The Place of Privilege in the Kingdom of God

school lunch

We don’t know what we don’t know—

unless our eyes are opened.

A first realization: the cafeteria lunch ticket.

It was on display for all to see when I handed it to the lunch lady. No way to be discrete. Its bright color marked me as eligible for a free lunch. Sometimes sheer embarrassment over being known as poor kept me from eating lunch. My free lunch ticket, a stigma. Of course if I were really hungry, and knew I’d return home to an empty refrigerator when I stepped off of the school bus, I swallowed my pride and presented the lunch ticket.

Another indication.

Upon returning from Puerto Rico in fifth grade, someone asked me if I was black.

Until then, I didn’t know I looked different from others even though now I am a bleached out Puerto Rican—blanquita . And I didn’t know I had an accent until my best friend’s mother told me I did. Now, I am told I have no accent.

But it was as an employee at a Christian college that I became acutely aware of the economic, cultural, and racial disparity in my environments.

After Brenda Salter-McNeil, a thought leader in the area of racial reconciliation, led a large room full of people in an activity dubbed the Race Race, everything made sense. The starting line was masking tape laid down across the middle of the room. Dr. Salter-McNeil asked a series of questions. Questions like: “Did you go to summer camps?”, “Did your parents attend college?”, “Did you qualify for free and reduced lunches?”, “Are you a woman?”, and “Are you an ethnic minority?” Our answers determined whether we took steps forward or backwards.

At the end of fifty questions, I was at the back of the room with one of my best friends, an African-American woman. Dead last. Way behind the starting line, not to mention the finish line.

The winners of the Race Race? White males. They were up front with their hands in the candy jar—an iconic symbol of the bountiful privilege they were born into and experienced but did not earn.

When everyone turned to see who was last, I stood there humiliated. This time my answers to the questions, not my lunch ticket, exposed me as a have not.

Until then, I had no idea how underprivileged I was. I thought I was doing well. However, my ethnicity, gender, and economic status of my family of origin were not under my control but affected everything. I was born into last place.

Until that moment, I didn’t know it.

But that day, I realized that even with my graduate education and ability to think, I was still on society’s, and the American church’s, low end of the totem pole (even though by then I had learned many of the hidden rules of the Middle-class).

No wonder I’ve often felt like a misfit.

Indeed, I used to despair over my lot in life, over the hand that I was dealt. I often begged God to explain why the cards were stacked against me as a Hispanic-Latina woman born into a poor family that was plagued by the effects of mental illness.

I used to despair, but no longer. I finally realized that the gospel is especially good news for the poor, people on the lowest rungs of society. Though I am haunted by the effects of generational poverty, in many ways, I am rich.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:3 (KJV).

People like me and my kind may be deemed poor and stupid, and not worthy of a second glance. Not worthy to be anybody’s teacher. But if our poverty and deprivation produce in us a poverty of spirit, if our humiliations produce in us humility and dependence upon God, then we shall be exalted now—in our lives with God—and in the life to come.

“These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word”, Isaiah 66:2 tells us.

See, I can now rejoice.

I am starting to deeply believe that Jesus can use me, my life, my humiliations, and engagement with Scripture, theology, and Church history to teach the Church. Maybe I’ll be one in a long line of the foolish and weak ones in the world that God uses to confound the supposedly wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). Because really, I have no thing, nothing at all in which to boast, except that by God’s grace and mercy, I am coming to know and understand him better (see Jeremiah 9:23-24).

It’s not just white Upper and Middle-class male theologians and pastors that God favors.

My lack of privilege doesn’t disqualify me from kingdom work. God sees and acknowledges me (Genesis 16:13). So, I am throwing my lot in with the Virgin Mary, with Jesus, and the others who by the world’s standards, are disinherited. With her and with them I marvel and sing:

My soul glorifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful

of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me—

holy is his name.

(Luke 1:46-49)

Amen.

Marlena Graves

Marlena Graves

Marlena Graves is the author of A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness (Brazos Press 2014). Hearts and Minds Books awarded it the Best Book on Spiritual Formation by a First Time Writer (2014).Marlena is also a bylined writer for Christianity Today and Our Daily Journey (Our Daily Bread Ministries). Her pieces have also appeared in Relevant and many other venues. She is the Minister of Pastoral Care at her church and an instructor at Winebrenner Seminary. She lives in NW Ohio with her husband and three daughters.
Marlena Graves

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  • Karen Gonzalez

    Marlena, this is so good! I’m thankful for your voice–you’re an effective and powerful communication (and probably a fantastic preacher, too). This spoke to me on so many levels. Thank you!!

  • So thankful that you have found your voice and that your song is a hymn of praise to the God who made you:
    unique, precious, gifted. May your story be the down beat that brings other women into full-voiced participation in God’s Kingdom-choir.

  • Marlene, how I love this! And how fitting to end with part of the Magnificat! “I am starting to deeply believe that Jesus can use me, my life, my humiliations, and engagement with Scripture, theology, and Church history to teach the Church. Maybe I’ll be one in a long line of the foolish and weak ones in the world that God uses to confound the supposedly wise.” Amen to this. Thank you so much for sharing your heart with us! May God bless you! And I second what Michele said!

  • Alia_Joy

    I love this post so much. I resonate with your story as someone who grew up with seasons of poverty, who came in last when all the questions were asked and who is still undereducated and struggles with mental illness. It is true, the lack doesn’t disqualify us. It is the deficit which God so gently fills. Thank you for sharing your words here, Marlena.

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