Civic Story: Benita Ki

This is my story as a relocater.

I came to Tacoma for college. I find myself now as someone who chose to stay in Tacoma, which surprises me. I’m originally from suburban Portland. I came to the University of Puget Sound because of the large financial aid package offered me.

I had no relationship with the city. What I knew was what I heard:

People called it Tacompton.

People from Seattle always said Tacoma aroma, attaching the word to the city every time it came up, although no one ever knew where it came from.

The show Cops started here.

I remember seeing this bumper sticker and scoffing at it: Admit it Tacoma, You’re Beautiful

I had no relationship with the city, and it wasn’t like I didn’t care, but I wasn’t here for that.

I came for school, wanted to get in and get out. 

October 2009

My junior year of college, I had an experience that started to change my paradigm of the city. I had started to understand that following Jesus meant I’d find myself at the margins of society. My campus staff said you can’t love the poor if you don’t know the poor.

Could I say that I loved the poor? Did I know the poor?

So that was why I went to the Guadalupe House for liturgy dinner with my friend Vanessa. 

And there is no “volunteering,” there is no “service,” there is no "doing," it's just being. It's being with people from the community, sharing dinner together.

I met this guy named Chuck, who after even just one or two weeks was always SUPER excited to see me. Like super. super. excited. The love of God manifest through Chuck. 

I thought he was my age. He’s not; he’s like 15 years my senior. Super tall skinny white dude with a bunch of facial piercings and gauges, smells faintly of cigarettes, dresses like he’s stuck in 90’s grunge Seattle, and uses a lot of hair gel. He was a dad. He gushed about his kids. He was the friendliest guy of all time.

He welcomed me with such alarming hospitality; seriously he asked so many questions about me. I hope you get to meet him, though he hasn’t been around the Guadalupe house as much the past couple weeks. He showed me a different perspective of the city, vastly different from my pretentious UPS student self’s, patting myself on the back for going to a community dinner.

This was my first moment of not just knowing about poverty, knowing about injustice, knowing about systemic oppression, but interacting with the compassion of God on the margins.

This was vastly different than classes, books, theory, protesting administration (remember the Occupy Movement? — UPS students were camped out in front of the SUB with Patagonia tents)…not that those were unimportant, but that was talking about, not being with.

I spent a good chunk of my 20’s on staff with InterVarsity at Pacific Lutheran University. I grew to tie myself to the city. At first it was mainly on principle — the idea of rooting yourself in a place to reduce carbon footprint, it’s a more sustainable life if your food, your work, your community, your place of living was in the same area. The other principle was that I believe we’re in specific places in certain seasons, and it’s silly and very difficult to avoid the place we’re in.

Over time though, being invested in my city was directly tied to my faith. In a lot of ways, my staff life felt like a secret experiment, where I was going to try to choose to live in a radical, subversive culture that continually chooses a foolish and communal hope. As I led urban programs for students, as we prayed and fasted for families affected by immigration policy, as we pooled our money to pay for students’ bills, as I sought to befriend people vastly different from me, as we staged die-ins and attended far too many vigils…as I did all of these things with students on campus, the question I was confronted with was — so you can lead all these things on the college campus, but what about your life? You can talk about, deconstruct, and teach poverty, imprisonment, illness, and oppression, but are you WITH the poor, the prisoner, the blind, and the oppressed?

May 2014

Several years ago I directed a two week urban program here in the Hilltop. It was centered at 8th & I, where my friends the Coopers live.

Because I live nearby, I often popped in to say hi to the other programs, and because these were 2 week programs, they happened right after school ended. Thanks to the semester and quarter systems, there were 3 or 4 programs in a row, in the same neighborhood.

I befriended a family of Cambodian kids. After one of the programs, the little girl, maybe 7, named Coco, came up to me and asked when the next group was coming. 

I was shocked. I asked her what she meant.

She was like, “I know, another group is coming, and they’ll be here for 2 weeks, and they leave.”

She’s not an idiot but apparently I am.

This was a moment where I immediately snapped to the reality that my convenient popping in and out and leading programs were at the expense of people’s actual lives.

And I think that’s where it started — the subtle shift between knowing people in the city and tying myself to the city. It was the difference between being able to spit out statistics about gentrification, incarceration, and immigration, and helping friends move when they were displaced from detention or eviction.

I helped a friend move once. And their family was there — siblings, parents, etc. I knew for this family that displacement was a regular thing. And honestly, I didn’t do that much…run stuff to the car back and forth, pack that sedan until it was about to burst. But my friend’s mom was almost in tears. She couldn’t stop thanking me. And I was like, it’s no problem ma’am, I was in the area, I can’t lift that much anyway. The difference between knowing about the housing crisis and living in the housing crisis.

Most of how I see myself as tying myself to the city at this point is choosing to live my life here. I play frisbee at Vassault Park and Star Center. I eat at The Table and Pho Hoa and make dinner at my friends’ houses. I sit in long ass community meetings about housing access and gentrification. I get bad drip from Red Elm and good drip from Bluebeard. I pray with Tacoma people of God for reform and restoration inside and outside the church. 

And I volunteer at L’Arche. 

June 2018

L’Arche is a community of people of differing abilities that live and work together. It was started as a model of life together centering their core members, or folks with developmental disabilities. In Tacoma, the L’Arche community is a farm, so I go out there to do some work. Which basically means I’m probably weeding, transplanting, or shoveling manure. The slow and mundane work has radically changed my perspective. 

Having worked or been in the college world for so long, I didn’t realize how much I prized intellectual ability, physical ability, or emotional intelligence. But L’Arche has consistently and gently shown me a freedom that dignifies everyone. The core members at L’Arche live so fully and so free, they don’t need the world or the system or a textbook to tell them their worth. And they help me see all the BS that’s in me, all the ways that I succumb to caring about image or status.

A few months ago, Lianna came up to me while we were planting. Or rather, I was planting, and she was fluffing. Every time she sees me, she asks me about God. 

“Have you been sending me vibes?” she asked me. I think we’re talking about prayer.

“Yeah, dude.” 

“Do you think God is sending me vibes? I’m pretty sad Megan is leaving.” Megan is a live-in assistant who had been there longer than the average JVC or LVC, most of whom are there for a year.

“Yeah, I’m sure God is looking out. Transitions are hard.” I tell her.

We start talking about the Tacoma Urban Program kids who are coming. She asked me if I knew any of them. I didn’t. “Do you think the other kids are sending me vibes?” 

I asked if she was talking about Kelley and Adam and Emily, who came from PLU weekly about a year ago. She wasn’t. 

I asked if she was talking about Gabby and Breanne and Soyeon, who were at TUP last summer. She wasn’t. 

I asked if she was talking about Terlona, Natalie, Jacky, and Aimee, who were there 2 years ago — which mind you is enough time for at least two turnovers of JVC volunteers, a billion high school groups, a few UPS freshman groups who come for a day during orientation, and a new farm program director. 

She said, “Yeah, those kids.” 

I said I wasn’t sure, but I hope they’re praying for her.

Even when I feel ambivalent about the city, when I feel disconnected from the city, I find the presence of God in the pockets of everyday Tacoma life. And I think I’m starting to love Tacoma maybe ever so slightly in the way that God does.

I love that Lianna remembers people who were there for 4 weeks when she’s been on the farm for 20 years.

I love that Coco is excited to see me at McCarver Elementary’s open house even though I failed to show up in their park as often as I said I’d be there.

I love that Chuck invited me to his 25th anniversary party in his apartment and was offended when I said maybe.

I love that Tacoma has public art everywhere.

I love that there are farmers markets four days a week and each of them are way too tiny but localized to the neighborhood.

I love that I can walk into a bar, coffeeshop, the gym, grocery store, and half the time run into someone I know even though the city is over 200K people

I love that the presence of the army base, the hospitals, the county and city, and the schools force an awkward but honest diversity of thought and people.

Recently I started a social business with a couple friends of mine, called Civic Roasters. We’re roasting coffee and selling them. The reason why we’re doing it is to tell stories of the city, to invite our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, and our city to join us. We want to be connected in relationship. In volunteering and service. And we want to empower and walk with other community members to enact change. 

Eventually we’ll have a brick and mortar that employs formerly incarcerated and formerly detained people but the shop existing as a community center focused on job networking and job mentoring for people without access to networks. 

In the meantime, I’m just trying to live in Tacoma as an honest relocater searching for the compassion and love of Jesus in everyday life.

Benita Ki