D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: downward mobility

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.

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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.

 

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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. 

 

 

 

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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:

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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I am also a little embarrassed about our house.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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.

Downward Mobility as Reconciliation -- Guest post by Krispin Mayfield

Today you get to hear from the best boy yourself. Meet Krispin, my husband--and yes, we are using real names around here today. It's been a slow journey moving towards the place where we can be authentic and wise in a world stripped of anonymity. I love my husband so very much--he is the thoughtfulness to my flash, the calm to my riot. His gift to people is simply his presence; his gift to us today is his ability to articulate a bit of our family's journey towards downward mobility. 

Downward Mobility as Reconciliation

Guest Post by Krispin Mayfield

Throughout the life of the church, people have struggled to differentiate between universal commands and specific callings. Great commission? definitely a call for all (thus, the “great” part). Being sent across political and cultural borders, like Paul? just for those called. Jesus called the rich young ruler to give up all the he owned, but we wonder, Is this descriptive, or do I just have to be ready to give up all I have?

It is important to keep these command categories in mind. I am a “professional minister,” and part of my income comes from donations from those who do work 40+ hours a week, or more, and sacrificially give to the ministry in this neighborhood. To say all are called to my specific lifestyle is both unbiblical and illogical.

Nonetheless, all followers of Jesus are called to be on mission with him. So it is important to look at what his mission is. Jesus cites Isaiah’s words as his own mission: He is anointed “to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

I don't believe everyone is called to live among the poor, although I do wonder if more are called than the tiny, single-digit percentage of missionaries who are living among the poor (particularly considering that 60% of the world is living in poverty). I do believe we are all called to both care for and be in relationship with the poor. Pick any section of the Bible, the Torah, Psalms, Prophets, Gospels, Epistles--God is continually showing his heart for the poor.

Furthermore, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, both with those separated from God and from ourselves. As disciples, we are called to take part in breaking down walls of hostility between ethnic groups, genders, socio-economic classes. This includes demonstrating the inclusivity of the Kingdom by drawing near to those who are different than I am, which certainly includes the poor.

There's this theory that if you target those in power in society, “trickle-down evangelism” will occur. This is the idea that if you target government officials, CEO’s, and the like, they will reach out into all of society. This happens sometimes, but I have also heard first hand from poor folks who were forced to sit in the back in church because of their socio-economic status. Sometimes trickle-down evangelism happens. But then again, sometimes the fact that we spent all of our time and resources focused on the wealthy unintentionally teaches an incorrect theology of the Kingdom: that God cares more or less about people based on their income, power or status.

In every society, there are strong boundaries between classes, and it is difficult for the gospel to cross those boundaries. Some have even suggested its best to look at each class as its own culture. For five years, I found it so difficult to connect with my poor neighbors. Then, I attended a workshop that approached socio-economic class the same way I had approached cross-cultural interactions when I lived in China. You're not going to just “click,” because there are cultural differences – the unspoken rules, values, etiquette, – just like in any culture. It's even harder to see when the person on the other side of this cross-cultural encounter looks very similar to you and has the same citizenship. But really, it's a lot of work.

This is the Kingdom, to seek relationship and reconciliation with those marginalized, those who are typically only sought out for cheap labor, high interest rates, and social work projects. But Jesus commands us to seek out the least of these, to pursue relationship with them, to invite them to the table, to invite them to be our friends, our brothers and sisters, our church elders.

When I started off my track of “downward mobility,” in the wake of reading Jesus For President by Shane Claiborne, it was more of an experiment than anything. We were struck by how much of the Bible talked about the poor, yet we knew so few poor people. We wanted to find out, firsthand, what Jesus meant when he said, “blessed are the poor.” We wanted a first-hand grasp on James' encouragement: “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?”

Much of the discussion about downward mobility is whether you should do it. Those who oppose the idea claim, “you don't have to be downwardly mobile to be more spiritual.” But, really, the Kingdom isn't about shoulds. It's more like this: if you opt out, you're missing out. By seeking out those exactly like us, we are impoverishing our own salvation. If God is King, and his citizens include ethnicities, genders, socio-economic classes, and backgrounds, when we section ourselves off, we are missing out on the entire Kingdom of God. I see the face of God clearer and clearer, as I move into intimacy with those made in his image.

I went to Bible college for four years, and completed by master's of counseling at the same university. But, sitting down with someone from a different experience than mine helps the Bible come alive, and the Holy Spirit works to show me what I've never seen before. The Bible, after all, was largely (though not completely) written by individuals in communities that were under some sort of oppression, were refugees, had only God as their hope. It's nothing magical that happens when the marginalized read the Bible, but as we study it together, I have a greater, richer understanding of it.

I don't think everyone is called to live in a poor neighborhood. But everyone is called to love the poor. And so, here's the secret. living in a poor neighborhood makes things easier. My goal isn't to be as impoverished as I can bear. But my goal is for reconciliation, and as it turns out, through this process, this is really what dictates my lifestyle decisions.

*Note: many, if not most, of these ideas have from my mentors, community and books I have read. A great resource for these ideas is the book Submerge by John B. Hayes.

cutest boy, cutest baby.

Krispin Mayfield works on music stuff here: https://themaidenname.bandcamp.com/ and photography stuff here: http://bloomingtonave.portfoliobox.me/

Blurring the Lines; Guest Post by Trudy

Trudy is another person I have met through this series--lucky me! I think by now you know that I adore people with a bit of skin in the game, and Trudy most definitely is that. This is a first-person account of smack dab in the middle of experiencing the joys and hardships of a form of downward mobility that looks extreme to most. But what I love about Trudy is that she is honest about it all (and how the hardest parts or those where you are forced to come to terms with yourself and your brokenness. But really, more than anything, you can sense her love and joy and peace in the midst of her crazy, upside-down life.   

 

Blurring the lines

Guest Post by Trudy

Last November, my husband and I moved into a slum in a big North Indian city. It was an objectively stupid thing to do—we spoke hardly any Hindi at the time, and even now that the Hindi is flowing we are objects of ceaseless curiosity as automatic ambassadors of that strange Other Country which our Muslim neighbors associate with wealth, George Bush, and “free sex”. There have been all the difficulties you might expect of adjusting to less space, less privacy, and a new culture. But starting life here has also been a beautiful experience of being accepted for who we are instead of what we represent (which is often more than can be said for foreigners trying to start a new life in our home country); of being sort-of adopted into new families that invite us to celebrate holidays with them, and take us to weddings and funerals and birthday parties. Those families have taught us how to cook Indian food and how to speak Hindi and how to navigate life and relationships in this new place. They’ve even given us new names (which is handy, since the local pronunciation of my English name sounded like something I’d rather not be called by!).

Actually, one of the most difficult things about living here—far worse than power outages and diarrhea—has been the way I am forced to learn about myself. It was easy back in the States to think of myself as a kind, compassionate person. I was generous. I was hospitable—so I thought. Or so maybe I am? But it certainly doesn’t feel like it now, when I’m not just faced with poverty but immersed in it. I’ve learned the limits of my compassion—those rough edges of tiredness and impatience where I just no longer have anything left to give to my fellow human beings and where I so easily recede into selfishness and survival. My neighbors offer lavish hospitality that depends on serving guests before, and instead of, yourself. My hospitality has been exposed in contrast as a logic of sharing excess with guests—it has often been “the more the merrier”, but it has rarely ever been sacrificial. Even now, the dilemma stubbornly stalks me—my neighbors’ income ebbs and flows with weather and health and the demand for day labor; my money comes from inserting a plastic card into a vending machine. To get technical, it’s an ATM, but is there a meaningful difference if the money never runs out?

And besides all that, I’ve seen enough non sequitur items distributed among sponsored children in our neighborhood whose circumstances have yet to improve, enough healthcare facilities rendered nearly inaccessible in spite of the free care offered, and enough of the messy, complex web of problems that make up poverty, to figure out that being poor is much more about a lack of relationship rather than a lack of money. I’ve seen how difficult it can be to help another person, or to change a situation when the entire system is stacked against the people at the bottom.

I’ve realized the limits of what I can offer, in spite of my education and privilege and good intentions. But I’ve also realized that, fortunately, the things that I can offer don’t require me to be as strong, as powerful, or as infinitely compassionate as I used to think I was. The most meaningful thing I have to offer is relationship. If the lives of the poor are constricted by an internalized sense of inferiority and powerlessness, then the wealthy are equally constrained by a false sense of strength, importance, and superiority. Rich and poor must meet, and work together, in order to recover our true selves. So this pursuit of transforming relationship is what keeps me here. Not because the poor need me, but because my neighbors and I need each other.

This week, I got roped into a volunteer training for a local non-profit that wants to improve the lives of women and girls in the slum where I live by training some of them to become social workers who can spread information about women’s health, education, and legal rights. The plan is to also train these girls to facilitate women’s and girls’ groups that will identify issues facing their community and help to develop plans of action for mobilizing the community to respond to those issues, often through organizing to demand their rights. So far so good.

But unfortunately, all of the theoretical talk about empowerment—listening to people, offering information and tools to them without telling them what to do—broke down at the point of practical application. The neat and tidy plan of 5 days’ in-house training, 5-days’ field training was much too fast for the pace of life in the slum, and certainly didn’t match the stride of uneducated teenage girls who, up to now, had never been allowed a role outside of their own homes. Can teenagers like that really be “empowered” in 5 days? And even if they successfully become efficient cogs in the grand development plan of this organization, is that going to be an “empowering” experience anyway—will it increase their sense of self-determination, confidence, or freedom of choice?

As much as everyone likes the idea of empowerment, it turns out that it’s actually much easier to do things for people than to work with people who don’t know what they’re doing and need to be patiently mentored and encouraged, after which time they will have minds of their own and may or may not want to carry out your pet project. Turns out that the poor have their own priorities, and at least in India, their relationships and family responsibilities are more important to them than some of the development goals set by outsiders.

Sometimes the well-meaning People Who Have Come to Help don’t react very well to these revelations—in the case of this training, the dissonance was handled by ignoring the ideas and experiences of the People Who Need to Be Helped in order to plough through the list of scheduled activities, come hell or high water (or reinforcement of top-down power structures or complete lack of ownership on the part of people whose slum is being “planned”). Which I suppose is why a lot of groups like to bandy about the catchword of “empowerment” without doing the slow, relational work of actually empowering anyone.

It’s not that the People Who Came to Help were bad people. In fact, I completely understand their frustration with schedules, deadlines, and efficiency being thwarted—because I have also been brought up in the Western obsession with time and efficiency and programs. Sometimes it still bothers me that most of my friends don’t own a clock, or that my neighbors’ financial priorities don’t make sense to me. But this last year in the slum has been a humbling journey of releasing my arbitrary agendas and my identity as one of The People Who Have Come to Help in order to get in touch with the daily rhythms of my community. I am struggling to unlearn my lifestyle of putting tasks and productivity ahead of relationships and people, so that I can be present to my neighbors as they express their own plans and concerns.

I still struggle with patiently walking alongside people instead of trying to just force my advice or plans onto them, but the longer I walk this road the more I realize that it’s the only road that really goes anywhere. Ignoring the poor in the process of trying to “help” them may produce some impressive graphs and scalable programs that look nice in the orderly headings and paragraphs of a grant proposal-- but it doesn’t actually mean much outside of those flimsy, paper constructions of reality.

And besides, the more I learn, the more I realize that I don’t have the answers people need. Real change will only come out of relationships that transform us both, my neighbors and I, and out of a higher synthesis that may come from putting our ideas and experiences together to imagine new possibilities for our lives. My hope is that the lines between us will become so blurred that we all recognize our poverty and receive help, and we all recognize our capacity to teach and serve each other.

 

P1060281Since moving to India with her adventurous husband a year and a half ago, Trudy has spent most of her time learning Hindi and getting to know her neighbors in the slum—which happily involves a lot of Indian cooking and chai drinking. She is passionate about women’s empowerment, creative nonviolence, and discovering Jesus amongst the poor. She loves telling stories, and shares many of her experiences and reflections on faith, culture, and her journey towards the poor on her blog, http://alreadynotyet.weebly.com/blog.html.

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

On Food Stamps, Local Schools, and All my White Friends: Guest Post by Alissa

Alissa is another person I met through this series, when she bravely contacted me out of the blue. I can't express to you how encouraging it is to even find people wrestling with similar sorts of questions. I will address this sooner than later, but it has become increasingly clear that the Downward Mobility series is for those that are already feeling the call, the nudge, or are somewhere in the messy throes of trying to live simply and with our marginalized neighbors in mind. Alissa is one of those people. And she encourages me with her honesty, her love, and her willingness to risk. This subject has no easy answers. Anyone who has even for a moment tried to identify with people from different backgrounds will recognize what Alissa talks about when she says she sometimes feels like a fraud. There are no easy answers here, but I am glad we are all questioning together.   

 

On food stamps, local schools, and all my white friends

Guest post by Alissa BC

 

A couple weeks ago, I went in with my one-year old to our local Department of Human Services. Visits like this are not entirely out of the ordinary for us. In the four years I've been married we've been on and off of both food stamps and WIC at different points, services which require at least a couple visits a year to various government buildings. This particular day, I was in to renew my son's TennCare, which is our state's Medicaid program, the only income-based service for which we still qualify. While we were waiting in line, I turned around to notice a mother and newborn baby in line behind us. I asked about the baby and tried to make polite conversation, but I could tell she wasn't really interested, so I turned back around. That's when it suddenly struck me, that this woman, or any of the people surrounding me, could live on my street, could live a few houses over, and I have no idea who they are.   

We moved into our current neighborhood nearly four years ago, fresh from our honeymoon. We had each spent the previous year or so as full-time community volunteers in two very different rural communities. I had been on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and my husband had been in the small coal-mining town of Logan, West Virginia, communities found in two of the poorest counties in the country. After our experiences there, we were committed to living the same type of lifestyle- knowing our neighbors and being involved in the community- in our new home. 

We chose our particular neighborhood for its racial and socio-economical diversity and chose a nearby church for its emphasis on community development. We were quite poor ourselves in those early years, working minimum wage jobs and finishing up school, and more than a little dependent on food stamps. Meanwhile, we attended community events, frequented the same grocery stores as our neighbors, and became extremely involved in the local work of our church. A couple years later, my husband began teaching at our zoned high school, where a large majority of the students are considered low-income. After our son was born, we took him to appointments at the nearby pediatric clinic run by our pastor's wife. 

The point I'm trying to make with all this is that our lives are arranged in such a way that makes interacting with the poor on a daily basis highly probable. And yet, despite the fact that I may wave hello on our daily walks, or give a hug during church, or let a group of teenagers pass my baby around, none of these people can be found among my closest friends. Sure, I know the poor. They sit across from me at the potluck, or ask to mow my lawn, or even watch my kid in the nursery. But when we throw a small birthday party, or get together for dinner with our closest friends, the people I see are nearly all middle-class, at least culturally, and they are mostly white. 

And I think that's strange. I think it's strange that after nearly four years of somewhat-intentional living in a low-income neighborhood, long enough for us to have built a family out of thin air, we still find ourselves worlds apart from the people we are meant to love. I think it's strange that despite all the downward mobility we can muster, the people we call with news and pour our hearts out to are, by and large, people who look and talk like us. And I think it's strange that it's the struggles of those people that move me far more than those of the people I supposedly came here to love, because for some reason the former are close like family, but between me and the latter there exists this mysterious insurmountable chasm that keeps us from knowing each other's hearts truly and deeply.  

I could propose a few reasons for why this is, but I don't really have the answers, and I actually think that is okay. I think it's okay to keep reaching out to complete strangers and hoping for connection, even though I feel like a fraud, even though I am a fraud. I think it's okay to keep showing up to the potluck anyway and to sit in the tension of being with people who are different than me. I think it's okay to acknowledge that I am pretty much not getting it right when it comes to loving my neighbors, and that something must be deeply broken, in our world and in me, that I alone do not have the power to fix. 

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlissa BC is a wife, mother, and aspiring writer. She spends nap times obsessing over words and the rest of the day biking around town with her toddler or waiting for the next person to show up at her door. She writes about family, community, faith, doubt, the South, and simple living at makinghomesimple.blogspot.com and occasionally dips her toes into the cold waters of twitter and facebook. She lives real life among the beautiful people of Chattanooga, TN.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

e-mails from the frontlines

Real talk: this week has been crazy. The community I am living/working in was hit hard this week. I got the chance to be an advocate, to get upset, to get weepy. I had a lot of time to think about how fear leads to anger and sorrow leads to our ultimate hope. I kicked news crews out of my ESL classrooms. I have been encouraging others in the community to write about it. Today I get to go to a peace demonstration, toddler in tow, which might be one of my favorite things to do. It's been a week. I'm so grateful to be where I am in this community, close enough hold hands and pray for peace.  

 

So it's been a bit quiet. I honestly can't remember at this point who has guests posts coming up and all that (sorry! If I dropped the ball there, please e-mail me and let me know!) But I wanted to share something with you today. I get the best e-mails from you guys. People have come out of the woodwork to share stories of solidarity, joy, pain, isolation, and good cheer. It has helped me immensely, to be blessed by real stories of real people.

Today, I wanted to share a snippet of an e-mail I received from a lovely girl who I will just call "S". I love her perspective, and I asked if I could share it with you all. As someone who didn't come from a place of chaos and/or poverty, I found this perspective extremely enlightening, and I am sure you will too.

//

"I also am (mostly? maybe?) an evangelical, got married to my husband right after college, became pregnant unintentionally about a year later, and have a daughter who is about two and a half, and I love making funfetti cakes. My husband and I feel like God has called us to not have very much money, live in a place that is economically and racially diverse, and not consume very much media. We seriously considered living in a Christian intentional community after we got married. We were invited to live in a Catholic worker house in Indiana but decided against it, and briefly considered trying to live at Jesus People or Reba Place. Instead, we moved to Chicago for my graduate program in social service administration at University of Chicago and lived in graduate student housing while we started our family. Now we live in Indiana again, and we are still interested in ideas of downward mobility, anti-consumerism, and radical hospitality but don't know quite how they fit into our current situation.

 

Where do I start? We don't have a lot of money right now. My husband is a grad student. He works part time. I'm a newly-minted social worker and I'm trying to find a part-time job so I can mostly stay home with our daughter. I could probably find a full-time job pretty easily but I would rather not, which is a pretty weird thing to do after you get a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world. When I was childless, I always had these dreams of choosing a life of intentional downward mobility. Now that we actually don't have any money, not totally by choice, it mostly just sucks. It doesn't feel like I'm doing anything for Jesus when I buy all our groceries at Aldi or have to take my daughter to the low-income health clinic for medical care; it just feels kind of depressing and like we are maybe failing at life. We certainly do plenty of things that are a little outside the norm by choice - like not having a tv, growing some of our own food, giving money away to people who need it whenever we can, buying most things used, or having one car - but something about the fact that we couldn't really choose differently if we wanted to makes all this much less glamorous and much more humbling than I had originally hoped.

 

Both of my parents grew up really poor and my mom didn't have very much money when I was little, either. I didn't go to preschool, my dad was an abusive alcoholic, I had neglectful childcare providers, my mom was stressed all the time, and I ate a lot of crappy food. When my mom and I were evicted from our house, we moved in with her boyfriend and ended up marrying him because he had a good job, but not because she loved him; they got divorced a few years later. When I think back on the effects of financial instability on my own childhood, gosh, I just really want to spare my daughter from that. I want her to have a home that we own in a safe area, health insurance, organic food, preschool, piano lessons. Is that too much to ask? Part of me feels like it is. And part of me really, really envies all those blog ladies you referenced in the first part of your post. Safety, stability, chevron pillows, autumnal-scented candles, live laugh love pictures, a respected 'leadership' role at some giant evangelical church - gosh, I would love some of that right now. But it's not an option, and our consciences would never allow us to choose that kind of life even if it was. I don't know where that leaves us. I don't think we could ever join Catholic Worker or some other monastic community because for us, it would just be a way to feel proud of ourselves. Plus I never really fit into those places because I eat meat and wear makeup, and my Goodwill clothes don't look ratty and punk enough. That and I really don't like it when people of privilege say they're living in solidarity with the poor, since actual poverty has to do with so much more than your income.

 

Another thing: I am really attracted to safe and I don't know what to do with that. I have experienced abuse and violence, and the thought of my daughter living somewhere that isn't really safe is pretty terrifying to me. The thought of living in white suburbia is also really terrifying to me because I know that's not what God has called our family to. There was a fair amount of crime in our neighborhood when we lived in Chicago, and it was really difficult to never be able to go outside alone at night or to read about people getting held up in broad daylight in our hood. Do we have to live in a place like that again to follow what we feel like God has planned for our lives, which is to live in an economically and racially diverse area?

 

What am I even trying to say? I feel like my family is forging our own weird path, and it unfortunately doesn't make me feel like a hero. Like you said, no one is throwing a parade. I just feel half ashamed of myself and half frustrated around the evangelical mom crowd, and about the same way towards the 'radical' Christian crowd because I just can't manage to take myself that seriously or be quite that extreme. But I think I'm starting to realize how much I've wanted a parade, damnit, or at least a special award from Jesus, because it's really hard to live this way and not even get some kind of martyrdom trophy."

 

//

 

Amen, S. Thanks for e-mailing your real and raw self.

Thanks for sticking around, and reading and thinking and living through all this stuff.

 

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

Mammon -- Guest Post by Kevin Hargaden

Well. You best sit down before you read this one. The internet introduced me to Kevin, and I am so grateful. One day he will write a book that with all of his Irish humor still manages to make us bleed. Besides being smart and theological, Kevin and his wife are the goods. They sent me and my husband a care package--complete with Irish Tea, Irish poetry, and a handwritten letter filled with quotes from the Pope. I know!  This post gets to the very heart of the matter, I believe. It's so easy to make downward mobility a game of sorts-- all about material possessions, what I have done for God, see what a difference I have made with my second hand clothes! And sometimes people like myself need to be smacked in the face in regards to what is actually going on: how God longs for those living under the oppression of wealth to be set free. Because he loves us too. And he has been trying to free us for a long, long time.

 

 

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Mammon

Guest post by Kevin Hargaden

 

 

I’m totally behind the downward mobility movement. Quite literally. My wife and I are downwardly mobile. We’ve swapped prosperity in a beautiful university town on the edge of a bustling EU capital city for a life on the wrong side of the tracks in a provincial town on the edge of a region most famous for a legendary, mysterious sea monster called Nessie. We are from Dublin, where we have lived our whole life. My wife had a fantastic and rewarding job. We had a large circle of friends. My family were minutes away. Everything was familiar and wonderful. We love our hometown with a passion.

Now we live in Aberdeen, which is a grey city on the coast of the North Sea, buffeted on one side by Arctic winds and surrounded on the other by the mountains that rise into the Scottish Highlands. We have been here six weeks. My wife’s fulltime pursuit has been job-searching. Today she got word of her first interview, for a temporary role, in a low level administration position, at about 40% less than her last salary rate. The reason we are here, in a city more northerly than Moscow that has less than six hours of daylight in winter, is for my PhD. Ironically, as we quickly accelerate downwards towards destitution, I will be researching a theology of wealth.

While today the circumstances press in on me hard and as I feel the pressure I paint a particularly dim picture of what we’re doing, the reality is that we are involved in a grand adventure. We have never lived abroad before. We have never started again before. We are doing a hard thing but it is exceptionally cool.

So we probably meet whatever requirements can be imagined to classify a couple as part of this radical downward mobility movement. And presumably if you check back in on us in three months we will have stories about how it has liberated us. And I suspect that our life will always be indented by the experience of profound freedom that came from unburdening ourselves of all the possessions that we had accumulated over years of mimicking Western-world middle class comfort. We were possessed by them.

But it is exactly at this point, when I reflect on how our (relative but very real) wealth warped our view of the world that I begin to part company with the largely brilliant conversation about downward mobility.

***

I am haunted by the words of Jesus. My life has been transformed by reflecting on his parables, which I think are the greatest stories ever told. They are simply divine.

In Matthew 12 we find an image that we could spend our lives reflecting on. In context, Jesus is disputing with Pharisees who are accusing him of being in league with Beelzebul. He answers them (29): “how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.”

In these two sentences, Jesus gives us a peek at his entire intention. As Jesus sees it, the world is held captive. The New Testament gives us a range of different words to describe the captor. At base the captivity is at the hands of a personal force, referred to often as “the Satan”.

Jesus very clearly loved the world he inhabited. He loved the terrain of his homeland and he loved the seasons of the farms and he loved the fruit of the vine and the culture of the cities. But his perspective was that this world was echoing a glory that had been smothered by a force that held it captive. He came to bind up the strong man who was claiming this world as his own. On Good Friday he goes into battle with the strong man and at dawn on Easter Sunday he comes up triumphant. The strong man is bound so that bound Creation can go free.

This is not the only way to think of God’s Gospel, but it is one of the ways we find in the gospels that describe it. There is a false power that held the world captive under its hollow authority. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God overthrew this fake potentate and now we, the church, join him in this non-violent liberation.

***

Paul takes up this way of seeing things in Ephesians. At the end of that letter he summarises the kind of battle that Christians are called to engage in. He is clear that the battle is not a violent one of war and fighting. Instead, “our struggle is against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

I want to propose that one of the powers of this darkened world that Paul is describing here has been named by Jesus. He called it Mammon. He seemed to use that word to describe an impersonal force that controlled the affections of people by making them love money. Adam Smith, the great father of modern economics spoke about the market as an “invisible hand”. His words, which are a gospel to capitalism, have a dark hue when heard against Jesus’ warnings about Mammon.

***

So here is what I have argued:

  1. Jesus saw the world as held captive by a darkness that had to be subverted.
  2. Paul says that this darkness manifests itself in forces, “powers and principalities” that rule the world.
  3. Jesus names one of these powers as Mammon.

And here is my tentative proposal:

  1. To be wealthy is to be under the realm of Mammon.

Which leads me to my conclusion, which makes me sound like quite the crackpot:

  1. To be wealthy is to be captive to Satan.

***

If I am right, then the judgement of God is upon those of us who are wealthy. And everyone who has access to a web browser with an internet connection and the literacy skills to read my convoluted prose is bound to be wealthy.

There are smaller problems with downward mobility. For one, it seems self-defeating since only the wealthy can imagine a scenario where they could relinquish their wealth. For another, intentional poverty has a long tradition in the church but it is fraught and complex. There are technical problems in that individual acts of solidarity and solitary acts of divestment alone make absolutely no difference to the justice, politics or material conditions of our unfair world.

But the biggest problem with downward mobility is that it underestimates the problem.

***

If we, the wealthy, are to be pitied as those held captive by a force that although defeated, retains residual strength, then we cannot possibly hope to be freed from by our own action. If my theological hunch is true, and we the wealthy are blinded from reality by the warping effects of having so many things at our disposal, then the only hope for us is an intervention by someone strong enough to bind up the strong man.

Being less consumerist or more frugal, moving in with the poor and the dispossessed, spending our life in advocacy and agitation for environmental justice or economic transformation or political revolution – we may be called to all of these things but none of these things will suffice.

Since camels don’t fit through the eyes of needles, we, the rich men, are screwed. With man, it is impossible for us to get to heaven. But in uttering these awesome and rarely reflected upon words, Jesus says with God, all things are possible.

The problem with downward mobility is that it imagines we can decide which direction we should go. In our downward mobility we seek to disposses ourselves of privilege and power, wealth and influence. But that dispossession is always an illusion if it is true that the wealth we are seeking to let go of is imposed on us by Mammon. The dispossession we are all called to is to be dispossessed of our delusion that we can set our own course or define our own destiny.

***

If we pursue downward mobility for downward mobility’s sake, we pursue nothing to nowhere. We are just caught up in another endless maze of self-justification that Mammon erects to distract us from the returning King.

We must wrestle with the fact that the inequality in our world is an injustice. But if we are to undo that injustice, we have to first see the gangster at the top tied up. The strong man must be bound for the captives to be set free. The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ seems to involve the claim that the rich are cursed.

We are cursed.

Unless we can be set free.

 

 

 

 

SONY DSCKevin was born and bred in the Dublin suburbs. He has an Irish aversion to writing bio-pieces since they invariably sound cocky. He is training to be a minister with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, but is studying for that at Aberdeen University. He can't sing but he does lisp. He loves the Simpsons, the parables and making lists but perhaps not in that order. He blogs at www.hargaden.com/kevin about faith in contemporary Ireland and he can be found on twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

If You Knew Me, You Would Care

slide_280128_2092282_free Another day, another dollar, another crisis I should be caring about.

Another day, another post, another thought on downward mobility--how the term doesn't work, how it isn't good enough, how if we don't have love . . .

Another day, another question. Not the ones I used to ask (Lord, send me. Let my heart be broken by the things that break your heart.) but the ones I don't care to admit to anyone (have I done enough yet? Can I relax now? When is enough enough?)

//

I started a new job this week, it's perfect for me in every way, down to the level of chaotic ambiguity that surrounds the classroom. I teach literacy to adults who may never have held a pencil in their lives before. We meet in a computer lab, a battered fooseball table for my desk. I don't know all of the stories of my students, because we don't speak the same language. I can guess at the little I know, which is laughable. And it is hard, wearisome work, to go over the ABC's a thousand times and then for us all to realize that nobody remembers them still--the after effects of war, trauma, unmentionable acts committed against the body and spirit. Learning to write your own name becomes a symbol of something so much more: you are an overcomer.

Refugees have changed my life in so many ways. Once I meet a group, a clan, a tribe, I want to know so much about them: the way they dress, the tattoos on their face and hands, what their favorite food is. I want to know about their past, if they want to share it. I want to talk about all the ways that America has been kind, and all the ways that she has been cruel. I want to be a friendly face, a listening ear.

I want to know all these stories, and more, because they are the only things that get me to care about anyone besides myself.

//

My husband just checked out a book from the library called If You Knew Me, You Would Care. In it there are large, breathtaking portraits of women--survivors of unimaginable traumas. These women were interviewed and photographed by other women, and their stories shock and amaze. Their faces, so large, so human, so crystal-clear, run the range of human emotion: improbable joy, blankness, defiance. I could look at these pictures for hours. The stories, I only glance at briefly. How much more tragedy can I bear?

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Perhaps this is why the images in the book are so big. The hardest quotes, filling up an entire page. To me, they say: Don't look away. If you knew me, you would care. If you stopped to humanize me, even for a second, it would change the way you lived your life. Because caring doesn't equate with an emotion--sadness, shock, gratefulness. Caring equates with tangible, physical acts: cups of cold water, Jesus would say. A coat to someone in need if we owned two. An hour or two out of our day to visit those imprisoned or in the hospital.

But it's easier to close the book, go back to my life of worries. I write blog posts about downward mobility and dream at night of one day having a space for my child to run in the grass; I spend an hour or two praying for eyes to see and hands to bless my neighborhood, and sink exhausted on my couch every night, escaping either into a book or a television show.

Because I know people now, and they have made me care. But here is the other truth that no one want to talk about, that we spend all our time protecting at all costs: our culture thrives on forgetting. On distractions, petty concerns, and the crushing pursuit of individual comfort. Every day is a struggle to care. The only thing that makes it easier is if you are forced to confront it, time and time again. If you put yourself in the position where you can't opt out--where there are no drive-through Starbucks, clean and bright Barnes and Nobles, massive church complexes with state-of-the-art sets. Where instead there are tangible evidences of the disparity of our economic system, where people are much more comfortable in voicing both their joys and complaints in the streets. In order to care, it turns out, I have to be in a place where every day I have to look one simple truth in the eye: my reality is not the reality of the majority world.

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//

I read an excellent blog post this morning--honest, searing. In it, the author says:

"Can we, being part of the top 10% wealthiest in the world, be trusted?  How does our dependence on wealth color our self-assessment and judgment?  Regardless of how earnestly wealthy Christians try to be directed by the Holy Spirit of God, we've all still got our goods—not to mention our social standing, class, gender and ethnic power.  We remain comfortably perched above global exploitation.  Is that just "the path" Jesus has called us lucky ones down? Or have we neglected something in the 'I'll follow you wherever you go' tune?"

No matter where I go, I'm still comfortably perched. No matter what I do, it isn't enough. Yes, yes, Funfetti and all that. I know that God loves me no matter what I do. But he also loves the people being crushed by the systems that make my life better. He Loves them. He is in constant sorrow over them. He will avenge them, surely. And he would like me to get to know them, for my own sake as much as theirs.

Talking about downward mobility doesn't even begin to scratch the surface when we are talking about the suffering of people in places like Syria right now. Almost every day I am in contact with someone who has experienced their own form of Syria, has overcome so much more than I could ever imagine. Every day my hands are open, empty, pleading. I don't know how to help. I don't know how to do anything except show up again, to prepare to be overwhelmed once more. I look into their eyes and think: that's why I moved into your neighborhood--so then I can't escape your reality as easily as I would like. 

Shane Claiborne worked at a mega church for a year, and this is what he walked away with: "the problem isn't that there are rich folks and poor folks in the world--the problem is that the rick folks don't know any poor folks".

Because we all have the image of God in us. And if we knew the poor--as in, longer than a week, a blogging trip, a year in the ghetto--we would care. We would care to the point where love would compel us to do things both crazy and mundane. Our lives would revolve not around safety and security but around justice and righteousness.

And we would all be richer for it.

//

My internet friend Marilyn contacted me about spreading the word about some tangible ways we can help Syria. She put together a blog on some practical kits that concerned people can put together. Click here to read more at her space, or you can go directly to International Orthodox Christian Charities for more information on the kits.

All images from If You Knew Me You Would Care, by Rennio Mafredi. For more information on the book (a part of Women for Women International), please click here.

 

 

The Powers of Addiction, The Honesty of our Neighbourhood -- Guest Post by Exile Fertilty

The post today, while seemingly not at all about downward mobility, really addresses some of the deeper issues I was hoping to discuss in this series. Mainly, how do our neighborhoods affect us? How close are we to the brokenness of the world? What are the blessings and drawbacks of running towards the hurts of the world? I adore Becca and her husband, and this vulnerable, insightful, and hopeful post got my brain spinning just thinking about the creative ways that the kingdom comes, even (or dare I say especially?) in our most troubled neighborhoods. It comes through our desires to choose one another--our spouses, our children, our neighbors--to honor instead of exploit.  This is not an easy post to write, and I want to honor the struggle of how hard it is to be honest. Addiction is a common thread in many of our stories, mine included. So thank you, Becca and Chris, for encouraging us all with your commitment to God and his kingdom, and to each other. 

 

 

Love

The Powers of Addiction and the Honesty of our Neighbourhood

Guest Post by Becca (Exile Fertility)

I'd known Chris for two weeks when he told me about his addiction. It wasn't a confession, nor an attempt to reel me in with an attractive pseudo-vulnerability.  We were talking about his album, eclectic, poetic and strange, and I asked him what the songs were about.  He went through them as he walked me home, of number six he said "That one's about how I used to be addicted to pornography".

I'd never heard anyone say those words before, not out loud, not in a normal conversation.  We said goodbye that night in 2007 not knowing if we'd see each other again, but began writing emails every couple of weeks (although my interest was much greater than my frequency let on).  Nine months later we became extra special friends of the long-distance kind and another year later we were extra special friends of the married and suddenly sharing everything kind.

When we met, Chris had been sober from a pornography addiction for two years.  That was after a decade of secrecy, self-hatred and intense shame, beginning in his early teens.  It was a private hell, he was powerless to stop using a substance stronger than hard drugs, one that completely re-wired his brain towards objectification of women and bonded him to a severe distortion of God's design for sexual intimacy.  Coming out from under the addiction's power began with extreme desperation and some life-altering honesty.  From then it was 18 months of regularly sharing in community, receiving unconditional love from people and letting God renew his mind.  One day it was done, he knew he was free.  For him, walking in that freedom has meant continually allowing people into that part of his story.

I'm so proud of my husband, eight years clean this August.  When I told him how amazed I was by him he said to me, "I'm still a recovering addict, becca.  I always will be.  You need to know that."  There's this honesty about him, this humility and openness about where he has been and a continual pursuit of wholeness.  We communicate very openly around the subject, with each other and with our community.

It was never really a pressing subject until we moved onto the main street of an industrial neighbourhood where we've lived for two and a half years.  I love it here–our street is lovely on sunny mornings, people visiting the small businesses and art galleries that have been popping up, it's easy to forgive the abandoned buildings though they outnumber the healthy ones.  Neighbours teach my kids to speak Aussie and meet us at the park, shop owners know us by name and talk about grandbabies.

The situation has drastically improved in the last decade but people still come to our neighbourhood to feed addictions, escape reality and numb themselves.  Men file into the three pubs (read: bars) on our street or drive up and down looking for a sexually exploited woman who may be standing on the corner, leaning against a wall or stepping out of another man's car.  Sometimes there are used condoms and needles at the park or you see a man and woman come out of the bushes together in the middle of the day.  Friday night is "waitress night" (read: topless) and I hear men hoot and holler when a woman appears at the pole specially erected for the weekly event.  Maybe five or six times I've been walking by and seen a woman's breasts on display while she serves drinks to a table of men.  The more I learn about sex trafficking and prostitution worldwide the more aware I am of the invisible shackles on women in the industry, that it's hardly their choice to be there if it is at all.

Power over addiction begins with honesty.  The media sells us a thousand lies about sexuality and pleasure and need, saying nothing of the terrible damage that occurs when we objectify other human beings.   But our neighbourhood is honest about the cost, about what addictions can lead to: a married man with kids risking everything for a body to orgasm inside, he'll exploit a woman who is desperate, high or out of her mind; guys meet weekly with friends to drink while topless women 'entertain' them, people stumble outside drunk and angry at 2am.  There's nothing glamorous or sexy here.

There's been a new kind of pressure on our marriage since moving to this street- there are times when relatively small disputes feel like they carry this enormous weight, that there's some cosmic battle already raging that we are just stumbling into.  God's kingdom is a delicate eco-system of justice, freedom, and wild, beautiful Love and we are called to be an alternative people who honour rather than exploit.  When we are demanding rather than giving and ignoring the diversity and equality within each other we have subscribed to the dominant consciousness around us.

It's really, really hard sometimes but there is something prophetic happening in our upstairs apartment.  It's when my husband and I choose only each other again and again, even when we're exhausted and frustrated and have said things we regret.  It's when our friends pursue sexual wholeness together, when we name addiction for what it is and walk the hard road towards sexual sobriety.  It's when we re-imagine the possibilities of honest to goodness friendship within our own gender and between men and women, when we really see each other as unique individuals powerfully equal, Imago Dei shining bright.  It's when we practice the quiet, subversive sacrament of neighbourliness.  We are digging a hole here, planting our little tree and watching it grow; one day those roots will erupt through the concrete on our street.  As Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy has written, "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

Jesus' resurrection frees us to to model our lives in his likeness, to treat each other with the honour and respect we all deserve.  Jesus has triumphed over the powers of addiction and exploitation that rage in our neighbourhood, he's paraded them around to be seen for the lies that they are.  He's made them get honest, and that's our first step to freedom as well.  There is no shame or condemnation here, only healing and freedom and the transformation of our minds, the 'conversion of our imaginations'.

Someday the tide will turn and the raging waves of misogyny and exploitation in the world will be drawn back out to the chaotic place from which it comes.   The pornography industry will self-destruct and all the precious children of God who make and consume it will be reconciled.  Men will drive home to their wives rather than up and down our street, our neighbourhood pub will be known for it's good beer and honest conversation and everyone will take ownership over their thoughts and actions.  No one will feel shame over their God-given sexuality.  As we get free from our own addictions to self-comfort and escape, and when we give love freely in our families and communities, we are a sign that the new world is already on her way.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see the image of God in us all.

----

For some incredible resources on recovery and addiction visit The National Association for Christian Recovery.  

Becca spent five years working in mother-child healthcare in beautiful places like South Sudan, India and Nigeria.  She now spends her days chasing two toddlers around the post-industrial Australian neighbourhood she calls home.  She’s American, married to an interesting and kind Canadian musician and they haven’t had a full night’s sleep since the babies came.  She writes about lots of loosely related things at exilefertility.com while keeping a fairly messy, but welcoming, home.  Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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

Downward Mobility -- Guest Post by Jenny Flannagan

Jenny Flannagan is super cool. Into drama, music, and the arts, she writes about the realities of her neighborhood with crushing clarity, empathy and a much-needed sense of humor. Seriously, the girl is funny. I had my eye on her writing for this series from the get-go and am so pleased to have this essay here today. I identify with so many aspects of her story, but none more than the apparent joy she gets from all the pleasures of her abundant life. It just doesn't look abundant in the way that the world would have for us.

Make sure you check out her blog (Jenny from the Block) and find her on Twitter.

 

 

Downward Mobility -- Guest Post by Jenny Flannagan

 

 

A few years a man who was compiling a book entitled Success wrote and asked me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a success.  I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had a meaning to me.  I swore I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success.

So wrote monk and mystic Thomas Merton in 1979 in his typically provocative and paradoxical manner.  His words feel important and at the same time bewilder me.  They’re not what I grew up with.

More words, quoted recently by Shawn Smucker in his guest post:

My whole life I have been surrounded by well-meaning encouragement to go ‘higher up,’ and the most-used argument was : ‘You can do so much good there, for so many people.’ But these voices calling me to upward mobility are completely absent from the Gospel. 

Henri Nouwen, Here and Now

These words give shape to the fears and anxieties that assail me when I hear the term downward mobility, a phrase we have used in the past few years to describe how we are trying to live.

The truth is, I’m not sure quite what it means and if I qualify or if we’re just kidding ourselves.  When I really think about it, I get confused as to whether it’s even a goal we should be pursuing.

It makes sense when I think how we’re not trying to earn as much money as we could, that we’ve chosen part-time work and rejected career ladders and embraced a lifestyle with less money to have more time in our neighbourhood and for our family.  It explains why we’ve chosen to stay in the inner-city and live on a government housing block alongside people from different immigrant communities as well as long-term locals, many of them on low incomes or benefits.  It’s a fitting commentary on our attempts to live light and cheap and thrifty and open-handed.

It feels hollow and pretentious when I head out with my suitcase on another international adventure for my job, past my neighbours, some of whom have never left the country and who have lived their whole lives within a mile radius or others who can rarely afford to visit their homeland.  It feels like a lie when I consider the choices we have because of our family’s support and our savings and our education; the invitations we get to share our stories at conferences and write books and make albums.  Occasionally people tell us “we could never do what you do,” and I think of my comfortable bed and colourful home, our friendly neighbours and amazingly central location, and wonder what on earth they have in their head.

We aren’t part of a missional order or an organisation.  We have taken no vows. We don’t have a project.  No-one supports us with donations or ministry gifts*.  We just live here and try to be good neighbours and listen out for what God is saying and doing so we can be part of it.  And pray to see the stuff we read about elsewhere happen here.  And plug away.

We don’t have a team.  We have church, and a few friends who are trying to do similar things, but no-one in the same neighbourhood or building.  Most of our friends are making really different choices, the ‘responsible’ choices that give them bigger houses and gardens for their kids to play in, and on my worst days my heart is full of pharisaical judgement for them, my thinly disguised resentment of their successful upward mobility.

Often I feel lonely and wonder what we’re trying to do exactly.

Even working out what downward mobility looks like in the UK is a stretch.  The inner-cities have become the preserve mainly of the extremely rich and the poorest communities (whose housing is subsidised), with few others able to stay.  It’s at its most extreme, of course, in London.  The private market is so obscenely expensive that anyone on an average or even fairly good income usually has to leave the moment they need some space or have a family.  But we have a system of social housing that means that subsidised accommodation is available across our cities for those who meet particular criteria like homelessness, sickness, unemployment – and other kinds of intense social needs. If you don’t qualify for this kind of housing but want to stay on the stigmatised council estates, the supposed hotbeds of crime and your only chance of life in a mixed income environment, it won’t be cheap.  You will have to pay a lot of money to rent them privately or buy them.  The most expensive places I’ve ever lived are inner-city council flats.

So somehow you need to find enough money to live amongst people with a lot less money, making a real sense of solidarity increasingly inaccessible.  And, like them, you end up living across the street from the crazily-wealthy whose lifestyles are insanely out-of-your-reach.

Downward mobility feels complicated and compromised and confusing.  As an end in itself it seems a bit pointless. Unless, unless it makes other things possible.

And I think that’s what I believe.  I keep coming back to this conviction that God doesn’t call to us to more frugal life, but a more abundant one.  Only it looks totally different to what the world would make us assume.  Abundant living is free from aggressive and destructive (and even complacent) consumption, which numbs us and distracts us from really experiencing life.  It is rich in relationships and vulnerability and community, it isn’t sheltered from chaos and pain, it is sometimes agonising but always creative and steeped in hope and faith.

It was certainly never the life I planned. Oh no, I was going to be wildly successful but then generously give away most of my winnings.  Invisibility, obscurity, doubt, identity crises, these were never my ambition.  Success was inevitable.

But then if downward mobility means anything at all to me, it has started to mean a death to success in more and more of the ways I counted it.  I have old friends from college taking Hollywood by storm, sitting in Parliament and writing acclaimed novels.  That’s not my life.

We’re here because we believe it does make a difference when people stick around in the inner-city and build lasting friendships and raise their kids here and love their neighbours and work for reconciliation and hope.  Even if the fruit of it is hardly visible in this generation, we have faith that we’re part of a bigger, better story that has a good ending, and we want desperately to be part of that story in this neighbourhood.

But we’re not just playing an endgame.  We live this way because we believe it is a better life (on our good days we believe that).

It is, however, a daily affront to all the assumptions I made for so many years about how successful I would be, an affront to my pride and my competitiveness and my belief in what a difference I can make.

I don’t know if our income or square footage or CVs will look ‘downwardly mobile’ in the decades to come (and maybe that would just become a counter-intuitive, an alternative success indicator for me), but I hope that my heart will find the long-haul courage to choose something real rather than just something everyone else is trying to sell me, to look down more up, and most of all to listen for the life Jesus is inviting me to live rather than everyone else.

 

 

 

 

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Jenny Flannagan is a writer, actress and film-maker.  She has worked for Tearfund for the past 9 years, spending the past 6 of them travelling a lot, finding ways to capture and share stories of Christians serving their communities in diverse and amazing ways all around the world.  But now she is pregnant and can't get on any more planes. She is also a founding member of the theatre company The Ruby Dolls, described by Time Out as "an elegant, inventive and absorbing fusion of theatre, music, storytelling, dance and puppetry".  She lives on a council estate in South London with her husband Andy, where they are trying to be downwardly mobile.  They are part of The Well Community Church and lead a fledgling missional community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Silver and Gold -- Guest Post by Ben Bishop

Ben is a cool guy. He's a good friend of my good friends, and when I met him I was struck by our mutual affinity for both literature and Jesus (it ain't as easy to come by IRL, people). A few months ago, Ben wrote a stunning and honest portrayal of what it meant to write his book, and then to fail (as of yet) to publish it. Go read it--plus all the other great stuff--at his website Ragged Band. I always leave enlightened  amused, and spurred on to create. This post is something special. It's long, which I like--since life is just so lamentably messy and can't be addressed in a neat little blog. For me, it struck a nerve of honesty that perhaps is missing from even my own discussions of the subject. I cried my guts out when I read it. 

So take some time, sit down, and read this essay from start to finish. Also, I couldn't help but think of this video, which also makes me cry. I guess I am sort of emotional these days. Because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. 

 

Silver and Gold -- Guest Post by Ben Bishop

 

I seek an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, and it is laid up in heaven, and safe there, to be bestowed, at the time appointed, on them who diligently seek it.” - The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan

^^^^^

 

 

The poor are ugly.

They are not demur widows in biblical robes graciously accepting alms from pastel saints.  They are young black mothers in pajama pants at the grocery store.  They are old white men with no teeth and pornography habits.  They are hardened teen alcoholics, gangbangers, pedophiles, strippers, con men, shtarkers, pimps, inveterate liars and parents perpetuating the very cycles of generational suffering that once shaped them.  They are the children of God turned old before their time by oxycontin addictions, botched abortions, and personality disorders.   They’ve never heard of Pitchfork, they don’t know what selvage denim is, and they don’t care about your organic produce.  They live hand to mouth and, my God, do they suffer.

I am a mental health counselor working in the Portland/Vancouver metro area.  My current caseload of clients is comprised of low-income seniors, many of whom live in the type of government-subsidized urban apartments or predatory single-room occupancy hotels that serve as greenhouses for the kind of stereotypes I’ve just rolled out.

In addition to my current gig, over the last decade I’ve worked and volunteered with impoverished men, women, and children in a number of different settings.  I have been a personal aid and overnight caregiver bearing witness to the loneliness and emotional frustration of the profoundly physically and developmentally disabled.  I have been a case manager for commercially sexually exploited teenage girls.  I have worked at a community mental health nonprofit and counseled at a church.  I have visited prisoners in jail.  I have advocated for impoverished elders, living alone at the end of their lives, crushed by regret and terrified at the knowledge that someday soon the gossamer thin membrane separating them from the world of the dead will vanish with a pop.  I’ve done all this and more, and now I’m contemplating getting the hell out.

My resume wasn’t really what you were interested in, though.  You want to know whether I was being hyperbolic when I sucker-punched poor folks up in the first paragraph there.  The answer’s yes, I am being hyperbolic.  I am engaging in an act of provocation when I say that the poor are ugly.  I do not for one minute believe that the poor—a broad term with vast layers and implications we don’t have space to unpack here—are morally inferior, less capable of giving and receiving love, or suffering acutely, or achieving self-actualization, or anything else human beings are capable of.  In addition to the strippers and meth cooks, the poor are also faithful family men, selfless grandmothers raising young children, unpaid rural pastors, the cheerful guys who collect my garbage and tend my landlord’s lawn.  I have met many joyful, hopeful people living below the poverty line who are choosing to break cycles of generational harm and engaging in acts of generosity even under extreme duress, and I flatly reject the idea that I, a man often transfigured into a vehicle of naked lust and murderous rage, am better than them.

I am, however, better off in many tangible ways, and here we come to the point of my hyperbole.  Poverty has incredibly negative consequences.  Not having enough money to eat, clothe yourself, afford shelter, or provide schooling or healthcare for your children?  That would break anyone.  And it does.  Poverty shoehorns human beings into its brutal crucible and holds them in the flames.  It has the power to demoralize and shatter anyone.  For the record, I’ve met and worked with a number of very wealthy people too.  When it comes to the kind of things that can grind away at the human soul, money and power are just as effective poverty.  But it sure looks more painful at the bottom.

The American poor are being crushed under the tank treads of a society that uses and derides them in equal measure.  They are harried and victimized by corporations, and abused by judicial and political systems which favor those in power.  In their oppression these systems often end up being agents of the middle class, who want the riff raff and all the headaches that accompany them kept out of sight, while still wanting access to their cheap labor and unquestioning consumption.  They pick our strawberries after all.  They buy those Nikes our ad agency helped make seem so impossibly cool.  The middle and upper classes scorn the poor, ignoring the ways in which we step on their faces while simultaneously blaming them for their own situation, as if poverty were a life anyone would choose.

Like so many of my fellow Christians I am often rankly ignorant of—or brazenly calloused to—the workings of the systems that perpetuate the subjugation of the poor.  Yet I claim to hate the evils of injustice and exploitation.  I protest that I desire justice and mercy.  Ok.  Maybe.  Turns out there’s a litmus test for that.  It is the great catch in the contract of love.  The stone, as it were, upon which men stumble and fall:  In order to truly love the poor one must join them in their suffering.

When D.L. told me that she already had a number of contributors who would be writing on the topic of whether aspiring to downward mobility was enough, I thought to myself, No problem.  I’m writing about the opposite; the idea that it might be too much.  I’ve reached a fork in the path of my life.  My friends are starting to buy houses, have children, shovel the last few nuggets of debt into the trash and begin saving in earnest.  Meanwhile my wife and I are six figures underwater, working long, draining hours in social services, and beginning to seriously consider leaping from the HMS Nonprofit and swimming desperately toward any employer who will pay us wages on which we could afford to have a child.

Money isn’t even the main thing.  It’s not as if we’re not living an incredibly privileged, eminently comfortable lifestyle.  The problem is that I’ve never figured out a way to truly love the poor and disenfranchised without becoming entangled in their problems and having to listen to their broken cries up close.  I’ve fought for a decade to somehow “serve” the poor without joining them in their squalor.  I don’t want to be pulled out of my life raft into the raging sea of their sorrows.  So, I’m standing here at the crossroads, a chilly breeze tugging at the collar of my shirt, looking back and forth between the two tracks and wondering which I’m going to choose.

When I first moved to Portland I took a job working at an aftercare facility with teenagers attempting to get out of prostitution.  One freezing February night I was standing outside the house with a 15-year-old girl when she began telling me about her life to that point.  Between drags on her Camel Light she described a childhood journey that had included a drug-addicted mother and more than 20 foster homes, all of which were merely the preface to the point where she began selling her body.  After she finished up and we headed back inside I slipped into the closet of the staff office, shut the door behind me, leaned against the water heater, and cried.  I’d come to have real affection for this girl, and the knowledge of what she’d been through was too much.

I’m tired.  Weary of bearing witness to the violence we human beings rain down on one another.  There are days when I feel wrung out like a washcloth, sick to death of trying to talk to scabby drunks holed up alone in their trashed apartments swilling mouthwash because it’s the cheapest way to dull the pain of life.  What good am I doing?  I’m tired of picking up one starfish at a time and throwing it back into the ocean.

I’m also tired of working for unprofessional, ragtag operations functioning on shoestring budgets.  Tired of making less than my friends who stock the deep freeze at Safeway.  Tired of being patted on the back and told my work must be so meaningful.  Downward mobility?  The siren call of upward mobility is pulling me towards the shore and I’m looking around, wondering who will lash me to the mast of my better angels.

And so I come, at last, to the question of where the good intentions I do occasionally have find their origin, and what it is that has kept me interested in the proposition of selfless love to this point.  For me, that means arriving at Jesus Christ.  He who surrounded himself with the stench of the poor, and had compassion on the peasant crowds, “because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.”  There are many who claim no affiliation with Jesus of Nazareth and yet love the poor more fully and selflessly than I.  There are many days when I shout at the ceiling, asking the Son of God, my so-called Lord (although it’s strange to call him that when I ignore him so much of the time), why he allows the widows and orphans to suffer, disoriented, alone, running forlorn upon the face of the earth like a hill of crazed ants, and receive only silence for my trouble.  But I cannot quit him.  His gospel is the most beautiful story I have ever heard told, and seems to me to explain the burning pageant of the world, including the existential despair that Kierkegaard called “the sickness unto death,” in a way that resonates, like a morning bell, with the ring of truth.

C.S. Lewis noted with incisive clarity that, "the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried."  The question for most people is not whether it is good for the broken-hearted to be comforted or the oppressed to receive justice.  The question is whether or not we ourselves want to be the comforters and the bringers of said justice.  Jesus Christ calls all who would follow him to wade out, neck deep, into the suffering of the world.  To embrace the poor, holding nothing back, aspiring not to lay up treasures in this world but in the world to come.

For all his compassion, all his non-violent teachings, all of his physical healings, Jesus was focused on eternal life.  I would argue that he defined that eternal life as something that begins here and now, but he also certainly seemed to be talking about another world as well.  He made no apologies about speaking of a heavenly kingdom, a coming day when he himself would make all things new.  A friend of mine read the following passage from the book of Revelation at my wedding:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

That passage’s searing vision of a reality different from the one I know now is the only vision with enough power to persuade me to continue on with my stumbling attempts to love the poor.  Because the prospect of sacrificing myself upon the altar of love only makes sense to me if eternity is real.  I believe that this makes me something of a small-hearted person.  Perhaps, at times, I could find it in myself, have found it in myself, to love my brothers and sisters out of a pure and selfless place in my heart.  I do not believe that I am all darkness.  But money, security, a sense of calm and order, even if predicated on the suffering of others, exert too strong a pull.  To actively put myself in harm's way and give up on the flat out sprint toward American comfort and financial security that my entire culture is engaged in requires a belief in the most basic truths of the gospel.  That heaven is real.  That God is real.  That there is one who will lead me to the rock that is higher than I and set my feet upon a firm foundation.  Not just figuratively but literally.

In writing this essay I have reflected upon how regularly and with what astonishing ease I reduce the gospel of Jesus Christ to an abstraction.  Just an interesting proposition or set of philosophical constructs to be debated in post-modern, vaguely spiritual terms while I go on living a life that shows precious little evidence of any real desire to adhere to his radical, endlessly upsetting teachings.  My brother used to talk about the idea of losing your life to find it.  Sometimes I wonder if I haven’t tried hard enough.  If I might find the grail of contentment if only I could bring myself to unclench my claws from where they are buried in the idol of self-preservation.  We all end up losing our lives in the end, right?  Just let go, Ben.

It’s not that easy.  The fear of suffering is so great in me.  Too great to overcome on my own.  How wondrous then, how ecstatic and deeply comforting are those moments when I turn back, repent, and find renewal in the belief that my Redeemer lives, and that “in the end He will stand upon the earth.”  Nothing else could compel me to go on for one more day, challenging the American Dream and its legacy of bloodshed, and rebuking the part of my very own soul that wants nothing more than to run panting into the arms of material security.

Lord of Life, you’re my only hope.  Speak to me again of the incorruptible inheritance you have laid up for those who cling to the hem of your robe.  Show it to me, that I might run it through my fingers like silver and gold.

 

 

 

 

photoBen Bishop is a mental health counselor working in the Portland/Vancouver metro area.  His essays and features have appeared in The StrangerWillamette Week, and Relevant.com.  He is the editor of Ragged Band, a website devoted to the concerns of young artists and entrepreneurs.

 

 

 

 

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

Seeds of Incarnation-- Guest Post by Daniel Karistai

  I'm excited Daniel is here to write for us today because he brings some necessary push back to the series--he, for one, doesn't think the term "downward mobility" is near enough. I am grateful for his perspective (although I don't agree with all his presuppositions or conclusions--which is great!) and this is exactly what I need to expand my horizons and continue on the path of asking: what next, Jesus? Daniel is that rare combination of being both a thinker AND a do-er, and I am glad to have him here today. 

 

 

The Christ of the Breadlines by Fritz Eichenberg. Image found here: http://sacredartpilgrim.com/collection/view/19

Seeds of Incarnation; Guest post by Daniel Karistai

 

 

 

Becoming a part of a city

My wife and I have lived in New Orleans for nearly three years and I consider this city to be my home. This is a big deal for me because I have moved around a lot in both my childhood and young adult years. It wasn’t until my wife and I moved to NOLA that I saw the very real possibility of staying in the same place, establishing roots in a community, raising our children and eventually be buried above ground with my own second line and everything (those who live in New Orleans are typically buried above ground in a family mausoleum and a “second line” is a type of funeral procession that is unique to this city. For more information GOOGLE “St. Louis Cemetery” and also “Second Line Jazz Funeral” and you’ll learn all about it). For someone like me where mobility has been more or less a lifestyle this experience of coming home for the first time has been both profound and unique. The other side of that coin is that Amanda and I know we are outsiders, we don’t pretend to be anything else and this knowledge is often reinforced by the disposition of new people we meet. It’s an interesting tension because while we are embraced with a hybrid of a laissez faire celebration of life and the warm embrace of Southern Hospitality there is also a distance kept between us and them. We are not met with cynicism or skepticism when we’ve talked about our love for this city and hopes for the future. It’s just a simple look on their faces or a tone of voice that says “time will tell”.

There isn’t enough space in this post to talk in depth about the ways the New Orleans’ population has always been in flux. From being owned by Empires to becoming one of the greatest cities of tourism in the world there are a lot of faces that do not stay long enough to become known. The other side of this distance we encounter in our neighbors is the fact that the zeitgeist of this city was galvanized by Katrina. For those of us who came after the Storm there is a core component to this culture’s collective story that we just don’t know because we weren’t there. That’s okay, though, all is not lost in the process of becoming a true New Orleanian because we’ve also never experienced the attitude of “You’ll never be one of us because you didn’t go through Katrina”. Instead, there is this question which sort of floats over all other conversation that no one dares to ask because the rejection would be heartbreaking: will you stay when times get tough?  Will you send your kids to the same schools are ours? Will you suffer alongside us with the same love for this neighborhood and city that you have when you’re celebrating with us? The rub in trying to answer these unasked questions is that only time will tell.

 

Downward Mobility and the Incarnational Life

I share this tension that I live in to create a framework for understanding what I see as a parallel difference between downward mobility and living incarnationally. In a word, downward mobility is transformed into an incarnational lifestyle when the choice to opt-out of the suffering that comes with downward mobility is surrendered.

First, let’s define “downward mobility”. The definition D.L. offers at the beginning of this series is a good, straightforward one: the movement of an individual, social group, or class to a lower status. I really like this concept. I think more people need to become downwardly mobile for all sorts of reasons – many of which are discussed in the other posts of this series. Personally, as we have embarked on our own journey toward a more simple, less consumer driven lifestyle we have experienced an incredible sense of freedom to be whom God is creating us to be. On the other hand, I am also one of those people whom this series had previously mentioned that doesn’t believe downward mobility is enough. I believe it is a crucial aspect of the incarnational life but I’m noticing more and more confusion between these two concepts that I want to press into. Downward mobility is a cultural critique of western capitalism, the American Dream or Modernity itself. The Incarnational Life inhabits the vacuums created by the upwardly mobile (For more insight on this particular point check out Sister Margaret M. McKenna’s chapter “Relocation to the Abandoned Places of Empire” in School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism by the Rutba House). Downward mobility is an architect’s blue prints and the Incarnational Life is the cathedral that those plans will eventually become. Please allow me to outline three reasons why I understand downward mobility in this fashion:

  1. Downward Mobility doesn’t have the capacity to levy the kind of critique it tries to. Social mobility as we know it finds it genesis in the creation of the bourgeois social class during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. This is an inherently Enlightenment construct with the sovereignty of the individual at the heart of it all. The socio-economic status of a person is the direct result of his or her life choices. I don’t want to capitulate too much into my next reason here but for now the underpinning logic of downward mobility is a choice that is no more different than moving up in the world. When we use “downward mobility” as a locus of meaning for engaging our neighborhoods and cities we are playing according our culture’s own terms. Rather than levying a critique of our culture downward mobility seems to only shift which direction we ought to go on this linear scale. Ultimately, downward mobility reinforces one’s status in a social class construct rather demonstrating the absurdity of it all.

  2. Downward Mobility is still a position of transcendence. For every choice you and I make that is intentionally downwardly mobile there will come seasons when the authenticity of those choices will be tested. In those crucible moments we are empowered with a choice that not everyone has – to get out or suffer through it. This choice makes the downwardly mobile transcendent from those who don’t have a choice. When those who are practicing downward mobility surrender that choice they cross over the threshold into living incarnationally. I’m going to return to this in a minute.

  3. Sometimes Upward Mobility is a good thing. There is an NPO in New Orleans called Café Reconcile (cafereconcile.org). This organization’s mission is to equip at risk youths with job skills they would need to be successful in the restaurant and hospitality industry – for this city that can be a rather lucrative career. More than just giving people a job they offer a holistic case management service that has helped hundreds of people get off the streets, recover from any number of addictions and out of domestically violent environments. Is this not upward mobility? Is this also not something good? It’s easy to fall into it, but we must resist the temptation to categorically denounce upward mobility in our advocacy for experimenting with its counterpart.

Downward Mobility has a great amount of potential and can take us far in emulating God’s own method of engagement with his creation through the humanity of Jesus. In of itself, however, downward mobility does not have the ability to bridge the gap between living a transcendent, privileged life and an incarnational one because the individual remains sovereign. Returning to reason number two, what would the gospel story be like if at Gethsemane Jesus called down a legion of angels to take him away from the immense suffering on the horizon? No, the story of the Incarnation is not complete without the cross…and neither is ours. The Incarnational Life requires of us to not only drink from the cup of His new covenant but also the cup of suffering for the purpose of accomplishing what work God has called us to. Acts of downward mobility are seeds of the incarnational life. They invite us into an entirely different genre of life; one of surprise and wonder. When we cross that threshold we enter into a world of parables where we see with our own eyes what the Kingdom of God is like.  This transformation from downward mobility to incarnation requires a steadfast commitment to the hope we have in Christ’s resurrection, a willingness to suffer alongside those we journey with and the prophetic witness of simplicity within our cultures of desire and hyper-consumption. As for our neighbors, if we remain committed to the incarnational life time will certainly tell a magnificent story of solidarity, suffering, redemption and even ascension into the resurrected life.

 

 

380606_520990839713_37763735_nDaniel and his wife Amanda live in New Orleans and are members of an organization called Communitas (www.communitas-ic.org).  When he's not at work, hanging out with his wife, dog and/or community you can usually find him at the neighborhood coffee shop drinking coffee and working on his thesis.  From time to time he posts on his own blog at www.urbanmonastic.org.  You can follow him on twitter (urbanmonknola) or befriend him on Facebook (http://facebook.com/drkaristai).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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