Justice Profiles: This is the seventh story in a series.
SWEETWATER, Tenn. -- Cam Belk has an African-American mother and a white father. He works in a Mexican restaurant where he speaks Spanish most of the day.
At age 21, Belk is a United Methodist college student trying to discern his future at a time when racism and division are prominent in local and national news.
“Being African American or brown skinned in America is like constantly having a wound on your side,” he explains.
When Belk sees people being treated unjustly or even killed because of skin color, “it’s like ripping the bandage off the wound. It hurts, and I can’t process it.”
He is a member at First United Methodist Church in Sweetwater who attended Tennessee Wesleyan University over the last three years. After a friend invited him to First United Methodist, it was a youth leader, Crystal Ragan, who kept Belk coming back to church and helped deepen his faith.
“Crystal Ragan sort of took us all in like we were her own kids. She made us feel important,” he said.
Belk thought he was headed toward a career in the health field but realized that wasn’t for him after beginning his studies at Tennessee Wesleyan. A lifelong interest in speaking other languages and a desire to travel led him to wonder if he is called to be a missionary.
“I’m from a small town where people don’t always want to leave or see a lot,” he said. “I met a lot of international students [at Tennessee Wesleyan], and I wanted to go somewhere.”
As a youth member at First United Methodist, Belk delighted in learning to speak Portuguese from another church member. When he started working at the Mexican restaurant, he immersed himself in learning to speak Spanish.
The last year has exposed him to new realities about how people treat others who not only speak but look different.
"I’ve sort of seen what is like for them,” he said of his co-workers and friends in the Mexican community. “People just look at you as ‘lesser than.’ They almost think you’re uneducated because you speak Spanish.”
He’s also noticed a difference in the racism experienced by Black people and Hispanic people in the United States:
“[Black people] are accepted for being here, but watch what you do. I feel like with the Mexican and Hispanic community, the attitude is, 'We don’t want you here, and watch what you do.'”
He added, “I’m not saying all Americans are like this, just some.” Belk has also felt disrespected by a few Spanish-speakers who looked down on him because his first language is English. "It can happen for both sides."
As a biracial person, Belk said he’s very aware of how people tend to categorize each other. “Biracial children get confused for so many things. They don’t know what you are. They just know you’re something.” At his job, he’s often asked if he is Dominican or Puerto Rican. When he socializes with international friends at college, he’s asked if he is half Brazilian or Thai.
Because he's biracial, he says he feels even more confused by racism common in the news today -- especially the racism revealed in the violent deaths of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and Breoanna Taylor. “I don’t get it to an even greater measure,” he explained. “Because my Dad is white and my Dad loves me, and I have white people in my life who love me.”
Six months ago, Belk took a break from his studies at Tennessee Wesleyan to work and to think about his future. He had a dream where he heard the Lord calling him to work in Hispanic ministries, but his inquiries haven’t panned out yet.
Determined to expand his world and improve his Spanish, he recently scheduled trips alone to New York City and to Puerto Rico.
“I’m going to figure it out by myself, where to go and what to say,” he said. In Puerto Rico, “I want to be forced to speak Spanish all day.”
The risk of COVID-19 has him feeling “very nervous,” but he feels called to move forward. “Whatever I do, overseas or here, I do want to work with people and help people. I can see me fighting for human rights. This may be my prep period.”
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Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.
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