Sunday, March 25, 2012

Back again - Kurt Nelson

The group has returned to Dartmouth.  Happy, tired, and more-or-less healthy.  I'm a bit overwhelmed by the experiences we've had and the people we've met.  And I'm consistently inspired by the passion, dedication and community of our group.

Without a doubt, I'm happy to be home.  Ready for my nice, quiet bed.  Delighted to see my family, and rest, and walk my dog.  I'm excited to see spring unfold up north as we did around DC.   But as we put the nation's capitol in our rear window, I couldn't help but feel a little sad as well.

On the one hand, I'll miss this group.  They affirmed me in my calling and in the educational models we use.  They inspire me to keep at it.  And I quite simply enjoyed being around them for such long, focused, unadulterated stretches of time.

And on the other hand, I still wonder if I'm doing enough to counter the vast challenges of poverty in our nation and world.  When I stay up at night, it's because I worry if my work is direct enough, bold enough, and radical enough.  Given the immense problems of our country and world, is it okay for me to live such a comfortable existence?

And so as I drove home, in a van full of sleeping, brilliant students, I pondered my (and our) privilege. 
Privilege is a complicated thing to discuss at a place like Dartmouth.  For so many, it simply forms the backdrops of our lives.  And for others, it's a spiritual evil, which needs to be rooted out

But the most compelling definition for me was spoken by a former colleague:  Privilege is the ability to opt out.  And that's what we were doing as we drove home.    That's what we were doing when we waited to send Stephen to a doctor in a more affluent neighborhood.  That's what we were doing each evening as we sat down to a warm, filling meal.

And indeed, it's this kind of privilege that in many ways, I'd wish for the people with whom we worked.  The privilege of a modicum of autonomy and dignity and community.  The privilege of an acceptable school and hospital.  The privilege of not worrying where our next meal will come from.  The privilege of having enough of  a support structure - familial, communal, and civic - to know that the next health crisis or accident or job loss or recession won't leave one without a place to live. 

There is much joy in the people with whom we work.  Much love and community in the places that appear so bleak to the passer by.  Make no mistake, this is not gloomy work we do.  But for all the hope and possibility and love and community, it is these basic privileges that such people are lacking.  And it's hard to see.

Love and compassion demand that we, at least occasionally, opt in.  We saw homelessness and poverty.  Not simply in passing.  Not simply as a societal challenge.  But in real people, and and we empathized.  We worked on small projects to alleviate small challenges.  And we were, I think, a little broken by it.  A little changed.  We'll think more carefully about our personal choices.  We'll ponder our vocations and our avocations and how they're lived in response to the least of these.

But still, we packed up and drove away.  To return to our work and our studies.  Which is an inherently ambiguous act.

 But it is our hope and our faith that convince us that our opting in can make a difference.  We've, for better or worse, dedicated ourselves to this idea of education.  Students for these four years.  Me, for the longer haul.  And education is necessarily oriented more toward the future than the now.

And that will still occasionally keep me up, and make me wonder if I'm doing enough.  But today, there's little doubt in my mind that I'm making the right choice.  Little doubt that these 14 students and the generations before them and generations to come will have much more to offer the world than I ever could myself.

Compassion bids us to opt in to the world's troubles.  Privilege allows us to opt out.  And hope keeps us working toward the broad picture.  In our service, or communities, or education, and hopefully our whole lives.

So I close with thanks to the organizations and people with whom we've worked.  Thanks for all those - staff, donors, and the Tucker Foundation - who make such experiences possible.

And thanks especially to this group of young people.  My hope is well founded in you and your futures.   I can hardly wait to see what happens next.

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