True Love: Embracing the Mundane Work of Everyday Justice
The following article originally appeared on christandcascadia.com, published on February 25, 2021.
It still surprises me how radically I was changed by altering just one piece of how I see the world; it set me on a track I never imagined. While once I dreamed of pursuing a life of service and social change in far-off countries, I now live out that calling in Bend, Oregon. That’s not a complaint; my family and I actually have a pretty sweet life here. Rather, I am just making an observation that it was never my dream to work as a writer and activist in a picturesque mountain town in Cascadia. You see, according to my own grand plan, I wasn’t supposed to be living in the United States at all. I was supposed to be overseas somewhere, helping marginalized people and living out my love for God, people, and planet. However, as it turns out, the most effective way for me to do that looks a lot different than I once thought.
For most of my life, I thought I knew what it meant to love the world in the way that Jesus did. When I was growing up as a pastor’s kid in a conservative evangelical church, I thought “love” meant using my understanding of Truth (with a capital “t”) to save people’s souls. When I fell in with a more progressive crowd as a young adult, my understanding of love morphed into the idea of leveraging my privilege to “save” marginalized and vulnerable people from injustice. It wasn’t until a decade later, after years of uncomfortable unlearning and painful introspection, that I began to develop a more nuanced understanding of Christ-like love.
In 2015, my husband and I moved our two small kids from San Diego to Seattle so I could go to graduate school to study international community development. In my plan, a master’s degree was the launching pad into the future I’d longed for since I was 19 years old. I had set my sights on eventually landing a dream job at an inspiring global nonprofit, somewhere in the Global South no doubt, working to make life better for vulnerable and oppressed people.
Then, one night in class just six weeks into my two-year program, several ideas came together all at once and I realized that my everyday lifestyle choices as a white, upper-middle-class American woman were actively contributing to and benefiting from people’s poverty, oppression, and marginalization, both locally and globally. It was an embarrassing emotional gut-punch to realize that I was not the potential hero of the story waiting in the wings for my moment to shine, but instead, I was in many ways the unwitting antagonist. And I realized that, until I dealt with the unavoidable, deeply uncomfortable fact that I was the problem, I could not effectively love people, no matter how good my intentions were.
That night in class, this understanding clicked into place like a well-played Tetris block, and I sat paralyzed in my chair. All of the ways I’d gotten it wrong floated through my mind; the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of it all filled me with shame. I thought about how I had traveled to African countries to support local nonprofits caring for impoverished families—without realizing that their poverty was intensified by aid deals designed to help American-based, multinational corporations make their products so cheap that I would buy them mindlessly (which I did.) I thought about how I had supported inner-city ministries—while simultaneously contributing to inner-city problems by pulling my kids out of their districted, majority-Hispanic school and putting them in a majority-white charter school a few miles away instead. I thought about the money I had donated to environmental organizations to plant trees—while blithely buying cheap polyester clothes that would end up in an incinerator in the Philippines, poisoning the air of people whose island homelands will be underwater in the next few decades of global warming. And I thought about the passionate articles I had written about gender equality and women’s empowerment—all the while attending a church where women are not allowed to preach from the pulpit or hold the highest positions of leadership.
By failing to properly understand my role in the world, I had cast myself as the hero of the story. I was focused on the ways I was using my privilege, wealth, and power to contribute to social solutions—while completely overlooking the ways in which my privilege, wealth, and power were contributing to the problems and perpetuating systemic injustice. This meant that if I really wanted to love and serve impoverished, oppressed, and marginalized people around the world, I wouldn’t be going overseas after all—I would need to stay home, and work hard to stop impoverishing and oppressing them in the first place.
Even as I became convinced of this, there was deep resistance in me to the idea of staying. It didn’t feel as satisfying, and I wanted to feel like I was helping—in big, adventurous ways. Yet deep down, I knew: That’s not love.
Love is not self-seeking and doesn’t decide the best way to help people based on what makes it feel good. Love does not dishonor others by “helping” them without acknowledging or addressing the ways it contributed to and benefits from their pain. Love is not easily angered by the idea that despite its best intentions, it is unwittingly contributing to global violence. Love, in our modern, globalized world, is patient and seeks long-term, systemic solutions to long-term, systemic problems. Love is kind and doesn’t use its money or privilege to prop up systems of injustice. Love does not envy, is not proud, and does not boast about how it saves the world. Love keeps no record of wrongs and does not ignore the insight and expertise of others because they disagree on politics. Love does not delight in evil and rejoices in the truth, no matter how difficult it is to face. Love always protects by seeking to prevent violence instead of positioning itself to catch those who are chewed up and spit out by violent systems. Love always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres in the face of injustice towards a more just and equitable world. Love never fails to leverage its power to dismantle the system that gave it power in the first place, rather than using that power to play the savior.
The truth is that loving the world in this way is hard. It’s humbling, overwhelming, and doesn’t yield quick results. Yet I’ve come to understand that this is the only kind of love that makes life truly worth living. There is a fullness that comes with striving to use every moment and every choice to push toward true peace and justice. It turns every little mundane piece of life into a mission—and into a potential action in favor of a more beautiful and just world.
Grocery shopping becomes an opportunity to fund sustainable agriculture practices and contribute to the health of our planet. A playdate for my kids turns into a moment to discuss the best anti-racist educational resources for children. Voting in my local election becomes a way to help bend the arc of history in my community toward justice. Attending school turns into an opportunity to talk with administrators about increasing educational equity at their institution. Local vigils and protests become an expression of solidarity with my neighbors who experience injustice. And going to church becomes a chance to lean into the messy pursuit of a more sacrificial, more nuanced, more every-day kind of Christ-like love.
From my home in Bend these days, I mostly do behind-the-scenes, sometimes mundane advocacy work to try to change unjust systems. I run an organization called Sparks & Matches that helps women like myself to understand how our cultural norms, social systems, and consumer habits deeply affect vulnerable people both locally and globally. Yet as unglamorous as such work can be, it is also work that is good—and work that is true. Understanding love in this more complex, globalized way has changed me, and fundamentally altered the way I see the world. Seeking to live out such love has set my life on a new and unexpected track—one that is challenging, but finally feels effective. And even if I am sometimes overwhelmed by the hugeness of my vision set against the smallness of my tasks, I am convinced it is the very best way that I can act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God.
Courtney Christenson is a writer, activist, and founder of Sparks & Matches—an organization that helps women embrace and leverage their power as social changemakers. Courtney graduated from Northwest University's MAICD program in 2017. Today, she lives in Bend, Oregon with her husband and two daughters where they adventure often, seek intentionality, and explore what it means to live and love well.