I cried for a week. I don’t like a change in plans. In theory, I could have stayed the course, but I respected and admired her too much not to consider what she had to say.
The following fall, I started what would become two years of service at a Catholic service organization in Chicago. My chosen assignment was teaching English at an all-girls Catholic high school on Chicago’s Southwest Side. Those two years would drastically change the course of my life. In fact, a doctorate in theology went out the window altogether. I was changed for the better; and the catalyst for that change was learning the difference between service and solidarity.
One night, in the winter of my second year of service, my housemates and I went out to a bar on the North Side of Chicago. We came back around 11:30 p.m. (early by the standards of other twentysomethings) and not at all intoxicated. Upon exiting the train station, we passed by a group of teenage girls, just before walking through an underpass. It was snowing, windy and cold. I huddled close to my friend, arm in arm, and we shivered together.
As we exited the underpass, I felt a blunt thump on the back of my head. Thinking some snow had fallen off the underpass, I continued walking.
The next thing I remember was my face on the ground and my body lying flat on the concrete. I was taking multiple blows to the back of my head. I was being attacked.
“You pushed my friend in the snow!” I heard a girl yell.
To my knowledge, we hadn’t. And if we somehow had, it wasn’t intentional.
The blows kept coming, and I started to scream. It was one of two times in my life that I didn’t recognize the sound of my own voice.
The blows stopped once my friend pulled the girl off of me and told me to run. I ran to the nearest gas station, still screaming, crying, and begging to use the phone. The man behind the bulletproof glass looked at me coldly and said flatly, “No public phone.”
For whatever reason, I went back to the underpass. This time, the girl had begun to beat up another one of my friends, and the same friend who had freed me was trying to free her, too. Eventually, my friend tried to reason with her, and the girl’s friend tried to tell her to let it go.
I will never forget her eyes. She didn’t blink once. They were flat and angry.
I’m not sure what happened next. Eventually, we walked the three blocks back to our place. The blunt hits to the back of my head caused my lymph nodes to visibly swell — so much so that I had to lie to my mom when I returned home the following day, telling her I was coming down with the flu. Despite these being my only physical wounds, the attack left my inner self deeply wounded.
After that, I could have left Chicago. No one would have blamed me, and in talking with our program director, leaving was definitely on the table. It was my choice.
In the end, I chose not to leave.
Before the night of the attack, I floated around thinking that if I had good intentions, nothing would harm me. I thought I was immune to everything. Call it White Savior; call it whatever you want. I’m ashamed to admit I felt this way, but I have to call it what it was.
Following the attack, I realized that service had turned into solidarity. You see, the reason I loved the program I picked so much was that we not only worked in the neighborhood but lived there, too. We didn’t live somewhere else, commute in every day, and stop at Starbucks on the way. Whether we were at our jobs or at home, we were fully immersed in the community.
The benefit was that the problems people experienced in the neighborhood were not “their” problems. If something was happening in the neighborhood, whether it was violence or the city neglecting the streets, it was not their problem, it was our problem. Sure, there were some problems that didn’t directly affect us, like immigration raids and deportations, but in some ways, they did. The threat of deportation was not aimed toward “them,” but toward people who were our friends and neighbors.
Once I realized that service had turned into solidarity, I made peace with what happened to me. Who was I to think that I was immune? Didn’t my students worry about their walks home at night? Was I somehow exempt? Their worry became my worry. In the weeks following, I was very afraid to walk home, even during the day. The reality was that I was going through a sliver of what my students had experienced their entire lives.
Solidarity can start out as service, but eventually, if we let ourselves, we become entangled. Instead of serving people, it becomes spending times with friends. Instead of witnessing problems, it becomes experiencing problems.
Today, I still challenge myself to turn service into solidarity. If you look closely, examples of solidarity are everywhere. It’s the nurse who can’t focus at home because her patient is still on her mind. It’s the person who doesn’t drop coins in the can of a homeless man but instead asks him to go inside a restaurant and have a conversation, about anything. It’s a photo of students at Howard University showing their solidarity with Ferguson, Missouri, and alumna Mya White, going viral.
Where relationships are, solidarity exists. It’s not about “them” anymore. It’s about us.