the end of my first year, at our May training, three fellows who identified as white from worship team including two incoming Emmaus fellows, Luke and Savannah, used a poem from Maya Angelou called Touched by An Angel. It was a beautiful poem about love and after we read over it once, they encouraged us to black out words from it in order to create it anew as our own.

During the time to share back, instead of reading something born from the assigned exercise, another white fellow, chose to call out those three fellows for cultural appropriation. In the conversation that ensued, it was clear that this one incident touched upon a deeper pain that many fellows of color around the circle had been feeling all year. Feelings of being unsupported by those in leadership, unheard in our requests, and generally tired from constantly having to navigate a space permeated by an unspoken but ever present whiteness.

During that conversation, several white fellows started crying, from what I assume to be a combination of anxiety, defensiveness, and guilt. To be honest, it was infuriating to me at the time to have to witness their tears. And if I’m being perfectly honest, perhaps I was a little jealous at their ability to be tender in a space where I had always felt the need to have my guard up. When they were pressed to explain their reactions and lack of explanation, someone shared that they did not feel comfortable speaking openly in that space the same way they did in a group they referred to as "Sacred Whiteness." What came out later was that a group of white fellows had been meeting that year in order to try and unpack their whiteness while not relying on people of color to do the emotional work for them. It seemed like a noble purpose, but the way it was announced to the rest of the group was the straw that broke the camel’s back. What particularly made it difficult was Kelsey and Lindsey’s obvious panic, which did little to reassure fellows of color that the situation was under control. In the following weeks, two of my friends who had signed on for a second year with Life Together quit, and I found myself in the difficult position of having to decide whether or not to continue as the only incoming Emmaus fellow of color.

What I did not have the energy to say then, which I will say now: It was not the meetings themselves or simply the name which struck pain, anger, and fear in the hearts of people I loved. Rather, it was the weariness of realizing that even those who were trying their best were woefully unequipped to fully excavate the dark and hidden parts of our history, as a program, as a city, and as a country. And when push came to shove, when tense moments arose, it didn’t seem like the existence of the group made a significant difference in the actions of the white fellows who participated in it.

I chose to stay on for a second year frankly because I knew too many incoming fellows of color and couldn’t imagine feeling great encouraging others to invest in a space that I was unwilling to invest in myself.  I was also deeply aware of the privilege that I had as a highly educated, light skinned, East Asian woman figuring out my own proximity to whiteness and respectability politics. I was clear about my boundaries and my expectations of the program. I was not going to be charge of “solving racism” for Life Together, and  I could not trust them unless I saw real action carried out to address the systemic issues that had been uncovered. My place was not to absolve or forgive, but rather to be a source of support for fellows of color and to deepen my own contemplative leadership.

Though my second year did not come without its own unique challenges and roadblocks, I can honestly say that I was able to do what I set out to do. And I was only able to do that because Life Together pursued partnerships with outside organizations like Mission Institute and Mystic Soul unprompted by me. It was only because Kelsey and Lindsey acknowledged what they did not know and sought support from our wider community. It was because the other Emmaus Fellows, and especially my longtime friend and partner Savannah, frequently encouraged me take a step back, to take care of myself, and stepped up to take responsibility for things beyond their scope. It was the actions, not the words, which rebuilt bits and pieces of my trust.

At the end of the day, it is hard to work day in and day out with people, to live alongside their ups and downs, and not recognize their humanity. Dare I say, their sacredness. But that realization could only come to me at my own pace, of my own volition. It could not come from the white folks' need for me to forgive them, nor could it be forced upon me by those with more institutional power. It could only come from the grace of God and through the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

Looking back on my two years, I can safely say that all my expectations were met. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I have had the highest of highs with my intentional communities, supporting each other in difficult work positions and loving on each other’s queerness. I have found a space open to feedback and experimentation and people who are learning and growing and changing all the time. I have also had to confront some hard truths about liberation, namely that if I continue to wait for white people in this country to wake up in order to feel free, I will never be liberated. And I have learned how to make beauty out of ugliness, how to take a name so harmful to the people around me and figure out a way to hold gentle but firm accountability.

As I leave my time with Life Together, I know I am leaving a place better than I found it. That together, we have continued to build upon a beautiful vision of beloved community, a vision that will be forever unresolved, unfulfilled, and unfinished. I have learned that our job is not to try and finish that work, for the world we find ourselves in is not God’s kingdom, it is our fragile and precarious human one. So, as I look towards the future of Life Together, I see tremendous hope and I anticipate tremendous failures. I feel confident that in our two years together, we have sowed the seeds for new ideas and ways of being to emerge. Whatever else comes will not come from us, but from future generations of fellows who will bring with them their own baggage, their own conflicts, and their own dreams.