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Winning the Unfair Canoe Race

Writer Al Hsu tells this story:

I grew up in an affluent community that was something like 94 percent white. During high school, I went to a Christian leadership program at a camp in the woods. One day, we had a canoe race. My team was in a canoe with two paddles. But another canoe was given only one paddle. Another didn’t get any paddles; they had to use their hands. And another group didn’t even have a canoe; they had an old, leaky rowboat.

The race started, and my canoe zipped across the lake, racing smoothly. I looked back and noticed that the other teams were behind--far behind. The folks in the rowboat had found a tree branch they were trying to use as an oar to pull them along. My canoe won the race, and my team sat and watched, waiting for the rest to come in.

Afterward, we had a group time to debrief. My team was happy that we had won. Some of the others laughed about the accommodations they had made to try to compete. And some were just frustrated and mad at the exercise.

The counselors asked my winning team, “Why didn’t you go back and help the others?” I didn’t get it. I said, “I thought we weren’t supposed to. We were given two paddles, so we used them and won the race.” I figured there was a reason that the others had disadvantages, and they were supposed to figure out what to do.

It wasn’t until the following summer, when I went on an urban ministry trip, that I started to get it. We were in an underprivileged community struggling with poverty, drugs, crime. Leaders gave us some background about the realities of redlining and how structural systems caused injustice, and I realized in a visceral way that this was not right. This was not what God intended for the world. That dislocation and displacement in a community just ten miles from my suburban home, helped me change.

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