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Taking the Next Right Step

by Jennifer L. Sanborn


September 20, 2016

Taking the Next Right Step

Jennifer Sanborn

The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this series from BPFNA!

When the streets of Ferguson were filled with righteous and raw anger over the death of Mike Brown, I lay awake at night on Twitter, following the rise of a new generation of social justice warriors. I watched as clergy colleagues traveled there with delegations from their denominations or spiritual communities; others, like me, simply pointed their virtual attention toward the site where a young black man, son, friend, and college-bound high school graduate was gunned down by police and left to lie in the streets. I felt drawn toward what was happening, but... I felt clearly called by God to do the work of racial justice in my own community, a predominantly-white, affluent, too-separated from our nearby city of Hartford suburb in Connecticut--to take whatever looked like the next right step and just keep walking.

I approached the local A Better Chance program, a residential program for young men of color who attend our local high school in order to boost their access to colleges and universities. “Could I be involved?” I asked. The board chair shared that the counselor who visited the house to help the scholars navigate interpersonal issues between them, house staff, and this often-different-from-home community had recently stepped away; with my pastoral skills and higher education background, was I interested? I said an enthusiastic yes, but I was nervous. How was I, white suburban mom, going to connect with these young, typically urban men of color?

For two years, I did so by showing up, being authentic (including admitting regularly all I did not know of the students, their lives, and their experiences), and saying over and over, “I am here for one purpose only--your success and the quality of your experience.” Over 20 years of working with college students, I’ve learned a lot about navigating the living-learning culture created in programs like ABC, and I offered to the students new ways of asking questions, expressing discontent, and managing challenging emotions. In turn, they gradually offered me their trust, and there were a few moments between us that have shaped me for the better. When my own time to step away came (by then my daughter was a high school classmate of the students and I felt increasingly conflicted about inhabiting their relational space), I was fortunate to follow friends and former colleagues into the formation of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) in the Hartford area.

My actions to that point had been largely one-offs, taken in isolation--I approached A Better Chance; I hung a “Black Lives Matter” sign on our front window; I was reading and listening to as many people of color as I could. While I had and have a strong online community of friends dedicated to racial justice, I needed to be in the room. I needed a sense of togetherness and direction and power and possibility. And at the very moment that I needed this, SURJ appeared to provide it.

At least once a month we gather as an ever-growing community of predominantly white people of all ages seeking to educate ourselves and one another, working creatively and courageously to develop public actions with the potential to awaken others (with the wise direction and partnership of local and national people of color-led organizations). I originally went to SURJ alone, meeting old and new friends when I arrived in the fellowship hall of the Unitarian Universalist meetinghouse where we gather. Then, one month, a neighbor joined me. This past month, I brought my entire family along, inviting my spouse and teen/pre-teen kids to be my partners in offering the children and youth program for the evening. It was important and different to be there as a family. I am the sole extravert in a family of introverts, and I know it was challenging for my beloveds to be in this unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable space. I was aware of my husband’s tiredness at the end of a long work day; occasionally my children’s dinner-hour hunger and natural competitiveness edged out the spirit I had hoped to create that evening. But they were there--they had shown up, and I intend for us to keep showing up there together, as often as we can.

My parents both worked for justice, but in different ways. My father, a minister with a strong public presence in all the communities he served, was more of a “take it to the streets” activist. He regularly wrote letters to the editor decrying unjust circumstances, and he missed a number of important family moments to attend vigils and marches. My mother, a teacher with deep and lasting influence on her students, used her voice and quiet power in the schools where she taught to create change. She always exercised her influence first through her children, and the one-on-one conversations we shared have stayed in my bones long after her death when I was in college. I suppose it is no accident that I am some of each of them. I believe the conversations [my husband and I] have around the dinner table are shaping two young people to look at the world with eyes that are well-aware of their privilege and their responsibility to create justice. I also believe the conversation begins there, but cannot end there; we must be in the world, learning from direct experience and shaping circumstances through direct action.

The call to work for racial justice sometimes happens in a moment, but it is not for a moment. It is for a lifetime, and so I trust I will continue to walk imperfectly and unpredictably in the direction God has called us--to create the Kingdom, Kin-dom, Community of God here on earth. I do so with gratitude to all who walk beside me.

Jennifer is a long-time member of BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz. She currently works as the admissions recruiter for Hartford Seminary in Hartford, CT and part-time pastor of Enfield American Baptist Church. She also has 20 years of experience in higher education, including five years as director of The Women’s Education and Leadership Fund at nearby University of Hartford. Jennifer previously worked as interim dean of religious and spiritual life at Mount Holyoke College, serving a global student body representing many faith and philosophical traditions. In addition to working at Hartford Seminary and pastoring a growing congregation, she is a life coach for women, serving primarily clients who are active in religious leadership. Jennifer lives in Tariffville, CT with her husband, Matt, their children, Kyra and Lucas, and two demanding and loving rescue dogs. (Bio taken from Hartford Seminary's website.)

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