D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Category: Downward Mobility

transitions (on upward mobility)

 

I’ve lived most of my married life in low-income or affordable housing (almost nine years now). I’m known for waxing poetic about the great things about life in the upside-down kingdom, about the benefits of downward mobility. But here, on my first full day of living in my brand-new-to-me house, a house that I bought and that I own, I have been thinking a lot about all the apartments in my past. I’m 32, married, with two kids, I cook and clean and wrestle strong-willed small people all day long. I go to parent meetings at the local elementary school, I shop at the discount liquidator grocery stores, I try and exercise every now and again. Tonight I stared into space as my baby splashed in the bath, tired after a long couple of days of moving and unpacking and painting. Our new bathtub is nice—new fixtures, a shower head that actually has water pressure. As my baby happily babbled to himself I thought of a movie and a scene that had struck me. My husband and I watched the film Short Term 12 a few years ago and in it there is a scene where the protagonist takes a bath. Lining the bathtub was a strip of mold, dark gray/green. When I saw that scene, I gasped. I too, like taking bubble baths from time to time. It is the introverts haven—also, no electronics are allowed. But for the past nine years I have lived in places with disgusting bathtubs—cigarette burns and yellow stains, mold lining the sides no matter how hard you scrub with bleach. And still, desperate for some peace and to get away from my crazy life, I would light candles and pour in the soap and maybe carefully break a bath bomb from Lush into four pieces and use one section, saving the rest for a later date. I would grit my teeth and take a bath and try and forget everything around me. So what did it mean to me to see that girl in the film take a bath in an old, grungy tub? What did it mean for me to see it and identify with her, and realize that she was poor, in that this is what luxury she was afforded? I suddenly know: this is what she lived with, and she did the best with it that she could.

That’s what I tried to do, too. 

 

//

 

Here are some things I did not like about living in low-income apartments:

 

Mold (in the bathtubs, windowsills, creeping up the walls when the upstairs neighbors overflowed their toilet).

Cockroaches.

Mice.

Ants (one time we had anthills literally explode out of our carpet)

Not having screens on our doors/windows

Listening to people scream at each other

Listening to people drink themselves to death.

Listening to our upstairs neighbor pass out over and over again, crashing like a ton of bricks onto the floor. Listening as he fell out his window and broke his arm. 

Outlets that never worked, or that cords would just fall out of. 

Doors that were warped and didn’t close properly.

Door with holes in them, doors that previous renters had punched in their anger.

Carpets that smelled likes years of cigarettes and grease. 

Entryways littered with cigarette butts.

Entryways with shattered bullet proof glass. 

Trash in the shrubbery, always.

The fire alarm for the entire building being tripped constantly, usually after one of my children was already asleep and in bed, forcing me to wake them up and take them outside in the cold/dark, wondering if there was really a fire this time or if it was another case of too many sticks on incense. 

Stoves that were temperamental, burners that were stuck on high, ovens that were lopsided. 

No counter space. 

Loud neighbors, even when they are cute toddlers or people celebrating their glorious holidays in their own culturally appropriate ways.

So many other things, most of which are not appropriate to write in a public blog. 

 

 

 

Here are some things I do miss about living in low-income apartment complexes:

 

The people. The glorious, chaotic, amazing, troubling, people. Oh my Lord they broke my heart in so many ways, Oh my Lord they healed me of things I didn’t even know I needed fixing. 

 

//

 

My neighbor told me she will no longer open her window anymore, since both I and our dear friend both moved out in the space of a few days. Before, I could not sit in a chair on my porch without one of these two women calling out to me, usually asking me to come over and visit. Not once, not once, did I sit in a chair and drink a cup of coffee and contemplate anything. There were too many people I knew, too many others living life in this communal space. This neighbor, she looks at me very gravely. I have shown her my new house as we walk back and forth to school, and I tell her that she will visit. She says she will, but I don’t know if she will. I tried to give her a few things as we moved, but she waved me away. She didn’t want anything. All she wants to do is sit in the sun by herself and think for awhile. She might be moving soon, herself. A refugee, she is used to instability, used to saying goodbye. 

 

I know the right words to say: we bought this house to invest in this neighborhood. And it’s true, as true as I can make a statement be. But the layers of meaning—that we were able to get a loan, for instance, or that my husband earns enough to pay the mortgage, that we don’t have to send every extra penny we make to family members across the globe or in our own city, that we have the freedom to think of ourselves—it all adds up to something more complicated. I am happy for my children to have their own bedrooms, to decorate them in cute ways, I am happy for a backyard for my active little boy and the hardwood floors that thrill my heart. 

I know I only moved around the corner, that I will see my friends at the school and at the grocery store and at English class, but I am still so afraid. I am afraid of what this all means, owning my first home and how I know the cares of life grow sweetly around us until all of the sudden they have choked the good news until we cannot recognize it. Because the thing is the good news for me has always been made real in people, in the poor and the sick and the sad. In the midst of mold and cockroaches and loud noises. And so I am afraid of distance and safety and comfort and pleasure and I am scared of how to be me in this unequal and unjust world. 

 

Jesus, I have stopped asking you to make it easier. Now, I just feel comfort knowing that you lived your life with an eye to the inequalities too. Is that what makes our hearts and homes such fertile ground for your kingdom to grow? I don't know. All I know is my place right now just happens to look like a beautiful little house in the middle of a neighborhood full of the struggling. A place where I look at my gorgeous baby in that white tub, feel grateful for all that I have been given, and still burst into tears at the thought of all the sorrows that surround us. 

 

 

On Top of the World

In the airplane, I put on my headphones [this is the first time I have flown since we moved back to Portland 10 months prior, the first time I have ever left my baby behind, the first time I am going somewhere to talk about my writing, the first time I wore boots and a faux-leather jacket borrowed from my sister in order to appear confident, calm, professional, put-together].

The words and music that pour forth unnerve me [ I had listened to my husband’s weird and wild and quirky album before, sure—while I cleaned the house or had the same conversation ten times in a row with my child. My husband knew for some reason I needed to hear it through his fancy headphones, in a suspended place, I needed to pay attention. My husband is bearded, kind, adorable. He hides his angst and is learning to better understand that it is OK to be angry at things that are unjust and unwell].

During my talk, I unabashedly cribbed from my husband and his songs [I said, to a certain extent, that I love to write troubled, to write scared, to approach our life and work and our compulsion towards meaning-making with a bent towards complicating matters. Heaven knows Twitter wants to take my thoughts and make them short and snappy and sanctimonious. Heaven knows I want to be seen as good and perfect and an artist and an activist. Heaven knows we are just grappling, all the time, with the ways the devil convinces us that the world should work]. 

So here, I will just leave them here. The words that reveal so much about our hearts. We long for that equitable kingdom to come. We long for it to not cost us so much. But the very best things are worth everything, aren’t they?

 

 

Top of the World 

By The Maiden Name

 

 

top of the world 

bourgeois at least 

it’s clear it’s engineered 

for folks like me 

top of my game, I mean top of the game 

but then again from my end I didn’t really have to compete 

 

white, straight, master’s degree 

cards lined up in hand, so it’s guaranteed 

that this world will work for me, was built for me 

my demographics is my skeleton key, 

 

at least this system runs 

so let’s tweak it gently 

yeah, when the Kingdom comes, 

let’s, let’s change things gently 

 

power isn’t a problem 

gotta get it in the right hands 

fingers in front of me are fit enough 

just watch, I’ve got compassionate plans 

 

let’s raise wages just enough 

don’t raise the prices 

and don’t lower my salary 

or take away any of my write-offs 

 

we’ve basically arrived, right? 

seems like it from where I stand 

at the top the game, it’s good 

offer the less fortunate a helping hand 

 

justice vs. compassion, take the latter every time 

it feels better to give than to pay a proper dime 

 

let’s raise the valleys 

without tearing the mountains down 

I want justice to roll down like river 

but I’m afraid I might drown 

 

I’m opposed to violence 

and I’m opposed to not feeling safe 

and when those two come head to head 

I’m still not sure which choice I would make 

and I used to avoid paying war-taxes 

by keeping my income low enough 

but with both of us working 

can’t bring myself to donate the surplus 

and my neighbors next door 

yeah, they’re on the run from war 

while I’ve been sitting on my sofa 

writing theology behind closed doors 

yeah, I’m safe and I’m secure, 

even in my neighborhood 

they say it’s the hood, hood 

but I know that I don’t look like you’ll think I’m up to no good 

 

so I walk down dark streets 

and I don’t look over my shoulder, 

and if there’s no one I have to meet 

then I’ll walk a little slower 

without a worry or a care 

I take my walks without falter 

maybe that’s the reason why never had 

any use for the Psalter 

 

question: can I ever be saved? 

you know my face looks enraged 

but I have slave trade chocolate 

silently running through my veins 

before we give these valleys a raise, let’s wait 

cause I’ve escaped the curse at the cost 

of inequality’s iron rod 

of others being crushed by the weight 

of a system I did not create 

but I’ve bought into it in a literal way 

my money for products at a low wage 

my vote working in what I pay 

my heart in exchange for what I gain 

my soul in exchange for what I save 

I’ve never worked the ground from which I was made 

-can I ever be saved? 

 

Up on a mountain looking down 

you only see loss 

so when the Kingdom comes 

I know it will come with a cost 

I know it cost someone like me a lot 

 

I want to justice to roll on like a river 

its current to flow strong and mighty 

but I want to keep my feet dry 

and from what I hear that’s just not likely 

 

what did I go out into the desert to see? 

a wind-swayed reed? 

did I hope to stay as I am? 

or did I hope to be redeemed?

 

 

(You can listen to the song/hear the rest of the album here)

 

 

 

 

An Update on Downward Mobility



 

I am, as the writer Jazmine Hughes said, blessed with absolutely no chill. This manifests itself in various ways, how I am always overwhelmed yet forever driven to be doing something (and usually trying to drag others along with me). Before we moved into this apartment complex, I had already planned out what I would write. Essays extolling the virtue of small living, shared spaces, 4 people in 800 square feet, solidarity with our neighbors, the glow of living like the majority of the earth. It’s what so many do, it’s already excessive in comparison, there are joys and benefits and blessings to be had, this is what I am choosing to do and oh, I don’t know, maybe you should think about doing it too.

//

Our journey (I used to call it an “experiment,” a word which now makes me shudder) towards downward mobility has taken a few twists and turns over the years. It began as a lark, an invitation from the landlords at the apartment complex where all of my Somali Bantu friends lived: you are here all the time, why don’t you just move in? Sure! Why not? We were newly married and working and in school and busy busy busy but I only had to take the stairs down and cross the street to do English classes. We had a baby and the walls closed in a bit but after we got our bearings I just strapped her to my chest and charged forward and pretended like nothing had changed. 

When that baby was two we up and moved across the country and joined a mission order amongst the poor (oh, how I loved to say that aloud). For a year and a half we lived in a squat apartment and had a crash course in generational poverty in America, both the potlucks and the cockroaches increasing the longer we stayed. Then we were offered a gorgeous house a few blocks away and our little family of three grew to four smack dab in the middle of the most vibrant, diverse, extreme-weather neighborhood you ever did see. 

Apartment, apartment, house, and now apartment again, this time on the far outer edges of Portland. We had done it before and I figured an extra person (a cute, squishy one at that) wouldn’t be that different. We moved in during the dry brown August heat wave, the walls radiating from fresh paint which didn’t mask the smells of another culture, another cuisine, the food and sustenance soaking into the walls and cabinets. 

Quickly, the shine wore off. I had spent months dreaming about this transition, preparing for it, but when it actually came time to start carving out another hard-won space as an outsider among outsiders, I found myself worse than tired. I was bleak. I stood inside my ground-floor apartment and the sweat rolled down my back. I listened to the shouts of children and adults cooking and carrying on conversations and I was living next door but truly in another world. I heard the tantrums, the fights, the music, the parties, I felt annoyed and jealous and invisible. I looked up how much it would cost to rent a bigger apartment, closer to the real action of the city—the coffee shops and bookstores—but the prices soared high out of reach. What started off as a living situation based on values (wanting to live and develop friendships with refugees, with people on the margins) became a situation of necessity. Moving ate up all of our money, as did our car breaking down, as did having a baby, as did finding a new job and it taking months to build up a clientele, as did a delay with my manuscript, etc etc etc. We are stuck, for now, in the place we thought we would so enjoy—as long as it was our choice.

 

//

 

My baby has a fever today, which reminds me of a few short months ago, how wild and feral with fear I felt. Clutching my baby to my chest, vowing to never leave my parent’s house, pleading with prayers to pictures of mother Mary and her little baby, doomed to die. That fear dissolved into a gray sort of dread, the kind where I couldn’t pick up the phone to call old friends or plan what healthy foods to cook or leave the three mile radius around my new neighborhood (turns out depression can be helpful for being “rooted,” to trot out a beloved missional word). A low hum of anxiety kept me going, one eye always on our low low low bank account, another trying to make sure my children were ok. I was unproductive, uninspired, sitting-on-my-couch chill. 

And then, suddenly, there it was: all my feelings came back, like a posse of old friends. My husband grinned It's so good to see you being angsty again, a sign that some things, at least, were returning to normal. I got riled up about our neighborhood school, about homeschooling, about prayer meetings divorced from neighborhood involvement. I drove around and noticed the shiny new courthouse and the sleek police station, but saw how I had to drive over 80 blocks to get to the nearest community center or WIC office. I knew I was missing the trees and the restaurants and the parks and the museums of urban Minneapolis—the hustle and the crowds, the good and the bad—but I thought it was all superficial. I didn’t know quite how to characterize my neighborhood, how it didn’t look like the inner city, yet it is the new face of poverty in America. The suburbs, built for independence and isolation, turned into a wild land of empty foreclosures and food deserts, of thousands of families yet no place to gather for free indoors, social services and bus lines and coffee shops and children’s museums all scattered very very far away.

But how can I write about any of this, how can I try and truss up the life we live half on purpose half by necessity? How do I explain how spare and unique this post-white-flight in-between city is? What the new face of poverty in America looks like, spread-out and scattered and lonely? The housing prices beyond any of our means, the long long waiting lists for families to get into apartments. How we have no playground, no real backyard, a tiny (and loud) library we haunt religiously; churches small and proud and full of only a handful of people on a Sunday; hispanic markets full to bursting on the exact same day; old motels surrounded by chain link fences; rumors of precious things like charter schools and community centers and fresh food markets swirling in the air but never coming to fruition. I dream about these things at night, but don’t know what to do. I vacillate between feeling trapped and hopeless, and wanting someone else to come and solve all the problems. 

But truly: maybe I wouldn’t have known all of this, felt the lack in the my bones, if I didn’t live in a small apartment on the edge of the city with my family. In this one way at least we are no different from the thousands surrounding us: it’s a hard way of living for everybody. My good intentions and ideals were already shaky when we moved in, and now I feel something else take their place:

 

It is gratitude, for the mercies we discover new every morning, the blessings of having it being made so hard to forget. 

 

 

 

//

 

 

 

 

 

 

I just want to say I am still feeling overwhelmed by everyone who liked/shared/commented on my brutal family update. I am still treasuring the warm glow I got from all of that. Thanks too for those that signed up for my newsletter! I finished the edits on my manuscript last week and now I feel incredibly nervous about it all. The next newsletter should have a sneak peek at the (intense!) cover art, so please feel free to sign up here:

The State of Our Union Address

What are we doing here? is a question we ask ourselves often, constantly, a thrumming beatbox to our jam-packed lives. What are we doing here, what is the point of all of this: relocation, downward mobility, eschewing hierarchy, doggedly believing that Christ is here? All we ever do is learn from people, I told my husband last night. That is truly all we do. We don't do anything of importance, we are stretched too thin by too many needs to ever really be of use (the one thing that I so wanted to be). We do not have opportunities to share complicated doctrines or theologies, we are not making a difference in the world. But oh, how we are learning from people. How we are wide-eyed and mouth-closed, how we are the opposite of workers, how we are trying so hard to pay attention and notice all of those important lessons we somehow missed along the way.

Peter didn't pay good attention in the Bible. He scoffed and scorned those women who showed up and said what they all wanted so badly to be true but couldn't let themselves believe: that Jesus had transcended death, that he was alive, that his kingdom was here, that forgiveness and resurrection was now available for all. Peter didn't believe them, he ignored the marginalized just like everyone else. But when no one was looking, when he could no longer ignore the hope in his chest anymore, when everyone else had left--he ran to the tomb as fast as his legs could carry him.

All we ever did was try to be good, productive, correct. All we ever do now is stand still and notice. All we ever do these days is run, run as fast as we can to where we can only hope our signs of resurrection will be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

teeth and kitties

the other day i almost bought a living social deal for a costco membership, until my husband gently reminded my of my scruples. this is the problem with public journaling blogging. people remind you of grand-sounding things you said once, quite some time ago. but life marches on, and you move into a beautiful lil' house that actually has a basement where you could purchase and store sensibly-priced paper goods in bulk, where your life could be just a tiny bit easier. time is a river rushing by and there are so many ways to remember that you are always coming up short in your quest to identify with people on the margins. there are so many ways to tune out the prophets. //

where we live, going to the dentist is an ordeal. we live in the midst of a city, as urban as i have ever experienced. we are surrounded by payday loan companies and "treatment centers" and halal markets. But the only available dentists for miles and miles around are all students: bright-eyed young things who poke and prod your mouth and have to call in a crash of supervisors for any little old thing. it takes forever (it costs relatively little). people make mistakes. a one-visit procedure stretches into 3 or 4. i take my daughter to these students because she is complaining of tooth pain. they look at me and my medical insurance card from the government, and they loudly tell me that i really should be bringing her in for a cleaning every few months. i hang my head, ashamed, letting this young thing think whatever it is she wants to about me. my daughter's teeth are perfect, they cannot see any cavities. i only feel slightly better.

my husband got his tooth pulled last year. it is one of his canines, you can only tell when he smiles so wide that his eyes get lost in the crinkles. before this happened i didn't know there was yet another way to categorize people in our society, a way that we not-so-subtly put people in their place. there are people in our country who are missing teeth, and there are people who get them replaced. nowadays, i know so many people with the tell-tale gaps. my students, the ones who are so recently arrived here in this country, they are in the midst of it. a student will be gone for a few days, then come to class, holding an embarrassed hand over her mouth. she doesn't want to talk. when she finally does, i see it: 4 or 5 teeth pulled, many in the front, just like that. no replacements, no nothing. we all have the same insurance. the government will help us all pay for the teeth to be removed, but replacing them is viewed as "cosmetic". vanity of vanities, to want to look in the mirror and remember for a second, how it all used to be.

i don't mind the gap in my husband's smile, i think it is rather cute. but the dentists said that since my husband is so young that is could permanently mess up the way the other teeth in his mouth move around, could cause him many problems in later years. so we scrimp and save for a year, shelling out what amounts to more than what we paid for our (admittedly not-so-great) minivan, our identification coming to a screeching halt. my husband is on his way to let students insert a screw into his jaw; in a few months they will affix a new, shining tooth. he will go on with his life, eating whatever he pleases, working in his professional capacity, bearded, pleasant, whole.

//

a few months ago our cat was bit by another; the wound was large and gaping and we didn't know what to do. we tried to clean it up but by the next day it was clear that this was bad news. we found a cardboard box and brought her to the vet; they put her anesthetic and cleaned her wound and put in a drain. she was gone the whole day and when she came home we had to put a cone around her miserable head. she moped, for a week, and we bought her special kitty food to coax her. she got better, day by day. we fixed the screen door so she couldn't get out anymore (our neighborhood does have the meanest cats you ever did see) and she meows pitifully, longing to be out. but it cost us so much money to save her that we can't afford for it to happen again. a neighbor came over and sat under our tree in the backyard and we talked about pets who got hurt, and all the ones who died because vets were not even an option. all the animals we loved so much when we were young, the ones we clutched and cooed at and kissed; the ones who fell by the wayside, who were attacked by the robbers of the world, the ones that we were always powerless to save. i look at my cat, gleaming and whole, and it is a marker of difference. of options. the opposite of identification.

teeth and kitties, such vulnerable parts of ourselves. the whole world is a place that is liable to hurt us, to weaken us, decay us and bite us. some of us have access to resources and money where we can forget about these realities for a few more months, a few more years. we can justify ourselves to people just like us all the day long, but in the end, the same Christ looks at all of our hearts. and he will ask all of us: did you learn from the prophets, the ones i sent you all along? the gap-toothed and the sad, the wounded and the un-whole? because they are preaching to us, all the time.

they are the reminders of the kingdom that is slowly barreling into our hearts and our minds and our lives, a kingdom where every tooth and every kitty is cherished, valued, and most importantly, mourned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

on homesickness

There was a moment, just a moment, when the happiness overwhelmed me. I was driving a white minivan through the sun-drenched outer boroughs of Portland, the one where the grass was already dead and brown, where the cars pile high in the front yards, where the hipsters are few and far between. Navigating the streets I know so well, driving on auto-pilot; almost audibly my thoughts came: I'm home. The sweetness inherent in that thought--of being known and wanted and comforted--is quickly swallowed up by the realization: no, I'm not. I don't live here anymore. I am embarrassed, look to my left and my right. But no one is there to see my slip into nostalgia, watch my new life and my old cause confusion in my eyes. It is so cliché, but it must be said: I am homesick, no matter where I am.

One great thing about being married to a counselor is that sometimes they give you free observations about your life. The other day my husband told me that to an outside observer, it might look as though I was compelled to seek out relationships with people who are very, very different from myself. Conversely, he also noted, it appeared that my family and community were consistent sources of comfort for me. These two poles on which I staked my life sometimes seem to be in opposition to each other: what is safe, what is unknown. What is comfortable, what is exhilarating. To pursue one means that naturally, the other falls by the wayside.

Last week, in Portland, I was fed full and watched my daughter play with her cousin, I attended a baby shower for my older sister, I went for long walks with my mother, I made root beer floats with my father. Everywhere we went and ate and played I was looking for others, the worlds hidden between, for the marginalized of our society. They are few and far between in Portland, a city that is supremely silly and somehow never satiated in the desire for acceptance. I walked into a coffee shop where everyone looked so exactly alike that it felt like a slap to me: the calculated outfits and language and coffee drinks totaling up one very exclusive experience, designed more to keep others out than to usher them in. I went to church and cried all during worship, aching at how wonderful it was to see a large group of people together and singing about freedom; I slipped away into myself during the sermon, thinking about all the people who would not be able to step inside these doors. Surrounded by family and friends, I couldn't help but feel a bit homesick for the life I have created in the exotic Midwest, long for my neighborhood and my neighbors

Last week, in Portland, I was driving across town in a white minivan. I was by myself, driving to see very old friends, the ones who first showed me where the upside-down kingdom was. I know every street, have a story for almost each city block. I let myself go down the nostalgic trail of thoughts: I met my husband here. I had my baby here. I went to Bible college here. I met the friends who changed my life here. The other part of me--the one who grew up thinking that those who gave up everything to serve God--quickly pushed these thoughts away. I actively, aggressively chided myself into submission. Geography means nothing to me. My entire childhood was spent moving, every 2-3 years. What was important was family, the new church we were at, the next calling of God on our lives. But somehow I stayed in Portland for nearly 9 years, and the asphalt and the street signs and the brown grass in the summer has burrowed into my bones. I am homesick for a place. And it is completely divorced from any sense of mission within me. I just love it for what it is: my home.

A month or so ago here in the exotic midwest I went to visit a friend who moved into the suburbs. Her and her little family are on their way up, moving out of the cramped and crowded-to-overflowing house in the middle of the city. I am happy for her, even as I am sad at the natural distance that will come at her being 30 miles away. I saw her apartment complex, large and full of similarly placed families, everybody packed tight together, everybody trying to make it. The outside facade so clean, the hallways inside rather grimy. I instantly loved it. As I left, I let my hands trail along the walls, imagining what it would be like to move in there. It was then that I realized that I wanted to live in every apartment building in the city, in the country, in the world.

And even though I know this is not even possible in the slightest, there is a large part of me that wants to try.

The problem is: I have so many homes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upward Mobility

Image found here.  

 

We moved into a house. A gorgeous, beautiful house that was built around 1860, and has been lovingly restored. The walls have been painted bright, soothing colors; the backyard is two lots of garden and trees. The owners are renting it to us at a song, partnering with us and blessing us. Today we planted seeds: kale and spinach and lettuce and snow peas and green beans and pumpkins and tomatoes and peppers and herbs and sunflowers. I know it is going to overwhelm us. I pick out weeds and I figure out what all those other gardeners already know: how nice it is to do something so tangibly good. What pleasure, what satisfaction. You are tilling the earth that the good Lord gave you. You are making the most of your talents.

My daughter wears a Tinkerbell outfit and declares herself to be a garden fairy, staring intently at worms and beetles, watering and mucking about. She has never lived anywhere with a yard before. She wants to get up first thing everyday and check on the plants. It is so beautiful, and so good, that I can scarcely keep from pinching myself. There is a room downstairs, with hardwood floors and little paintings I have put up, and I drink my coffee and journal in the mornings as the sun streams in. Someday, I will write there. This place is a gift. There is so much beauty here, and we all know that beauty is a part of what saving the world looks like.

 

//

 

In class, I am telling my students I moved. Just a few blocks away, from an apartment to a house. They ask me how many bedrooms. Three, I say, and tell them about the big yard and the garden. One of my students, the highest level in my class, looks at me and frowns. But teacher, she says, doing the math in her head. In your family there are only three people. She doesn't say anything else. The question inherent in that statement hangs in the air; she is asking me about inequality, and there is nothing else I can say. I stare at her, and at the rest of my class. We never, ever forget the distance between us. But sometimes I pretend we do.

 

//

 

The possession I have that I am most ashamed of is my TV. It is a flat screen, large (don't ask me the inches, as I don't know). It is flashy and looks new. I would be quick to tell (if you only ever asked) that we did buy it second-hand, at a thrift store. And yet, still, here it is, hiding in our bedroom. I don't want it cluttering up our bright and cheerful and cool living room. I want people to think we don't own a TV, that maybe we are opting out of it all. But we aren't. My husband and I are running running running ragged during the day, and then we curl up together and watch something funny, something stupid at night. I am embarrassed, even as I see similar or larger TVs in the apartments and houses of my friends. I almost don't want to mention this to you, because some of you will already have a stereotype. The poor have large TVs. The poor live very hard lives. Maybe they are just like me, and they collapse at the end of the day, wondering how to muster the strength to get up and do it again tomorrow. Maybe they stream in the channels from their home countries, the ones with the dancing and the singing and the news that they are so thirsty for. Maybe they watch crime shows, maybe they watch romances. Maybe they watch people fight and spit and scream and hug and kiss while a talk show host looks on. Maybe they will never take a vacation, never even travel outside of their state or city or neighborhood. Maybe none of those things. I don't know about everyone else, I just know about me. And I was supposed to be different, I was supposed to do everything so right.

 

//

 

I am also a little embarrassed about our house.

 

//

 

Remember when I used to write about downward mobility all the time? I did not coin the term nor did I perfect or improve upon it. I am traveling up and down a continuum. Truthfully I was glad to leave that squat, unlovely apartment behind. I could tell you of the hardships, but it would be a disservice to those that have no choice but to live there; and they will always be on my mind.

Of course the garden is beautiful. Of course it is a tangible expression of a very good God. But it is mere blocks away from so many utilitarian  concrete stacks, and God is in those too. My husband likes to say that the real goal of downward mobility is simply reconciliation--to reconcile ourselves with others who are different from us. I would also say that it is a kind of reconciliation with ourselves, and the ways our very souls are wounded by the inequalities of the world.

I recently read a transcript of a testimony Pete Seeger gave to the Un-American house committee. They were asking him about his connections with communism, and if he was a communist. He repeatedly told them he wasn't interested in the particulars, and that he sang for everybody and he loved his country very much. They kept pressing him. He articulated that he resented being asked to come before the committee. Then why don't you contribute something for your country? they asked him. He replied: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it. The chairman interrogating him answered: I don’t want to hear about it.

When you want to tell the whole story of your life, you find few takers. We want either communists or patriots, sell-outs or self-righteous. We are seeking either blessing or lament, despair or hope, faith or faithlessness. But I have always had everything, everything in spades. Hope and doubt and fear and faith. I accept good gifts from God and I feel angry that others don't get the same. I am embarrassed and conflicted and full of angst. I am also quick to celebrate every little thing, to be goofy, to cry over beautiful poetry and paintings. I am pushing myself hard to reconcile myself with people who are so different from me. I have found it true that relocation and redistribution had to come first, before the seeds of reconciliation will start. I am a part of the neighborhood still, I am living through tragedies every day, and I can see the connections growing up and out. I remember the early days, how lonely I was, how hard I worked for every acquaintance. I think about now, how I am drowning in relationships and needs, and I have to laugh.

The very medium of the blog, of the internet, is to be so quick and tidy and sure of yourself. But I want to tell you the story of my whole life, every time. I want to tell you the story of everyone I ever met, because they are a part of me. I want to be an observer, I want to be genuine.  I want to detail how I am addicted to doing everything right, and how nervous I was about writing about this house. Until I decided to be honest and tell you:

I love it, and I am so grateful. I will cherish it and give thanks for it and invite my friends and neighbors who don't have access to gardens over to enjoy it with me, together, in relationship. But underneath the appreciation there lies an unease. A sadness. The images of where other people in my neighborhood are living, many of them looking for better and bigger places themselves. I want to live for everyone, and I am tired of pretending otherwise. I am on a journey of reconciliation. I am not there yet.  But I just wanted you to know the whole story of my life, starting with this house.

That is what I would like to tell you about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moving Downward, In Spite of the Safety Net--Guest Post by Annie

Oh my goodness. I opened up my e-mail last week to this stunner of a guest post sitting quietly in my in-box. These stories, from people in the very process of figuring it all out, speak to me so deeply. I identified SO much with what Annie writes here (being in America, my safety net is that much closer and more tantalizing and convenient). It is also a testament as to how not theoretical this conversation is. When you are friends with poverty, certain questions must be asked (and not always answered). I am very thankful Annie found this series, and that she added her own contribution here.   

 

 

Moving downward, in spite of the safety net

Guest post by Annie

 

 

 

I have a friend who decided to sleep on the floor for a few months, right next to his bed. It was an act of self-denial. But even as he spent his nights on the hard, unforgiving floor of his room, the bed was within arm’s reach. He might never choose to sleep in it again, but it was still there.

This is perhaps the biggest struggle of it all for me.

This downward mobility stuff is hard. As much as I want to deny myself, it is nearly impossible to forget that there is a wide, comfortable safety net around me. There is always somewhere to fall back on. And I know that. Even in my subconscious, I know that. I try to turn off my peripheral vision and forget that it is there in order to reduce my dependence on it, but the reminders are constant.

On most days, my privilege ostentatiously dances in my face and frustrates my desire to really, truly live in solidarity with the people I am surrounded by. The voices that call this pursuit of downward mobility "ignorant idealism" ring louder and surer than my unsteady, but wishful, belief that this type of living is not only beautiful, but possible.

I see it everywhere.

A terrorist attack occurs in my city of residence and I am keenly aware that, if I wanted to, I could be on the next plane out with so many of the other young, single American girls serving here--so quickly and easily removed from a perceived threat to my own safety and wellbeing. Somehow my safety is more important than the ones I moved here to live in community with, with no questions asked.

I offer a cup of coffee to a friend while we are out running errands and can see it in her face that she is uncomfortable with anyone spending 250 shillings ($3) on something that will be gone in 10 gulps. Why would we pay $3 for something that we can make for 20 cents when we get home? That much money can feed a whole family--all day long. And more than just knowing that (like me), she knows it.

A young girl is stuck in an unsafe environment and the only good option seems so glaringly clear in my mind...move the child. And fast. But what my mind doesn't account for is all of the unplanned costs that will accompany this decision. How will the family possibly afford this swift action? They are in many ways trapped and I realize that I have never in my life felt trapped in this way. How can I know even an ounce of this pain my friend endures?

An unexpected illness strikes and a family is left with very few options -- attempt to treat the child and acquire bills that exceed the amount that passes through their hands in 5 years, or take their child home and pray. I get a sinus infection and already have a prescription sitting there waiting in my cabinet. And if anything serious were to happen, you better believe my insurance would be airlifting me to Dubai or back to America for the world-class medical treatment I deserve.

I'm aware of my privilege when the weekly grocery bill is the same amount that my friend who supports an entire family makes each month. Bread and rice are not luxury items in my world; they are things I am allowed to groan about having to eat, again.

I'm aware when my spoon pushes even a small pile of bread crusts or stale crackers into the trashcan, now even further from mouths that are hungry. The guilt-inducing images in my mind aren’t from those Christian Children Fund infomercials of the 90’s, they are images of friends and neighbors who I care for deeply.

I'm aware when I frustratedly declare one of my things "broken!" and throw it in my closet or the trash can and my friends quickly scoop it out and ask for the chance to try to fix it themselves or at least take it somewhere to be saved.

I'm aware when paying $1 for a motorbike taxi is the obvious choice over walking for an hour in the hot sun, for free.

I lay in my bed that is surrounded by dozens of sleeping children, listening to the dogs’ howling alarm that things are not right outside the orphanage compound tonight. My thoughts race in wondering if the thugs get into our home tonight will my laptop, DSLR, iphone, and ATM card be accepted in exchange for the children's protection? The undeniable reality is that I have something to offer.

Friends sit in jail cells for things that just don't seem right and my privileged friends and I are calling everyone we know, using our “connections” to fight for what we consider justice. He is out within days, while others sit and sit and sit because their families and friends have known since childhood that their fighting doesn’t mean much.

I don't generally make a habit of praying before meals because it seems ritualistic and unnecessary. They pray before meals because they are genuinely thankful that God has remembered them and provided food, even when they personally know so many who are without.

I wait in the crowded line of the government hospital for the schizophrenia medications that keep my friend functioning well in society and others ask me “wow! You’re ‘mad’ too?” I strangely want to say “Yes! See, we are just alike! I feel your pain! I’m with you!” but instead I bow my head and say “no, they’re actually for a friend.”

Maybe these examples are extreme, but they just begin to describe how I sometimes I feel like I am just playing dress-up. I put on a costume and play the part of friend to the poor, friend to the sick, and friend to the orphan, but remain so far above them (much to my dismay) that it seems a laughable feat to really live in solidarity with them. If I lived in America, I would most likely be dependent on government assistance. But here!? Here I am rich. I am healthy. I have family who call me their own and always have my back. I have people who would fight for me, if I needed it.

I cut back and I struggle, yes -- but I have never been hungry. I have never truly felt trapped in a horrible, threatening situation because of an empty bank account. I have never had to choose between treating a sick child and putting food on the table. And most of all, I have about 10 people in my speed dial who would do anything to bail me out of whatever unfavorable situation I find myself in. I also like to believe that if I was in real trouble, my home country would fight for me—fight for justice for one of their own who is being oppressed in a foreign land.

As much as I hate that I cannot truly empathize with situations my friends find themselves in day after day, I am able to feel a portion of their pain because they have become my family. I want their pain to be my own and Jesus is so kind to grant that. I am learning there is so much to be said for “weeping with those who weep” even (and especially) when your own personal, present circumstances don’t call for weeping. And in my experiences, they have been so gracious to receive my weeping instead of resenting it.

We dream about our futures together and I decline engagement in the “big house, perfect job, lots of money, healthy and happy family” reveries because I have learned that these things don’t satisfy. I have had those things and quite honestly, could still have those things. I don’t have them because I don’t want them, but my access to them is undeniable… and I hate this. There is something almost prideful about having the option of this lifestyle, but turning it down.

As much as I want this to be a struggle of the past--something that characterized my first few steps down the staircase, I am not sure that will ever be the case. As difficult as it is to live in this tension, I cannot help but believe Jesus is glorified by our, albeit fumbling, attempts to live in solidarity with the poor, orphaned, outcast, widows, homeless, sick, and lonely.

One of the things I love most about Jesus and the way He used His time on earth to teach us how to live is how mind-blowingly clear He is. I am simple minded and need straightforward directions; He graciously made it so that we do not have to make any assumptions or decode any messages to understand His heart for the poor. He is crazy about them. He honors them and cherishes them and calls them His friends; not for charity’s sake, but for love’s sake. I love the way Father Greg Boyle defines this solidarity: “kinship– not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not “a man for others”; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that.”

Above all else, I want to know them and I want to struggle alongside of them. I want them to know me and struggle alongside of me. I want to share what I have with them and I want them to share what they have with me. I want to cry with them and I want to dance with them. I want them to cry with me and I want them to dance with me. I want to pray for them but I also want and need them to pray for me. I want to get angry with them about injustice and I want to fight alongside of them—arm in arm, not one in front of the other. I want to learn from them, but more than that I desperately need to learn from them.

This is what I want. And this is what God is doing, slowly but surely, and not without pain and difficulty and awkwardness and lots of fumbles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

unnamed-5Annie lives and works in Kenya where she has the privilege of helping to manage a transitional care center for infants. The best part of her "job" is being a foster mama to the little ones while they are rehabilitated and long-term solutions are sought to enable each child to grow up in a family. One of her greatest, but noblest, struggles is keeping sarcasm and dry humor alive in a county that does not (yet) recognize it's worth. She rambles often, and sometimes posts it on the world wide web at www.ramblations.blogspot.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

 

 

 

 

 

a war, a wallet

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It's poverty awareness month, something that slipped by me until I couldn't look past all those posts on the "9 things you need to know about poverty" (i.e., that the poor in America have flat screen TVs and the government spends way too much money on them--cue the quiet rage eyes). It's been 50 years since that one old white guy said he was waging a war on poverty, and wouldn't you know it, things have gotten better and worse and really stayed the same.

I'm no expert but I do have skin in the game. as in, I know plenty of flesh-and-skin poor people, am surrounded by them, am drowning in them, I have barbecues with them, learn the ABCs with them. And from here I don't really think we need a war on poverty, nor do need any more ideologies arguing against each other. We don't need to cut all government programs nor flood them with more cash, we don't even necessarily need more "awareness", educating ourselves about budgets and programming or anything like that.

What we need is to wage a war on class divisions.

And that, of course, is much harder to do. You can't force people to interact with those who are different from them, you can't force love and community and awkward parties when it is all so much easier and nicer to eat the food you always eat with people who look and think and act like you. Our tendency to stick tight with our own also has the added benefit that the other becomes the Other, the demonized, the entitled lazy poor, the evil greedy capitalists.

I watched a documentary the other day called The Belief in the Other Man's Wallet. It's a movie about our moral obligation to the poor (a damning phrase if there ever was one). The documentary, while not explicitly Christian, does interview quite a few people who believe that Jesus wants us to help the poor (people like Tony Campolo, for instance) and the director comes from a Christian background. I asked the director, Peter Garriott, if it was intentional that he interviewed so many Christians in his documentary. Why was that, I wanted to know. He responded: "There are a lot of Christians who are rethinking how to alleviate poverty. Unfortunately, a significant amount of people who attempt to alleviate poverty but don't know what they're doing are... Christians."

The film shows various different perspectives on how to alleviate poverty (I really liked that there were differing perspectives, forcing the viewer to see how complex the situation really is) but my favorite part might have been the eerie shots of the filmmakers asking people in America questions about poverty. These "man-on-the-street" interviews are usually edited for brevity and clarity, but here the filmmaker leaves in the awkward silences, the stares, and the complete and total unease we as Westerners feel when being asked about poverty and our own role in it.

Be it waging war or talking about wallets, we are still far from solving the crisis of inequality in our world. Every day I see evidences of this. I am on a journey of breaking through the barriers of class that have perhaps unknowingly defined too many lives for much too long. If everyone in your life--your church, your play group, your blogroll, your school--looks and acts and thinks just like you, it might be time to start branching out, to intentionally become the outsider for once. You guys, it's super fun and super awful.

I have met Christ, here, in the uncomfortable places. I have been asked if I love my neighbor, the neighbor I am least likely to understand, and I have stared blankly back in fear and guilt and confusion. And I have been led, by a love greater than myself, to move past the point of dwelling on unanswerable questions and to start living life with the marginalized.

How do we solve a problem like poverty? I am not waging a war, and I am not convinced wallets are going to do much good here either.

 

But having skin in the game might.

 

 

 

From the website, here is the introduction to the film:

Imagine you’re walking through a park on your way to work. Across the way, a small boy is drowning in a pond. You could wade into the pond and save the child, but you’re wearing a $200 pair of shoes and rather not ruin them. So you pass by the child, allowing the boy to drown.

The reasonable response to such a story is moral outrage. But noted philosopher and Princeton Professor Peter Singer argues you're just as guilty when you purchase luxury items. Instead of going on vacation or even buying a $5 latte, you could donate the money to a non-profit that provides vaccines, medicine, or other life saving treatments to one of the 8 million children who die each year from preventable diseases. Choosing not to purchase a $5 cup of coffee could save a child’s life.`

To some, Singer’s solution appears too simple. There are too many steps between a small purchase at a coffee shop and a hungry child in the slums of Kenya. To others, the solution is as simple as donating used clothes, buying a pair of TOMS shoes, or traveling to Haiti to help build new homes and schools. But do these solutions help or only reflect an American understanding of prosperity?

If you would like more information/to purchase The Belief In The Other Man's Wallet please click here*.

 

 

*I was given a promotional screening of the film. Which is one of the very, very few perks of this whole blogging gig.

 

 

 

 

 

A Fight For Beauty--Guest Post by Marilyn Gardner

Marilyn is a dear presence on the internet, full of wisdom and calm and yet a heart that is always searching for more. I adore her for her heart for cross-cultural relationships and her literary approach to life. Marilyn is totally somebody I want to grow up to be like. Fighting for beauty is definitely an everyday part of life over here (some days it is a  battle, other days it is easy as pie). And the fight for love, truth, and beauty is always worth it.

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A Fight For Beauty

Guest post by Marilyn Gardner

 

It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m looking out my window at a blanket of white snow. It is soft and pristine in its beauty. The snow has covered up cars, streets, sidewalks. It has also covered up garbage bins and garbage.

My Greek neighbor has already been out shoveling and I hear the sound of his metal shovel against the concrete. He puts the rest of us, who wait until we have no choice, to shame with his disciplined shoveling and keeping of the sidewalk in front of his apartment snow-free.

The snow is beautiful. But I know in an hour, two hours tops, it will have turned from fluffy white to squishy brown. Because this is the city.

There are times when living in the city is not about downward mobility, when it’s not about relationships or intentional living.

Instead, there are times when living in the city is about a fight for beauty.

This was true in Egypt. It was true in Pakistan. And it’s true where I now live.

We live in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, not the Cambridge of the Harvard elite or the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) nerd. Rather, the Cambridge of the other 80%. The Cambridge that is middle class, refugee, immigrant, or single mom.

The ‘real’ Cambridge, we like to call it. The Cambridge where high school students refer to areas as Coast and Port and where teen moms bring their babies to the day care center at the high school. The Cambridge where cars are broken into and neighborhoods work hard to become safer. The Cambridge where the homeless gather in raucous community at Central Square, oblivious to any great minds that may have walked their path. The Cambridge where Jahar Tamarlaen, the alleged Boston bomber lived and played sports and went to prom and knew my daughter.

And in this real Cambridge I realize that for me it becomes a fight for beauty, a fight to see redemptive beauty in daily life.

In the spring, it’s a fight to find the crocus that has worked its way through hard, city soil and blooms, brilliant blue or yellow. A fight to see beyond city problems to forsythia, that first reminder that spring has come.

In the summer, it’s a conscious effort to see the rose peaking through the rusted chain-link fence; to see sun flowers raise their giant heads tall to the sky against a concrete back drop. It’s a fight to see beyond the cigarette butts crumpled on the ground with last night’s garbage, made worse by the summer rain, and see instead dew drops on sparse grass.

In the fall, it’s a fight to look up and not down – up at towering trees glowing in Autumn glory, taking me away from broken bottles and ugly, barred windows.

In the winter, it’s a fight to see beyond the bitter cold mornings and homeless huddled under thin blankets, grey and worn. A fight to take the extra step and buy that cup of blueberry coffee with 8 packets of the artificial sweetener – because that’s the way he likes his coffee. A fight to find out names and see Sheryl and Valerie and Donald as real people, not homeless numbers. A fight to witness Imago Dei in the eyes of those who walk these streets.

So I walk and I put on my armor so I can fight for beauty. So I can walk with lenses cleaned, eye-sight restored to see beauty in the ordinary, everyday ugly.

A fight for beauty – a prayer that the Beautiful One who restores and redeems will give me eyes to see beauty.

 

 

 

 

 

unnamed-2Marilyn Gardner was raised in Pakistan and as an adult lived, worked, and raised a family first in Pakistan and then in Cairo, Egypt. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she works as a public health nurse with underserved communities and vulnerable populations. She wrestles through life, faith, and third culture kid issues through blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

the year of the minivan

we bought a minivan just a bit over a week ago, and i can't hardly believe it. our car, the suburu we drove over from portland, has been breaking down on us, over and over again. the mechanic told us not to put another cent into that vehicle, and we believed him. we spent a Christmas break cobbling together cars from generous friends to borrow, getting the flu, trying to navigate the wilds of captialist Craigslist without getting yet another lemon. kind, generous people donated money, and for the exact amount they gave we got ourselves a swagger wagon, the opposite of every car i have ever driven. the man we bought it from told us about his sobriety, his kids. he was confused when we declared that the dvd player being broken was a good thing. we drove away in our safe, boxy, gas-guzzler, and i am so continually surprised and confused by this life i am actually living instead of the one i would like to tell you about. many of our neighbors do not have cars. we are friends with many people who have large gaggles of kids, all of who get extremely bored in this crazy extreme-weather town where we live. in the past, we could only take 2 at a time with us as we went off to explore lakes and museums and pantheon of american consumerism (it turns out pre-teens really, really like going to malls). as we started to think about what beater car we will drive to its death next, the image of a minivan floated through my brain. no, no way, i said. i am a minimalist, i have a shred of credibility, how will i park it in our inner-city life? but it isn't about me, it never really was, God is having a good laugh about that downward mobility girl driving her 2005 kia sedona around.

because there are somethings that are more important than the ideology i surround myself with, the ways i try to present myself to the world. my life is not about downward mobility, or loving my neighbors, or working and living with the urban poor.

my life is about being obedient, which is all so much harder than that.

and it is never, ever boring.

//

there is another reason we got a minivan. we sent off the papers last week, our application for fost-to-adoption. it doesn't make sense in so many ways, the legion of which i cannot tell you here. but it's the same thing, me wrestling through every single horrible, heartbreaking scenario, the voice saying this is not just about you.

nothing can ever be easy, is what i say in my bitter hours, as i fight my way through another day of chaos, as i long for routines and results, never fully expecting either. my next baby will not be grown in my belly, my next baby will be baptized into sorrows that took me decades to find. the next bend, the next year, will only further explore the broken aspects of my neighborhood, my city, my government. i will teach my class, be reminded every day of the traumas and life situations that brought me these strong, survivor-women who are only now holding a pencil for the first time. it's the year of sending my writing off into the great unknown, of opening myself up for critique and criticism, of struggling to do right by all the people who got tangled up in my story.

none of this is about you, is what i hear, but i don't know how to take myself out of it. all i know how to do is take the next step.

send in the application.

create my lesson plan.

write a chapter.

knock on a door down the hallway.

drive the damn miracle minivan to the mall of america, tired and grateful as the kids riding along with me.

try so very hard not to shut my heart down to all of it.

because more is coming.

//

i'm sending you off as a sheep among wolves, jesus told his disciples. in my mind i see the sheep, marching white as snow, great gray wolves cowering off to the sides. but what happened to his disciples? i think about it now, sobered and shocked by the actual metaphor: the wolves got them, and the sheep did not come out unscathed.

it's hard for me to write this, because i know it is true. we are being asked to be the sheep, and it does not mean we will be safe. it means Jesus is sending us out to be wounded, because that is what happens when you open yourself up to love. you will get hurt, very badly. Jesus made it clear: you could die, you could be tortured, you could be beaten and imprisoned and all sorts of other things. and you will, most certainly, get your heart-broken.

as i pray and think about this next year, i am thinking about what it means to be like a sheep. to trust, to put one little foot in front of the other, to head straight for the pack of wolves.

the other words Jesus said, right before that part about getting torn up, was about going out and proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. i went back and re-read it today; that's all he told his followers to say. nothing about doctrine or even that the messiah had come: just go out and proclaim the kingdom of God: healing the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.

and that's where the wolves are--with the ones who are already beaten down by the world: the sick, the hurting, the addict, the broken relationally. the people and situations in my life that scare me the most--the scenarios looping in my mind as i close my eyes--those are the ones who need the most proclaiming. they are the ones Father God has his eye on, the sparrows who are falling to ground in droves, and he counts them one by one. he sees it all, and he is asking me to keep looking, to keep walking ahead.

because it's the year of love, and all the sadness that comes with it. it's the year of authenticity over ideology. it's the year of sheep and sparrows, demons and wolves.

it's 2014, you guys. it's the year of the minivan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missionary Kids, Downward Mobility, and My Friend Sarah--Guest Post by Brianna Meade

Brianna sent me this stunner of a guest post and I love how it swirls together several topics that are valuable to me: missionary kids (I married one), intentionality, downward mobility, and the facing the fears that are inherent when we interact with people who are so different from us. This is a lovely, thoughtful meditation, coming from the best place--in the very middle of a life being changed. I am so grateful for Brianna and her honesty here. 

 

 

 

Missionary Kids, Downward Mobility, and My Friend Sarah

Guest Post by Brianna Meade

 

 

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I'm a missionary kid who didn't want to be a missionary kid. Instead of "I'm from Thailand," I want to say "I'm from Chicago." In fact this is what I do say.

Being an MK is interesting in a, "Wow, that's cool, but I don't understand you at all" type way. Not so great for relating to people. Living in a hut in the jungle on the border of a third-world country doesn't help if you are desperate to fit in. People rarely know how to respond when it's brought up. It can be a conversation jump-starter, but it can also be the type of thing where you start to feel alone as the conversation fizzles out because nobody knows what to say.

When my past is brought up, I'll ramble on about Rice and Elephants and the Thai Language. I'll hedge my sentences and stories with, "I know you don't really want to hear this story, but..."  I'm embarrassed by how I grew up, but the bigger issue is that I feel alone. I don't feel at home in Thailand and don't belong among Americans--especially American women.

I know what you are thinking if you know anything about missionary kids. Feeling like I don't belong is a classic MK attitude. MK's feel as if they don't fit in either culture. The whole idea of a "Third-Culture-Kid" came from the theory that those who grew up in two cultures only feel at home in a "third" culture that incorporates both--that is, in their "own" created culture. You'd think the one place I'd feel at home is among other MK's who have the same background, but I don't. I'm just as uncomfortable around other MKs as around girls who grew up in Chicago. During college, many MKs I knew found solace in International Dinners and Third-Culture Kid Retreats. I avoided all of this.

I don't talk about Thailand, ever, unless it is brought up.  My years as a missionary kid were difficult and jarring and ended with a full-blown eating disorder that almost killed me. So when other MKs wax nostalgic for Asian noodles or dumplings or bring up how much they miss their "real" home, I feel disingenuous. I feel numb and apathetic.The twinge of sadness that exists just makes me want to run harder towards the American dream.

When I arrived in the U.S. for college, I tried to assimilate in order to avoid being the "weird" one. I abandoned my MK roots as soon as I could figure out how to dress in North Face jackets and procure boots that looked like UGGs. I tried to assimilate in every way. I steadily acquired pop culture awareness and memorized the names of celebrities.

I rarely claim my childhood in Asia (where I lived for 15 years--more time than I've lived anywhere else) as home. Was it my home? I was always an outsider there too. So where does that leave me?

Every once in a while during college, I would go to a Thai food restaurant and ball my eyes out. On the way out, I would swear never to go back to the restaurant again as I wiped snot off my face. It was too confusing and much too painful.

And so, when we moved to North Carolina, I was still hard at work leaving my past behind. So it seemed strangely serendipitous and out-of-nowhere that our apartment complex contained a greater percentage of people of Asian descent than it did  Caucasians. Did this make me happy? Did it make me feel like I was home? On the contrary, it made me feel more exposed and maybe even a little uncomfortable. I didn't want to presuppose that I had anything in common with my Indian neighbors because I knew (and implicitly felt) that I was just as complicit in stereotyping people--just as likely to misunderstand someone and miss the real story. But in the process of avoiding any representation of my past, of side-stepping my roots and of trying to become someone else, I'd forgotten who I was.

One day I went to the park and found myself surrounded by a large Indian family and several Chinese mothers with their children. I was with my daughter in the sandpit and I felt that familiar feeling of being somewhere you have been many times. Of returning to a place that you have been away from for a long time.

Then we stumbled upon a church that was half-white, half-Chinese-American demographic and oriented towards reaching out to the cultural diaspora that was our town. I felt my shoulders slump a little and my butt relax deeper in the seats. I kind of wanted to cry, but it was a moment that again, I shared only with myself. It was the first time I felt slightly less alone in an American church. The first public place that it might be okay to work out my culture issues and feel safe.

It was also the place where a Southern girl (as American as mac n' cheese) taught me how to re-embrace a part of me I had left behind. This friend was named Sarah*. Sarah and her family are Jesus-seekers and wholehearted members of the small Presbyterian Church (PCA) that we are all a part of.

When I first talked to Sarah, she mesmerized me with her stories of intentionality and engagement. Every afternoon, she takes her boys out to the parking lot, sets up some yellow cones to warn drivers, and they spend the late afternoon riding bikes. By six pm, her Indian neighbors have also come outside and their kids join the fun. She positions her lawn chairs and hands out extra bikes that her family has collected to any kids that don’t have bikes. The Indian boys and girls call Sarah “auntie,” a term of acceptance.

One story Sarah recounted was a turning point for me.The Indian women in her neighborhood often come out in groups for their afternoon walks. One day, all the women came out, gathered their things, and left Sarah to care for all their children.  Then this became the routine.

Sarah felt perplexed by this. Though she was thankful that they trusted her with their children, she felt left out. In Indian culture they explained, the communal aspect and “it takes a village” mentality meant that a single adult sufficed as a babysitter for all the children. One day, Sarah confronted them and said “I want to walk with you. I don’t want to always babysit your kids.” The women tilted their heads and giggled at her as she tried to convey her desire. The discussion was a mix-up of cultural confusion, clumsy language dynamics, and the desire to connect.

And so she joined their walk. She grappled and wrestled to grasp the conversation. She understood almost nothing during the trip.

This is everything that getting to know someone who is different than you should be.  It is the initial terrifying jump into the unknown of possibly offending someone. It is the unwieldy silences between difficult vocabulary words in other languages. It is the complexity of relationship when individualism and village mentalities clash and bang.  When the noise that goes up shatters into the loud dissonance of the family-frameworks and culture we have come from.

It can be a lesson in self-consciousness and embarrassment. It can mean perpetuating cultural stereotypes (sometimes unconsciously), and then backing up and understanding an individual story, turning around in your dialogue and realizing you have, perhaps, gotten it all wrong.

When Sarah told me this story what resonated was her feeling of being “outside” and out-of-her-depth. And I think this is important. When we think about downward mobility and cross-cultural interactions as vocation we are correct. But we also acknowledge that vocation is not easy, comfortable, or natural. Vocation can be gritty, like digging in a sandbox and getting granules of sand stuck under your fingernails. It forces you to question your motives—forces you to think about your own pride and perhaps even your own racism or aversion to cultural nuances. And this is not fun. This is far from fun—but it just might be vocation even though it hurts.

When I think about vocation, I think about writing, in which I feel the flow of an organic creativity that begins in my thoughts and ends up in my words on a paper. But I sometimes forget the agony and disruption of pen on paper, of trying to find the exact word I am looking for, of exhaustive editing and not explaining something well, or being misunderstood. Writing is vocation, but it is not easy, it is not trite. It takes time and patience and humility. Humility as we fight for words, fight to be understood and resist presuming or placing constructs upon other people and ourselves that do not fit or are not honest.

My neighborhood is composed of many Indian families. Should I reach out? By using the words “reach out” am I already conveying a kind of cultural superiority or colonizing mentality that exposes me? Am I okay with silence in between words? With trying to meet other people with open hands and finding closed hands or vice versa?

I think vocation means trying things on for size, even if the pants don’t fit you at the ankles and you have to roll the legs up a bit. Even if you were once-upon-a-time a missionary kid, but feel like that part of you has disappeared into the background. And I’m just at the beginning of this—at the starting line of “maybe I’m called."

Yesterday, I was  coming out of my apartment and I noticed my Indian neighbor standing outside with a little girl my daughter’s age. I yelled, “Hello!” even as my words seemed to echo back at an embarrassing decibel. She looked around to see if I was saying hello to her, and the start of a loud and confusing conversation began. I walked up to her, and we exchanged the formalities of name and relation. Her name was hard to pronounce, and I rolled it over my tongue and under my breath several times, trying to grasp some fluidity. My little Zoe and her granddaughter eyed each other.

And then we had a moment. I don’t want this to seem like a “happy ending” or the conclusion to a story about race and culture and understanding. Because it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t conclusive and it wasn’t definitive.

This moment was mid-conversation. I think it was also mutual. I commented on her granddaughters absolutely gorgeous eyelashes—which were black and beautiful, and I said, “They look just like my daughters. They both have amazing lashes.” She nodded and laughed.

Was this moment as meaningful to her as it was to me? I don’t know. After this, we stumbled through another exchange. She asked her granddaughter to “high-five” my daughter (who refused to comply). Then I asked her questions about her family but I asked them too fast.  I needed to go. We laughed and nodded goodbye.

And that was it. Perhaps my vocation for downward mobility is a budding one even though I have past multi-cultural experiences. Maybe it is for you too. Maybe you aren’t equipped. Maybe you're not sure you even want to go out in your neighborhood and meet people who have different backgrounds. Maybe, like me, you've left a part of you behind, and you need to reach out because it will help you even more than it will help them

 

 

 

unnamed-1Briana Meade is a 20-something writer and blogger at brianameade.com. She is a contributor to Early Mama, a site for young mothers and often writes about the intersection of faith, culture, and motherhood. She lives with her husband and two children in the Raleigh-Durham area and is a graduate of Wheaton College

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts on downward mobility, please click here.

 

Am I Going to Be a Giver Today? (Guest Post by Haley Baker)

Haley is my girl. My bestie. She gets me. We can have the most insightful, spiritual discussions and then be complete and utter nerds. She is so honest, and so great at taking care of people. But if you had told me two years ago that Haley would be living in Uganda, I would have laughed hysterically. Doing without just wasn't her jam. But more than anything, Haley listens to God. So when he tells her to live her best life now, she jumps. i have been so inspired by her journey, even as I mourn the fact that it is taking place to far away from me. I have been pestering her for a while now, hoping she would give us an insight into her journey in loving her neighbors. And man, did she bring it--just like I knew she would. 

 

me and haley and my awesome, cake-faced baby.

 

 

Am I Going to Be a Giver Today?

Guest Post by Haley Baker

 

 

I never thought I could live in a 3rd world country. I always dreamed of being the kind of person who could do that kind of work but never thought it would actually be me. In my heart, I always cared about the poor but I spent more energy convincing myself that since I wasn’t “rich,” my giving was never very sacrificial. I am now more convinced than ever that the more we seek our own comforts the more we marginalize others. I remember telling D.L. Mayfield that I never wanted to move to Africa. I really liked my life. Then 8 months later, that’s exactly where I found myself: Northern Uganda. The opportunity snuck up on me when my husband and I were presented with the opportunity and we were in a place where we were willing to say “yes” to God. Be careful what you ask for! We just spent 13 months in Uganda and are planning to go back in early spring for the next 3 to 5 years. I chuckle a bit to myself because in so many ways I’ve yet to “arrive.” My husband recently pointed out to me that I still own more than 15 pairs of shoes after our big downsize.

Last month I felt nervous to come back home because I know myself too well. I like iced caramel lattes far too much and temptations like obtaining the IPhone 5 are real for us. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with those things, I also know how prone I am to make unnecessary trips to Target to make myself feel better. I’ve wrestled for months to reconcile our American spending habits with the very real needs of people in the developing world to the point where I’ve made myself crazy. We only eat meat about twice a week in Uganda because not only is it difficult to prepare, but most people we know hardly eat meat. I’ve actually felt guilty about that.  Toward the end of our stay, I visited 11 orphans in the bush who don’t even own shoes and I began thinking, “If I gave up meat, what could I do with that $15 a week? That would pay for 3 children to go to school every month. I could come back here and bring those naked babies some clothes.” I wonder, at what point can you say that you’ve arrived? Your sacrificing is enough. Recently, an Africa friend said to me, “I wish I could see what your life was like in the states before you came here.” I felt ashamed because I remember how much of my living was for my own self and my own comforts and I don’t want to be that person again. Every day, I have the opportunity to make choices that really do define the kind of person I am. Even in Africa I have to ask myself, “Today am I going to be a giver? Am I going to sacrifice my alone time, my money, and my comforts for the betterment of someone else?”

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I think as humans we have a tendency to be “all” or “nothing” and that can make downward mobility feel overwhelming or unattainable. When we can’t make radical, downward shifts all at once it is easy to give up and throw in the towel. Don’t do that! Let’s keep wrestling with those tensions. Even in Uganda I struggle with those tensions. I know that I can l go without running water but please, oh please don’t ask me to go without electricity. My husband and I live a somewhat comfortable life in a 3rd world country because I told myself that in order to “survive” there I would need an indoor toilet and decent coffee. You have to figure out what works for you. Not everyone is called to take the same steps or make the same changes in their life. Downward mobility is going to look different for you than it does for me and I love seeing how Jesus is wrecking all of our lives when we take that risk. I’m much more interested in listening and sharing stories than I am about who is doing it better than the next person.

Even after reading this whole series, I still sometimes ask myself, “What is downward mobility, really?” Isn’t it about embracing Kingdom values and purposefully moving towards valuing what Jesus valued? For me, downward mobility wasn’t just about downsizing my stuff. You could be an incredible minimalist and still not care about the vulnerable. Giving up 90% of my worldly possessions to move overseas was the easy part. Showing solidarity and digging deep into relationship with people who are different than me is what is difficult.

In my own experience, downward mobility is nothing apart from Jesus. My sacrifices are nothing apart from Jesus. If He isn’t the one guiding us then the whole pursuit is self righteous and ultimately purposeless. Sometimes the changes I have made in my life make for an incredibly lonely place to be and I can’t wait for the day when He comes and fulfills His kingdom once and for all. At the same time, I wouldn’t trade this downward mobility journey because of the joy and love I have experienced over the past year. And I am still trying to figure out my life just like everyone else. We need each other and we need Jesus to do that.

 

 

unnamed-2Bio: Haley Baker is an advocate for vulnerable children in Northern Uganda. She and her husband are from Portland, Oregon but are in the process of returning to Uganda for the long haul. They will be doing sustainable business and community outreach. They have no littles of their own but hope to adopt some day. You can follow their adventure atwww.rickhaleyandjune.blogspot.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

 

 

 

Downward Mobility Interview: Suburban Edition

My friend Stina (hey, remember her? She blew up the internets with her "I'm a Downward Mobility Dropout" post) asked me if she could interview some friends of hers. I said yes, of course (and I would love to have a few more interviews like it!). Matthew and Diana's story is very encouraging to me, and I resonated with so much of what they had to say about joy, community, and sustainability (and bedbugs and expensive rent). Actually, it made me miss our apartment complex in Portland something fierce (currently, we live in apartments where there is zero community space and very few families due to the small sizes of the apartments). I just adore these pockets of kingdom people and kingdom communities, which are all over our cities and suburbs. Let's keep sharing these stories!  

 

Downward Mobility Interview: Suburban Edition

Interview by Stina KC.

Matthew and Diana Soerens and their daughter Zipporah live at Parkside, a low-income apartment complex in an affluent suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Diana worked as a public high school teacher for seven years and is now working part-time at their church, Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.  Matthew works as the Field Director for the Evangelical Immigration Table, a national coalition of faith-based groups seeking to encourage changes to U.S. immigration policy consistent with biblical values.  He's also the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009).  Matt and Diana met while both students at Wheaton College, and they held their wedding reception in the courtyard of their apartment complex in 2011.

Stina KC recently interviewed Matthew and Diana about their downward mobility journey in Glen Ellyn, a wealthy suburb where the median household income is nearly $90,000. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Q: Tell me about your experience with downward mobility. Why did you decide to move into Parkside?

Diana: I spent six months in a rural village in Mexico and I loved the simplicity of that lifestyle. I took a lot of joy in doing things slowly and in the relationship with other women in the village. I wanted to go back overseas after college but the doors were shut firmly so I started getting involved with World Relief, a local refugee resettlement agency. Our church was helping a refugee family and they were resettled in the Parkside neighborhood. I started coming to Parkside all the time and hanging out with Matt because he lived here. His roommate Jonathan had a vision for an intentional community and they recruited me to move into the neighborhood. Then I married Matt! And we never left.

Parkside reminded me about everything that I loved about living overseas without having to leave the suburbs. I loved the neighborhood, I loved that there were people outside all the time, and I loved the hospitality of the neighbors. It was the culture I was searching for, the place I was looking for. It was home.

Matthew: That’s an important point for us. We don’t live here because we want to make some kind of virtuous sacrifice. It’s not that we are focused on living in the most low-income place; we just love living here. If we are going to live in the suburbs of Chicago, this is where we want to live. The culture here is different from the suburbs, it’s much more community oriented and this is where we want to raise our daughter.

My story is somewhat similar to Diana’s. I had come back recently from living overseas for six months and I was living in this really nice house in Wheaton but it was killing my soul. I have been here for a long time, over seven years now.

 

Q: What is the structure to your community? Is it just the two of you or are there others living at Parkside who are there for the same reasons?

Diana: We do Bible studies with the middle school kids. We do basic discipleship with them. I’ve been meeting with the same group of girls for over two years now. It has been great to see how they’ve grown.

Matthew: We have a community meal on Monday nights, which is mostly our intentional community. There are about ten people in our community who live at Parkside who, like us, went to Wheaton College. We have a rotating meal, which is an opportunity to host outsiders and entertain guests. We also have a community prayer time Monday through Thursday evenings.

 

Q: Why do you continue to choose to live at Parkside?

Diana: It would be easy to live in the suburbs and never leave my Christian bubble. I could go to moms group at church and just hang out with my church friends. One reason is to interact with a diverse population and get out of the white Christian bubble.

Only one in ten immigrants have ever been welcomed into the home of an American and I find that really sad. I want to change the way immigrants are received into this country. Being hospitable to our neighbors and receiving their hospitality in return is a big value I have.

Matthew: This is important for me because my job is focused on immigration policy issues. I fly in and out of this community way more than anybody else who lives here; I’m not a typical resident. I work with pastors and politicians, so it’s important when I get home that I am still interacting with immigrants on a relational level.

 

Q: What do you does “downward mobility” mean to you?

Matthew: We aren’t downwardly mobile as much as not upwardly mobile. We haven’t consistently downsized; we just moved into a bigger apartment. But we have stayed in the same apartment complex and don’t plan on leaving. Mobility implies a direction and I don’t think we are systematically becoming less affluent or consumeristic, but hopefully we are capping where we’ve reached.

 

Q: How has your experience with downward mobility changed since becoming parents?

Diana: I have a lot more street cred as a mom with the other moms at Parkside. It opens up a lot more doors for relationships. I love staying at home with my baby here. I think I would go crazy if I lived in a big house; I would die of loneliness. One great thing about living in this neighborhood is that I don’t have to be lonely if I don’t want to be. There are always neighbors to talk to, I can go and knock on somebody’s door, there are kids playing outside all the time.

The most difficult thing is bedbugs. They are horrible and drive you crazy. They have bitten my five-month-old daughter. The level of infestation in the complex means we’re never going to completely get rid of them.

Matthew: It’s difficult because the best way to get prevent getting more bedbugs is to not to let any of our neighbors into our apartment, which defeats the purpose of living here. We have a bunch of kids in here twice a week and after they leave we say a prayer over the space to try and keep the bedbugs away.

Besides the bedbugs I feel like we are doing downward mobility lite, or at least incarnational living lite.  We’re in the suburbs. We don’t have a lot of crime. We don’t live in a food desert; we can walk to four different grocery stores. We have friends who are living in desperate urban areas where there are shootings and crime. We don’t have to worry about getting shot.

Diana: Also, rent is expensive here. I struggle because we could be paying this much for a mortgage and building equity. That responsible financial thinking starts: “Maybe we should buy a house because we’re in that stage of life.”

 

Q: What did your friends and families think when you decided to live at Parkside? Did you get pushback?

Diana: Yes, from my parents. They were scandalized by how much we were paying for rent that goes toward a crummy apartment. And they said, “You’re going to walk out to your car and find it on cement blocks! They’re going to steal your tires!”

And the truth is there is no real crime at Parkside. It has had its fair share of issues in the past, like gangs and drugs and prostitution, but the neighborhood has cleaned up since World Relief has been resettling refugee families here. Our neighborhood is really vibrant and safe and family friendly.

 

Q: Do you have any words of encouragement/resources/advice for people considering downward mobility in a suburban context?

Matthew: There is cool downward mobility, and then there is halfway downward mobility where you live within walking distance of a Starbucks. No matter where you are, in a rural context or suburban context or urban context, there are communities like the one we live in. There are almost certainly people in your neighborhood who are living at or beneath the poverty line.

Diana: I know it sounds cliché, but we receive more from our neighbors than we ever give. Even if you don’t live in a diverse or under resourced area, get to know your neighbors and build a community.

Matthew: I don’t want people to feel guilty, like they have to live in a neighborhood like ours, because we are living here because we want to. I think if more people tried it they would discover that they really love it. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a better way to live, but for us it’s a better way to live.

 

 

Thank you, Matthew and Diana, for sharing your story. Feel free to ask more questions in the comments!

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Living More With Less

I bought boots at Target yesterday. I haven't bought clothes of any kind there for about 6 years now. I don't even let my glance fall on the clearance racks, lest I be tempted beyond what I can bear (the hands that made those dirt-cheap goods most certainly were not paid well, you can be sure). But it's supposed to snow this afternoon, and the snow boots I bought at the Salvation Army last year fell apart, literally, in my hands. Every day off we have we have been scouring the thrift stores, using precious time and gas to try and get ready for winter. But everybody else needs boots too, so there never was any to be found.

I researched ethical, sweatshop free boots and found some. Gorgeous. Perfect for me: I walk 1 mile to work and I need shoes that I can both walk in and then teach standing up in for 3 hours. I found these shoes. They were even a bit hipster! But they were $160, and no doubt worth every penny. I prayed and sweated and heard no clear answer. And then our vacuum died (bought on Craigslist) and the husband has to get a tooth pulled and if we opt to do a replacement that will be $1,200-2,500 (think through that next time popular culture asks you to laugh at people who are missing teeth as being stupid and ignorant and poor. They are missing teeth because state healthcare considers replacing teeth to be vanity).

So. There is no way I can buy these boots, no way my neighbors can, and so I don't. I see a coupon for 40% off of winter boots at Target, and I go and buy some for $20, and they will keep me warm and dry on my way to teach ESOL. When I buy them, I don't even feel guilty, except:

I have told everybody that I only shop at thrift stores.

//

I recently checked out a book from the library at my church called Living More With Less by Doris Janzen Longacre. I'm familiar with the More With Less cookbook (which I adore, to be sure--but more as a book on a theology of food and less as a book of tasty recipes), but I had never read the sequel until now. The original goal of the author was to write a "practical, how-to help to North American Christians who genuinely desire to live more interdependently with the poor." And she has, although it isn't as neat and tidy as we would like it to be (in fact, Longacre refuses to use the word "lifestyle" and instead focuses on "life standards"--because she felt "lifestyle" was too easy and flippant a term). She writes in the introduction that "the trouble with simple living is that though it can be joyful, rich, and creative, it isn't simple". It demands a complete change of theology and a committment to orientating your life to something much bigger than you and yours.

As I am sure you all have noted, the downward mobility series on this here blog has caused me no small amounts of consternation. Part of the problem is that I lead a rich, full, chaotic life and I rarely have the time to devote to good writing anymore--much less engage well with other writers, readers and thinkers. The other problem is that the conversation leaves out so many people--specifically those who don't have the luxury of choosing their mobility, and people who have been practitioners for many years but aren't public about their lifestyles.

Longacre addresses the latter issue directly. As she sought for personal testimonies and stories for her book, she found some intriguing patterns. She writes:

Testifying isn't easy . . . will people think my ideas foolish? Will they trust my experience? Is my life ever consistent enough that I dare open my mouth publicly?

These are the same feelings expressed by those who wrote (and sometimes refused to write) for this book. Entries began in humble tones, often with some version of "undoubtedly you already have some of these ideas. They may not be usable anyway, but I'll share them just in case." Postscripts frequently read, "I know we haven't arrived" or "I know my living isn't really consistent". People everywhere confided that they did have ideas but they were afraid others might find them proud or ridiculous.

When I read that, I sighed aloud in my chair. Here she had summed up so many of my problems with this series in a neat little paragraph, written 6 years before I was born. So, these kinds of issues have been around for a while, and they will certainly be here tomorrow.

Because I do feel proud, and I do feel ridiculous, and I do feel like a failure, almost every day. Writing about these kinds of subjects and asking others to do the same is vulnerable, in all sorts of ways. Many, many people who I would love to hear from stay silent, from these very fears. Longacre later says how many people didn't want to write because they were afraid of what their family and friends would think--because they often fell short of their ideals. But that's the thing, isn't it? We've only got the days set before us to do what we are meant to do, and often times we will fail.

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N.T. Wright shared at the Simply Jesus gathering about how important the interaction in John 21 between Jesus and Peter was.  This is after Peter betrayed Jesus, after he was resurrected. Jesus, playing up on the 3 denials, asks Peter 3 times if he loves him. This anguishes Peter, who replies yes! each time. Then feed my sheep, Jesus says, over and over. Feed my little, precious lambs.

Jesus then goes on to do something strange, predicting Peter's death. Peter turns around and looks at "the one whom Jesus loves" (probably John, showing off) and says: "what about him? What's going to happen to him?" And Jesus replies: "what is it to you if he remains until I come? You, follow me!"

N.T. Wright made the point that all of us in ministry at some point will disappoint Jesus, and we will feel our souls crushed as a result. And this passage is so important for us to read, because it shows us that Jesus continues to ask us to follow him. He asks us to stop living in our imperfections, to stop worrying about if the person next to you is following Jesus--and just, follow Him.

I just want to share this with you as a way of extending the conversation here. Lord knows it's a truth I need to sit with awhile. I love having a few lifestyle choices in the bag that ensure I am following Jesus--like only shopping at thrift stores. It's a neat thing to say that makes me different from people, possibly even holier. But in reality, in the trenches here, I am finding I don't have the time, energy, or gas to go thrift shopping. Every purchase has to be carefully weighed out, every vegetable and sock and Christmas present. As I find myself going deeper and deeper into living interdependently with the poor, my easy and neat lifestyle choices no longer hold up as well. I question more, I feel less sure, and at the same time--feel a lot less guilty.

Because that is what it has to be about. It has to be about relationships with those who are at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. And relationships are messy, complicated, life-long affairs. No simple blog post or 10 EZ tips 4 downward mobility here. Just me, and a bunch of other people, plodding along, making mistakes, constantly holding a mirror up to our own faces and asking: are we following Jesus? Are we taking care of his children with our lives?

No doubt about it, we all will fail. We always will. And Jesus will always be there, reminding us that he wants to use us in spite of that.

As I walk through the snow in my boots, you can be sure I will be thinking of all of this. How living simply is not very simple in the least.

But it is rich.

 

 

 

 

The Long Haul--Guest Post by Sandy Fox

Today's guest post comes to us from a long-term practitioner of "kingdom values". I love stories like this, and would love to hear more! The utter un-sexiness of it all continues to astound me, as well as the enormous amounts of joy and satisfaction. I appreciate Sandy for reaching out and sharing her life with us. This isn't an easy thing to do, and she does it with grace and humility, inspiring us who are only in the beginning stages of this crazy life. And write down those books she talks about!  

The Long Haul

Guest post by Sandy Fox

 

My faith has been strongly influenced by growing up the child of immigrants. With no extended family in the country, my parents always invited people to our home for holidays- one Christmas we had a homeless man who had just gotten out of prison, a Japanese business man and a slightly odd ball friend of mine who had nowhere else to go.  We often spent part of Thanksgiving serving at a homeless shelter.  I was used to walking downtown with my mother, where many of the homeless greeted her by name.

When I went away to college in the late 1970’s, my faith was formed by the writings of Ron Sider (Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger), Jim Wallis and Sojourners, Richard Foster and his writings on simplicity. I was heavily influenced by Karen Burton Main's book Open Heart, Open Home and Edith Schaeffer’s The Hidden Art of Homemaking.  I was involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and went to the Urbana Missions Conference in 1979.  There I heard speaker after speaker talk about the global body of Christ.  When I came back, I joined a group that reached out to international students.  My husband (then boyfriend) and I formed a deep friendship with a couple from Bangladesh.  There were other friendships with students from Iran, China, Japan.

When I met my husband, I knew that life with him would be an adventure.  And oh, what an adventure it has been!  We are now in our mid-fifties with a daughter in college.  The values and visions we formed as young adults have stayed with us and we have imperfectly tried to live them out.

When I hear the term “Downward mobility,” I think of “kingdom values.”  What are the values of the kingdom?  People.  Justice.  Mission.  Love.  Gospel .  Transformed lives.  Sacrifice.  The choices that we have made have been shaped by those values.  These values inform the way we live, where we have lived and how we spent our time.  We tried as much as we could to maintain a home that was open to hospitality.  However, we needed balance in that- Thanksgiving was open to all kinds of people.  Christmas was just for family.  We have made conscious choices for simplicity- used cars, smaller homes, few electronics, home cooking, home gardening.

The adventures of living according to kingdom values have brought wonderful people in our lives.  We have been privileged to serve in Korean, Chinese and an International church.  We have worked with refugees and post-doctoral researchers. We went to seminary in our mid-thirties and overseas in our mid-forties.  We spent three years overseas in a closed country, where we fostered a special needs orphan and worked training church leaders.  Our daughter spent last summer working with at risk teen girls in the Philippines and now works with refugee children in a tutoring program in Seattle.  It’s been a rich, rich life.

There have been struggles.  We have often struggled financially.  Part of our commitment was to be sure there was always someone home with our daughter after school.  That meant part-time work for me and less income for us.  We have moved a lot and that brings a relational cost.  We haven’t pursued the American dream of stability and that is odd to some people.

As I look back over our life, I can think of some things that I would do differently (more savings for retirement!).  But living a counter-cultural life for the long term brings great joy and satisfaction.

 

 

photoSandy Fox lives in the Portland area where she teaches ESL, gardens, knits and serves with her husband in a small Chinese church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

12 disciples for every rich young ruler

In all honesty, this series on downward mobility has just about done me in. I find myself in a place of both great confidence and extreme self-doubt--especially when it comes to writing. That doesn't sound very fun, and it really isn't. The trouble with writing about downward mobility is that it brings up all of our baggage with money and privilege. So people respond in various ways to me, usually a variation on the theme of feeling bad about themselves. Then I, the writer (or, as is more often the case, the curator) of the series start to feel incredibly anxious. People are feeling bad about themselves! It must be because I am a terrible, horrible, snarky person. And to a degree, this is true. I am 29 years old. I am living my best life now. I am experiencing all the joys of the downward mobility journey, and also some of the hurts and isolations. So I am finding that the processing bit of this series has been a complete failure. There seems to be no way to process my downward mobility journey without coming off as self-righteous or excluding others form the conversation (which is probably why no one writes about this stuff). But it has forced me to really and truly come to my beliefs about this whole mess, what it means to give up some of what we were born with to go find Jesus in the margins. And, I am here to tell you, I finally believe it: downward mobility is a vocation.

I never wanted to admit that before, because I didn't want to let everyone else off the hook. For me, vocation is dripping with importance and pomp and circumstance and assurance. When people tell me that living among the poor must be my vocation, I see them distancing themselves from me, turning me into something I'm not, something holy and good and uncomplicated. I hate the word vocation, for it puts me and other practitioners up on pedestals, far above ordinary time, which is a terribly prideful, lonely place to be.

But I know--not everyone can up and move into my neighborhood (we couldn't hold you, for starters). So I started to read books about vocation, to pray about it in my own intense way as I stomped through the leaves on my way to work, my heart thrilling at the sights and sounds and faces that I now know to be closer to me than they were a year ago, my spirit soaking up the pleasure of living in a place you adore.

There it was, all around me: joy is the root of vocation. Sacrifice is there, to be sure, but the pleasure of the work you were made to do underlies everything. As I was reading books, waiting for someone to tell me exactly what my vocation was, it became pretty apparent. It is what I am already doing, what I have been drawn to since I was a small child, which I will be drawn to for the rest of my days, no matter if I choose to obey it or not.

And that's the thing. Maybe more are called to this life but it seems unattainable, fraught with danger, impossible to pull off well. And maybe our guilt comes from not being obedient to what would turn out to be our life's biggest joy, learning and living and working with the people at the margins. The flip side of this, of course, is that if you aren't called, you won't last--and could do damage in the meantime. So it has become apparent that the idea of vocation has to be a part of the conversation surrounding downward mobility.

All that to say--today, I am here to tell you to vote for me in an online contest*. I know, right? But I entered my idea for a book and got picked as one of ten finalists for a contest the Barna Group (you know, those Christian researchers). As shocking as this may be to you all, my book idea centers around the idea of downward mobility (with a healthy dose of vocation).

Here's a bit from the essay I submitted:

 

D.L. Mayfield—Downward Mobility: Gentrification, Incarnation, or Something In Between?

”We’ve all been living so good we’ve moved out of Jesus’ neighborhood”- Derek Webb

The Rich Young Ruler

A little over a year ago, my husband, baby and I sold everything we had and moved to a neighborhood far from where we grew up--both in geography and socio-economic terms. While some might think this move extreme, it’s an action that is being mirrored in cities all throughout the country. I suspect that others, like myself, have realized that our realities are not the realities of the majority world--and that we might be called to do something about it.

The poor you will always have with you, Jesus said, a phrase we trot out often. But what else did he have to say about the poor? Blessed are they, he said, along with the rest of the world we tend to forget about: the hungry, the persecuted, the sick.

In our current social climate, perhaps no story brings up such divided feelings like the story of the Rich Young Ruler; the story of a young man, eager to follow Jesus, who had all the right doctrines but who couldn’t obey when Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor.

For many of us, this story makes our stomachs sink like a stone. Because we are rich young men and women ourselves, people of plenty in an age of hunger. Our fears about our own wealth and privilege color how we read this story. Are all of us called to do what the rich young ruler could not? As testified by the rest of the New Testament, the answer is no.

But for some, the answer is yes.

Read the rest of the essay at the contest page. And vote for the book you would most like to read!

 

*Contests are weird. My life is so weird. It is also pretty amazing.

 

 

 

 

a few words on downward mobility

   

For the people who critique downward mobility, the term: 

I'm sorry. It's just words. Use different words if you need to. I use it as an easy, succinct way to describe consciously choosing to not pursue climbing the ladder of the American dream. Smaller living spaces, simple living, done with reconciliation and relationship as the goal. Arguing about the terms is boring and useless. In fact, arguing in general just tires me out.

 

 

For the people who critique downward mobility, the practice:

This is probably not the series for you.

 

 

For the people who feel guilty, or shamed in regards to conversations about downward mobility:

I'm sorry. Nothing good ever comes from guilt. But everything beautiful comes from love.

 

 

For the people who feel like failures: 

You're not. You're not. You're not.

 

 

For the practitioners, the people who are trying to live this out, in one or two or twenty very small ways; to the people living with mice and cockroaches and bedbugs, those with neighbors who slam doors in their faces or cook them a lovely pot of curry; those who lay awake at night thinking about violence and abuse and neglect and grief; for those with one coat or one bike or pots with no lids; for those who work all day with little or no recognition, who hang out with the mentally ill and the lonely and the brusque; for those who love the urine-soaked city streets and the quiet rural poor; for those that cook big pots of lentil soup, who leave the doors unlocked, who see the world as big and broken and offer up what little you have, the tiny, laughable loaves and fishes of your life, your privilege, your face, your body, your hands and face and smile, day after day after day, in the neighborhoods far from where you grew up:

I love you.

May the peace of Christ be with you, wherever he may send you.

I'm a Downward Mobility Dropout--Guest Post by Stina KC

Stina and I are real-life friends (our babies are besties, too). We met at the little Mennonite church she talks about in this here essay, and I am so glad we did. Stina and I were recently talking about this Downward Mobility series, and I expressed my disappointment that there weren't more posts about the struggle of it all. Oh, I can write about that, she said. And boy, can this girl write. I'm grateful for her honesty, which is so hard to share in public. So often we just want to hear the stories of the out-and-out-successes. But I am drawn to the stories of hunger, of struggle, of inner conflict and even failure. Because there is a lot of "failure" in the upside-down kingdom, at least by empire standards. I am learning to make friends with it, however, one little day at a time. 

 

 

 

http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20130327/new-york-city/babywearing-101-classes-sprout-across-city

 

I'm a Downward Mobility Dropout

by Stina KC

 

 

When my daughter was born, we lived in the most diverse neighborhood in America. She learned to walk in the hallways of an apartment building filled with cooking smells from our East African neighbors. During that bleary first year of motherhood, I would pace the noisy streets outside our apartment building with my baby strapped to my chest, praying that the drone of cars and traffic would lull her to sleep. I would shield her little face from cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes as I walked by strangers on the street. People were often drunk at the bus stop one block away and prostitutes hung out at the corner when the daylight faded. I would keep walking, moving quickly to avoid contact with my neighbors.

//

My husband and I first moved to this neighborhood when we were recent Christian college graduates, young and idealistic about Jesus, Shane Claiborne’s “Ordinary Radicals,” and downward mobility. We didn’t make much with our AmeriCorps stipends and social service salaries, but we didn’t care. We shared duplexes with friends, saving money on rent to buy fixed gear bicycles and shop organic at the co-op. We belonged to a house church with other young misfits, going dumpster diving and holding clothing swaps. But even though we lived in the most diverse neighborhood in America, we didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t like us.

After our house church crumbled and our faith began its slow cynical drift, we started attending a small Mennonite church a few blocks away. On that first Sunday morning, a gray-haired man with kind eyes thanked us for coming and gave us a fair trade soup mix, a special gift for visitors. I knew we were home when, in our first hymn, we sang about becoming “midwives of justice.” During the sharing of prayers and concerns, a man asked for prayer for immigration reform. Another shared the news of South Sudan. I relaxed in my pew.

//

I listened to my voicemail message one evening in late October after putting my daughter to bed. Something about the lead test results. I should call this number, it’s urgent. I sat down at the kitchen table, hitting redial.

Someone answered: “Your daughter’s lead test came back elevated. Do you know how serious this could be for her development?” I didn’t know anything about lead. I googled it and a shot of fear like ice water raced through my body. Behavioral issues. Long term learning disabilities. Brain damage

As the man on the phone rattled off some tips for limiting exposure, I wrote manic notes on a discarded envelope. “What’s your address?” he asked. He looked it up on the city’s database. “Oh, yeah. You’re in a high impact area. You live at 2825 Park? I see cases of elevated lead at 2828 and 2830 and, wow, it’s all over the place. The blocks around you, too.”

The county sent over a woman with a smoker’s cough to test our floors and windows for lead dust. (“I love the fixtures in here,” she said. “We get to see so many old homes.”) We got the results a week later. Our bedroom window well, the same spot where our daughter loved to slap her hands while watching city buses and bike commuters, had lead levels of 38,700. Safe levels are below 400.

I thought about our neighbors on the third floor, the Ethiopian Pentecostals with two small children who hosted prayer meetings on Tuesday evenings, shoes in a pile outside their apartment door. I thought about the Mexican family who lived across the street in the house with the broken steps and abandoned toys in their yard. I wondered about the kids who get picked up at the bus stop on 28th and Columbus. Have they been tested? Do their parents know?

At first, my moral outrage fueled conversations about petitions and tenant rights and lawsuits. We could stay and fight. But then I started leaving the apartment for most of the day, camping out at my parents’ house so my daughter wouldn’t be tempted to play at the windows. Soon, we were apartment searching and then signing a lease and suddenly it wasn’t my problem anymore.

We moved two and half months later, in the middle of January. Our Mennonite church friends helped carry our craigslisted couch down icy steps and load it into a Ford pick-up. Three hours later we stood in our new apartment across town, surrounded by boxes and Rubbermaid totes from Target.

The next morning I took my daughter outside, her snowsuit zipped up to her chin. As I watched her toddle along the sidewalks, I thought about my old neighbors and their kids and the lead dust they were breathing. I never really knew them, only a handful of names in my memory, and we were gone now.

//

This story is painful to recount. I have felt guilty for leaving, for not fighting my landlord like the “midwives of justice” that my church sings about. I know it isn’t God’s will for my daughter to breathe in lead dust. I also know it isn’t God’s will for any child to breathe in lead dust, to live in poverty, to attend crappy schools.

Jesus’ call to downward mobility felt so obvious when I was in my early 20s. But over the years, I never put in the daily work of building mutual relationships with my neighbors and so, when the crisis came, it was easy to leave them behind. Now I panic that I am becoming one of those wishy-washy Christians I always belittled, their faiths flimsy and fearful. I worry that my faith is drifting, that if it isn’t radical and downwardly mobile it’s just ash in the wind.

Still, I return every Sunday to my old neighborhood for church. I smile at the corner stores and familiar graffiti murals from my car window. I keep showing up, singing the hymns, making small talk over coffee cake. I keep leaning into the body of Christ, this holy community of which I am one imperfect part. And I pray small short prayers, asking God for more faith, another opportunity. Asking God for courage and obedience and grace.

 

 

DSC01407Stina is living up the last year of her 20s by doing things that scare her, like writing for strangers on the internet. She is an angsty Anglican/Anabaptist hybrid who likes to use words like “intentionality” and “marginalized” in everyday conversations. Stina lives in the American heartland with her husband and daughter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

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