Reflection on Power
Written by Winnie Verghese
EUIP Alum and ESC board member
The Decalogue begins with this commandment: I am the Lord your God. I brought you out of Egypt. You shall have no other God, than the God of your liberation. Okay, slight paraphrase.
You’ve probably seen this definition: racism = prejudice + power. It works for all kinds of “isms.” This formula of words illustrates the idea that the “power over” that some institutions and individuals have over the lives of others is the making of systems that seem to lock us into perpetual injustice no matter what we do with our personal power to act ethically.
Understanding our history, the contexts of our communities, and our power to bear witness and be a part of the transformation that is the Good News of Jesus is at the heart of the Episcopal Service Corps.
The church is an institution, historically, a powerful one. The social service networks in our communities are institutions, some of them also quite powerful. The dynamics of our cities and how they are organized speak to how power works in our communities. We have choices as individuals to stand alongside those who are vulnerable to institutions, as we find ourselves with power in some of these institutions.
When I was a corps member in Inglewood, CA, in 1994, I walked into the grocery store parking lot across from our house to catch the attention of a woman who was registering people to vote. I wanted to register to vote at my new address. I wasn’t sure how to fill out the part of the form that asked about my party affiliation. In California you have to select a party if you want to vote in that party’s primary. I think you could chose: Democrat, Republican, Green and maybe Libertarian.
I paused for a moment to decide whether to pick a party at all. I’m from Texas where you don’t have this option. The woman asked what the problem was, and I told her. She said, “Oh, honey, just put Democrat. Poor people are Democrats.” I was so surprised by her words, and my internal reaction to them, that I did what she said.
I left Inglewood when my intern year was over. While I was there I was in some ways a tourist to the daily challenges of poverty, but that day I was a brown skinned person in the parking lot of a (rather nasty) grocery store in a poor neighborhood. Why shouldn’t it be assumed I was at home? The truth was I had personal power and privilege to choose to be there for a year to try to feel in my bones what poverty really meant, and here was someone telling me I fit right in.
I hope ESC will mean that each generation of Episcopalians has an opportunity to bear witness to something very unfamiliar in their young adult years in a context that challenges who they think they are and question why we make peace with oppression.