By Jason Ebinger, Youth Theological Initiative, January 21, 2015
Since leaving the comfortable bubble of my home in suburban Atlanta, I’ve been asked by many who I am, where I’ve come from, and what my story is. I’ve found myself in interesting places that my upbringing would not have readily brought me to. I’ve built lasting relationships with the homeless poor in Atlanta, I’ve entered jails and prisons–in handcuffs and to visit those there longer term, I now live in North St. Louis, an area my friends and family think is too dangerous, but an area that I have found to be a good home with friendly neighbors.
I am blessed with the wealth of experiences I have had and relationships that I have built. When the questions come, about who I am and how I got here, it is a difficult story to tell. It seems odd, the path was not straight; a lot is not clear. But, when I go over my life, it is almost impossible to leave out the impact that YTI had on me. My closest high school friends, who are studying capitalism, patriarchy, and self-indulgence in college (in the guise of business programs and fraternities), joke that YTI is what ruined me, “You were just never the same after that”, they say–lovingly, of course, as they can see I have taken my own path.
I guess that is true. It seems to me that I was already on this trajectory in many ways, but when I look back on my life, it is clear how much YTI shifted my thoughts and my actions. It was not until after YTI that I felt confident confronting some of the racism present at my ritzy high school. It was not until after YTI that I spent most Wednesday evenings washing the feet of homeless people, clipping their toe nails, slicing the callouses off their feet. It was not until after YTI that I began to speak out about the horrible injustices happening on a national and international scale as the result of our government’s actions.
Did I think these things before? Was I hurt by the racism that I experienced at my school? Yes, I suppose. But I didn’t think about it much. And looking back, it is clear that I didn’t think about it much because I never had the support to think about it–I could not have gone at it alone. So, maybe the first thing that YTI taught me, and maybe the most important, is the importance of community. The world is a difficult place to face in all its brokenness, and the only way to start to do this is to have a community of supporters around you. And at YTI, I did. I had mentors who were looking out for me, I made friends who I could talk with for hours. I learned how to be more open, I learned that it was ok to show myself. I learned that other people were concerned about similar issues, and I learned that there was a rich history of theologians, activists, and community organizers who I could look to for guidance in my life and work.
I did ok in school. I made decent grades; I never studied. If I was interested in the material, I’d listen. If I wasn’t, I might as well have been sitting under a tree and looking at the sky. School was only ok because of my friends and my extracurriculars. By and large, school beat the love of learning out of me. I had gone from being a kid who never stopped asking questions (about anything and everything), to a high school student in my blazer and tie feeling like there was nothing worth learning that the people around me were trying to teach. YTI helped me reclaim my love of learning and my desire and passion for seeking out teachers who would teach me what I want, in the way I want. At YTI, we sat in the classroom, but that only made sense because on other days we worked on the farm of a farmer doing great things in the city, we worked at the Open Door Community, we walked through Lullwater Park, we traveled on public transportation together, we worshipped in many different settings. YTI made real life connections with real live people to what we were learning about. I am forever grateful for being reopened to this way of learning–it has guided my life ever since. It is coming up on four years since I was at YTI. It seems like a long time ago, but it is also clear that its impacts have stuck with me through all this time. After leaving YTI, I finished high school–with my head and heart in other places. From there, I moved into the Open Door Community (a decision I never would have made and a place I might never have known without YTI). YTI brought me to Open Door, and my six months there felt in many ways like a continuation of my learning process at YTI. I then went to New Zealand. I knew no one there, but I had been linked up with a youth work organization through a friend. This too was a step that I would not have taken without the influence of YTI. I worked in an incredible cross-cultural setting, and I worked around youth justice issues that were caused primarily by underlying issues of racism and classism. YTI aided in this work through teaching me not only to engage with the issues but with the people.
From there, I was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship at St. Louis University. It was an extensive interview process, and I know that had YTI not given me a language to address issues of faith and justice I would not have been awarded the scholarship. After a year in school, I realized my need for community and moved into the St. Louis Catholic Worker community. I have continued to be engaged on campus primarily around racial issues. However, I am also involved in urban farming, and community organizing work outside of school.
It is difficult to say what my life would have been had I not attended YTI, but I can imagine that my life would fit more into the comfortable realm of my upbringing. I hope that this opportunity will continue to be available to high school students. It has guided my life and my work in the pursuit and realization of love and justice in our world.
Jason Ebinger attend the Youth Theological Initiative in 2010 and 2011.