A homeless college professor sounds like an oxymoron, but it is not as uncommon as you migh think. There are many out there who have masters and doctoral degrees who live in their vehicle and teach adjunct classes at institutions of higher learning. Being a part time professor is something that typically does not bring in the big bucks. Each person who encounters this situation has their own story, and if you have read my previous blogs, you might have some familiarity with mine. It intersects with another common reason for homelessness – commonly called “mold homelessness.” My wife has Lyme Disease, and like many with this disease, she has severe toxic reactions to mold. Because of this, we have had times where we had to live in campgrounds in various county parks. Sometimes in tents, sometimes in cabins, and later in our converted cargo trailer. I want to note that “homeless” does not necessarily mean “on the street,” and we were never on the street, though we have had to spend the night in our vehicle on a few occasions. At present, we live in a motel, with a regular monthly rent. Living in a motel still qualifies as homeless by a technical definition, but it feels nothing like homelessness after what we have experienced, and our current situation is a lot more like living in a studio apartment. If you want to understand more about Lyme Disease and the intersection of mold toxicity and mold avoidance, I recommend the blogs of Ana Harris, this is not the main thing I want to talk about here. No, I want to tell you some things I have learned about perception and prejudice, in the hopes that they might provide just a little help in contemporary discussions of prejudice.
“Perception and Prejudice” sounds like a book co-written by Jane Austen and Bishop George Berkeley. As amazing as such a work would be, unfortunately, Jane and Bishop Berekely lived in different times. So instead of riveting dialogues between Elizabeth Bennet and Philonous, the reader must be content with thoughts from little old me.
In the days before we had our trailer, we would be living in either a tent or cabin in one of San Diego county’s fine county parks. Usually in Campo or Potrero, and occasionally in Julian. This meant a good deal of moving, and a very difficult schedule at times. I was working for Starbucks, as well as teaching. In busy camping seasons, we could not always have a site or cabin for more that a couple of days before having to move to another. We were driving a Nissan Sentra then, which could not carry everything we needed for our survival in the cab and trunk, so we purchased a roof bag, with which I would load many of the lighter items. By God’s grace, we were always able to work around my schedule so that “moving days” were days that I actually had time to go through the arduous process of moving. I say “I” because Andrea was often too sick to help, though she would any day that her health allowed.
So let me paint two different pictures. On non-moving days I usually taught college classes in the morning, and worked at Starbucks at night. I would wake early in the morning, put on a nice collared shirt, dress pants and dress shoes, and head to the college. I was also usually clean shaved and my hair was always well combed. On a moving day, I would usually be wearing workout shorts or sweatpants and an old t-shirt. While I would comb my hair, I did not use gel on these days, so it would flop down like it does. I also did not bother to shave on these days.
Now we come to the point. On non-moving days, I was always treated with respect, both in looks and interactions. On moving days, I would often get looked at and treated like some kind of shady, dangerous bum. On non-moving days, I looked like an affluent man in his thirties who might live in a middle class suburban neighborhood and have a high paying job. On moving days, though clean and kind, I was looked at, and treated by many, as some kind of societal parasite. Especially when I would get out of the car with the full roof bag on top of it.
In the campgrounds, on the weekends, many who would come to stay in their fancy RVs would also look at us in a way that showed that they disapproved of our being in a nice county park. Their faces suggested that they wondered things like “what are they doing here?” Or “Why do they let people like that stay in these parks?” Of course, I can’t prove that anyone thought this, but that is what the looks communicated. There were many who did treat us with respect. There were some who took the time to talk to us and understand our story. Sadly, there were also many who made negative judgments and stuck with them.
On moving days, when I would get these looks, part of me wanted to tell people, “No, you don’t understand. I have a Master’s degree. I’m a college professor. I present research at scholarly society meetings.” Other times I had darker thoughts such as “You don’t understand, I am very angry and I know a lot of karate, you would do well to wipe that look off your face.” Instead of either response, I smiled, tried to act friendly, and started conversations where possible. Those who know me know that I am a man both tough and shallow. Yet these looks and the attitudes they revealed hurt very much. And now, I know what it is like to have someone make unfair assumptions about you.
I want to share two stories to illustrate. One comes from what was, academically, one of the best days of my life. On April 15, 2016, the regional meeting for the Evangelical Theological Society was hosted by the educational institution of which I am both an alumni and a professor: San Diego Christian College. In all the bustle of camping life and working two jobs, somehow, I had found time to write a scholarly paper to present at the meeting. At the time, we were living in Potrero County Park, my personal favorite for living, if not for hiking. Like a typical morning when I did not have to get going early (my classes were cancelled that day), I woke while Andrea was still sleeping. She often got to sleep very late for a variety of reasons, and, weather and noise permitting, would sleep in. I boiled hot water on our electric burner, made some coffee with my packets of Starbucks Via, and stretched and practiced karate katas for a couple of hours. When she awoke, we dressed up in nice clothes and took the drive on the 94 West into town for the meeting. It was a wonderfully unusual day because Andrea was feeling well enough to attend the meeting with me.
What a night! My good friend and scholar Paul Bishop presented an excellent paper on historical Gospels studies. For my part, I presented my paper on the Hermeneutics of the Revelation. It was the best attended reading I have ever had at an ETS event, with over 40 people listening (I usually average between 3 and 10). I waxed eloquent as I answered the questions that followed my reading. At the Banquet afterward, we got to spend time with one of my mentors, Dr. Ron Barnes. Dr. Barnes praised my research and told me he was proud of me. This has become all the more important because Dr. Barnes would pass away unexpectedly in less than two years.
I mention these things, not to brag (maybe a little, I guess), but to point out that a couple days later, I had another moving day. Another day of judgmental glances from people who made assumptions about who I was based on what they saw.
The second story is about some interactions with a man that was always kind to me. He worked as a ranger the County park at Lake Morena, in Campo. He often checked us in and out in the office, which meant that I usually only saw him on moving days. He was friendly and helpful, but even he had his mistaken perceptions. I know because I saw him several months after the last time we had lived in that park. Having procured our 7X14 foot cargo trailer, which we converted to living space, we were living on a rented space in Campo, not far from the park. The average day living on this property was not much different than life in the parks. In some ways, it was harder. But I happened to run into this nice ranger one day at Walmart. I was on my way home from teaching and was dressed accordingly. I said hello, and it took him a moment to recognize me. When he did, he launched into a long speech about how good I looked and how glad he was to see me back on my feet. I was not offended. I knew he was genuine. But I did find it quite humorous because our situation had not improved all that much, and I had been dressing that same way most of the days when I was still living in his park. He just hadn’t seen me in those sorts of duds.
When we are dealing in the realm of looks an attitudes, there is always a back door to make real discussion difficult. A person can always say, “oh no, I wasn’t thinking that.” “I don’t think like that.” Sometimes a person is being dishonest. Sometimes they are self-deceived. And sometimes there might be a real misunderstanding involved.
To me, one might say: “If you don’t like the way people look at you when you wear sweatpants and old t-shirts, don’t wear them.” Fair enough, but I doubt you dress up when you are moving. But there is truth here. I can change people’s perceptions by wearing something different. On the other hand, when negative assumptions are made based on someone’s race, a change of clothes provides no solution.
Soon after I started my current pastorate, I found out that a neighborhood watch group had made a complaint about a black man who was running on one of the streets. The basis of the complaint? He was black and he was running on one of the streets. The suburb where I pastor houses a large military community, and this man lived in the military housing. He was a man serving his country and staying in shape for the job. This kind of story is not uncommon. Some want to dismiss this sort of thing as “isolated incidents,” but when such occurrences number in the thousands, we are not dealing with isolated incidents.
A good friend of mine recently posted a statement of Facebook that I think many of us would do well to consider:
I’ve seen a lot of posts recently talking about Black Lives Matter vs All Lives Matter or Black people vs the police. Look, I love being Black but as far back as I remember I didn’t choose it. It’s not something I get to stop doing at the end of a work day or just quit if I feel like it. If you’re wondering why there’s a call for specially Black lives to matter I pose you this question: what do you think when you see a police officer coming towards you? Is it a fear for your life? Maybe just a fear of getting arrested? Those sound pretty illogical if you did nothing wrong, right? It’s not, it’s the hyperawareness needed to sometimes survive a police encounter when you’re Black. That’s why we say #BlackLivesMatter
Sometimes we are tempted to fall into the citadel of a black friend who has never experienced anything like this. The logic goes something like, “My friend has not experienced this, so every black person that claims such an experience must be imagining it.” I do not have statistics, but I suspect that for every black person that has not felt this way, there are thousands that have. Are we really going to suggest that this is some kind of mass delusion or “media deception?” Really? Think about the implications of what that is saying, because I don’t even have the stomach to spell them out.
Friends, I think it would be a very helpful thing for all of us to examine what perceptions we have based on certain prejudices. And examine how these perceptions and prejudices affect the way we interact with people. I don’t think anyone who ever looked me askance hated homeless people. I don’t think most of them would have articulated a philosophy that says college professors have more intrinsic value as human beings than homeless people. But that did not mean that they did not have prejudices that led to hurtful behaviors. Having gone through these experiences has helped me realize the many false assumptions I have made about others because of my own hidden prejudices. And when I say hidden, I mean “hidden from me.”
If you think you don’t have any hidden prejudices based on
false perceptions, let me encourage you to consider the possibility that you
might be wrong. Let me encourage you to pray for God to expose such prejudices
if, in fact, they exist, and show you the road to change. Repentance is a
continual need in the life of the Christian. The closer we draw to Christ, the
more he reveals sin issues that we did not know were there. Theologically, we
all know this principle, but let us carefully consider its relevance for the
current tensions our country is facing. Let us seek to be honest with ourselves
so we can better love one another.