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.
Alissa 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.