A D.C. Double Take

By Sophie Kaiser A HNGR intern field report from the nation's capital.

Kaiser at Little Lights' oldest site, before masking up for students and other staff to come in. Photo: Sophie Kaiser.

When I say I’m interning in Washington D.C., most people assume that my work is in a senator’s office or with a political campaign. I’ve gotten used to shaking my head and explaining that I’m instead interning with a small urban ministry. This three-word descriptor of my work doesn’t even begin to convey the divide between the political world that most people picture when they think of Washington and the realities of the world in which I live and serve. 


This semester, I’ve been interning with Little Lights Urban Ministries, an organization that cares for students and families living in public housing communities at four different sites throughout southeast DC. They accomplish this through a range of programs including educational after-school programs, one-on-one mentoring, job support and a landscaping micro-enterprise. During the pandemic they’ve continued programs virtually or with limited in-person gatherings. They’ve also distributed meals and diapers to families. Aside from helping to plan, support and lead in different areas of our programs, I’ve also worked as part of the Race Literacy team, which serves hundreds of participants across the country by offering virtual courses in understanding racism in the United States and how to respond as Christians. 


Like my fellow HNGR peers, I had originally planned to intern outside of the U.S. I would have been working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia with a faith-based organization that serves vulnerable children through a mentorship ministry. When our entire cohort transitioned to looking for domestic options, I was thankful to find Little Lights, an organization whose work I was equally excited about.

A residential view in Washington D.C. Photo: Sophie Kaiser.

The number of similarities between the mission of these two ministries is striking. Both place a heavy emphasis on relationships and empowering community members to care for the needs of children around them instead of placing their focus on outsourcing to meet material needs. Most notably, they both emphasize a holistic approach to ministry; they believe the work of loving our neighbors involves understanding the context and structures they live within and helping to meet their spiritual, sociological, relational and material needs.


On an average morning, I’ll walk to one of our sites to help lead Learning Hubs, a program that provides, for a limited number of students, a safe, quiet space to do online school or receive support for their assignments. My coworkers and I help students log onto their class websites, figure out their Internet connection or just muster up the focus and motivation to finish their homework. After Learning Hubs, I head home to sign onto Zoom for our virtual programs, which include either academic tutoring or Bible studies to promote social and emotional learning for our students. I also handle emails and admin work for Little Lights and the Race Literacy team throughout the day. 


Although the pandemic has sadly limited the amount of in-person interaction I have with community members, during Learning Hubs I have the rich gift of getting to know our students and enjoying the humor of our part-time staff, who also live in the area. It is a great privilege not only to laugh with these people but also to hear their stories of struggle and strength, particularly from this challenging year. What has struck me more than anything about this community is how close-knit it is, with relatives and neighbors deeply involved in each other’s lives and quick to offer support in times of crisis. 


In particular, I’ve been struck by the resilience and strength of the mothers I’ve met. I’ve heard stories about mothers, who are already caring for multiple children, agreeing to take in nieces, cousins and grandchildren whose parents have passed away or lost work from COVID-19. I see moms who are quick to laugh, dance or play with their kids while also being strong and persistent in fighting to make sure their children are getting access to the resources they need to flourish. 

Sophie and her host mom after decorating for Christmas. Photo: Sophie Kaiser.

One of my favorite moments was hearing one of our moms share about how she keeps advocating for access to the manipulatives — physical objects for hands-on learning — and technology her girls need to do their virtual school work so that someday they can go to college. Earlier this week, I saw the same woman break it down with her kindergartner and third grader while they filmed a TikTok outside. “We like to have fun,” she smiled. “We’ve gotta find some way to unwind now that we’re spending so much time in the house!” She then proceeded to talk business with me about how her girls did during Learning Hubs.   


Getting to know these people and their stories has also meant that housing has played a major part in my internship experience. For our students and families, the complexities of housing dominate their lives. They constantly face the struggle of finding a job that pays enough to support their family but not so much that they lose their access to public housing. Public housing was originally created for white working class families and was considered a respectable place for families to stay while they found their footing and raised money to buy homes of their own. This changed during the 1950’s and 60’s under the mechanisms of government-supported, racially motivated housing segregation. Today, the public housing communities we serve exist as islands of poverty in the middle of an extremely affluent and racially diverse neighborhood. 


Because of the ways in which the federal and local governments segregated housing in the mid to late twentieth century, almost all U.S. urban centers are segregated places, but Washington is known for being an especially segregated city. Although I don’t live in the communities Little Lights serves, I have been living “east of the river” in Ward 8, the population of which is 92% black. When I challenged myself to a week of only buying food in our neighborhood, I wrestled with the lack of grocery stores and access to fresh produce. Brothers and sisters from the church I’ve been attending virtually see the pain of community members during their weekly time of handing out coffee outside the methadone clinic a block away from where I live. I have to make sure my coworker can give me a ride home if we ever share dinner together because it wouldn’t be safe for me to be out alone anytime after dark. 


Unfortunately, the segregation of housing means that the challenging aspects of life in neighborhoods like this one are often racialized. Blackness becomes associated with spaces that are seen as “under-resourced” or “dangerous.” There is an inherent evil in these racializations. They reduce these places to the sum of their struggles and do so in a way that places the blame on those who suffer the most from them, while additionally failing to honestly account for the resilience, compassion, creativity and joy of the people who live here. This is unjust because it fails to give these image bearers the respect, humble admiration and love that they are due.


Looking back on my time here, it’s the beauty of this neighborhood that I’ll remember. By walking ten minutes from my home, I can go to the local bookstore to look for a book by Howard Thurman or Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie, stop in and chat with the kind man who works at a new organic market — who remembered my name the last time I came by — and check on the progress of our newest community mural. Walking ten minutes in the other direction, I can hop on a city bike to ride for miles through the woods of our beautiful river park or go for a run to watch the sunset over the bridge. Not to mention, our street is flanked by the prettiest gingko trees in Washington and is home to incredibly kind families from my host mom’s church. I know I will leave here with regret that the pandemic kept me from getting to know more of these people.

A new neighborhood mural on the East of the river. Photo: Sophie Kaiser.

Little Lights staff have taught me that we can’t separate our care for the vulnerable from responsibility to understand their world. They’ve taught me to practice wisdom in finding sustainable and empowering ways to care. This means acknowledging and rejoicing over the ways that God’s goodness is already manifesting in these spaces, even as we respond with compassion to suffering and hardship.  


Instead of spending a semester answering calls for a senator’s office in the beautiful buildings that surround the Mall, I have spent my days reminding wiggly kids to keep their masks on and laughing at the funny things they do. Getting to know these people has caused me to reflect on questions about the comfort and privilege that I’ve enjoyed from centuries of policies written by people operating from places of power. These spheres of influence may be physically segregated in Washington, but Gwendolyn Brooks’ words still ring true: that “we are each other’s harvest: we are each other’s business: we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” We have a responsibility to each other.  

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