The stifling humidity loomed over Houston on that first Friday of June. As the sun dipped into the city skyline, my housemates and I shared dinner at Discovery Green Park and reminisced about our time together in JVC. We all agreed that our visions of service changed drastically throughout the year, and this was especially true for me. While my liberal arts college education encouraged me to identify and theorize about the foundation and perpetuation of systems of oppression, JVC challenged me to stop, to humanize these abstract concepts, and to share in the frustration, sadness, and hope of my clients and the communities affected most negatively by these systems. My role as a social services intern allowed me to intimately engage with my clients in their recovery from substance use and realize that my solidarity and vulnerability with them validated all of our inherent value as human beings. Empowering them empowers all of us and strengthens our bonds of community. And yet, even after such a powerful year, I would realize later that night how much I still had to learn.
After dinner, my fellow volunteer Michael and I commuted home on the green line: a familiar route that safely carted us to work, Astros baseball games, and other adventures throughout the city. We hopped off the train and strolled home down Lockwood Street, a busy throughway only two miles from our house. Suddenly, a group of teenage boys jumped out from a side road, and the leader of the group pushed me in the chest. Pointing to the car behind us, he screamed that his friend inside had a gun and would kill us if we did not give them twenty dollars. The group of five or six teenagers converged around me and the instigator, and I stuttered out apologies as he berated me for money. Michael called the police, and the boy’s demands quickly devolved into exasperated pleas for cash. Even as I stood paralyzed by anxiety, I could see a similar panic in his eyes before he finally escaped with the rest of the group.
In the immediate aftermath of that night, I instinctually yearned for retribution for the sense of safety and dignity I thought those teenagers had stolen from me. However, my life experience in Houston instilled in me a powerful and humbling appreciation of vulnerability and solidarity for and with others. I vividly imagined the same dysfunction and lack of investment in those teenagers’ communities and schools that had failed my clients at the Open Door Mission. Weekly intakes revealed lifetimes of obstacles no person should ever face; in many cases, these men traced their histories of substance use, mental health disorders, incarceration, and homelessness back to acute instances of trauma and abuse as children and teenagers. The effects of these circumstances are devastating, even lethal. These harsh realities call for empathy and support, not anger or judgment, by me and the rest of the community.
Waves of humility continue to crash over me in the wake of that confrontation. Just when I thought that I had social justice figured out, that night served as a jolting reminder of my privilege and complacency. As I prepare for graduate school, I think about those boys, and I pray to lead a life and career that is always searching for greater understanding and shared vulnerability with them and the greater community.
Photo by Khachik Simonian on Unsplash