One of the things about writing about Downward Mobility is that people have all sorts of opinions about it. I have found myself getting push back from both sides (too self-righteous! you aren't doing near enough!) and to be honest sometimes I just thought about scrapping the project. But then people like Meg Hers come out of the woodwork, and it changes me.
Meg is an artist living in one of the most marginalized neighborhoods in Canada. She inspires me with her passions, talents, and joie de vivre (plus, I identify with her story of grocery store shopping so much I can't stand it). She makes me feel less alone, points me back to the prayers I always needed to be praying in the first place. Lord have mercy on me indeed.
I’m new to this whole downward mobility game. One year ago I finished a degree in art theory in Canada’s biggest city and was perfectly set up to work my way up the ladder in the art world. I was fluent in artspeak, the tongue of the high art world, and connected to all the right people. Instead I heard the Spirit whisper in my heart, start tugging in all the wrong directions, and I turned around and moved to one of the poorest and most economically depressed cities in the country. Hamilton, Ontario, is considered the armpit of the province, and is rife with unemployment, and a plethora of mental health and social service agencies to assist its struggling population. I was offered what is now my dream job, working in a drop-in art studio with homeless and at-risk teenagers. I moved into the poorest neighbourhood in the city with some like-minded folks, chose a bike and a bus pass over a car, and set out on my adventure.
What I’ve realized over the past year is that although I’ve changed my postal code and chosen into a simpler way of life, that doesn’t erase the fact that I grew up quite comfortably in the suburbs. I can spend most of my waking hours at the shelter, in the group homes and transitional housing buildings, but I will never fully understand what it’s like to have grown up under the poverty line. My heart’s desire might be to fully internalize the realities of my neighbours or the youth that I work with, but it remains that I’ve never been abused, or silenced, or pushed to the fringes, and so I am left with this gaping hole of understanding.
The complexity of navigating solidarity with my neighbours always seems to crystallize when I open my fridge. I’m no gourmet, but I appreciate my organic produce, my funky health foods, and eating fresh and healthy meals. Yet I’m not willing to naively convince myself that the fridges of my neighbours are full of the same kinds of goods. In fact, I know that they aren’t, because the legacy of childhood obesity in the city is proclaimed in the papers, and lumbers daily down my street. I know that when you’re struggling to survive at all, like so many families in my neighbourhood, food and healthy meal planning is generally the last thing on your mind. I struggle daily with not knowing how to extend my solidarity with the marginalized to this refrigerated sphere.
So I get panicky and anxious on a pretty routine basis when I visit the grocery store in our neighbourhood. This particular store has a reputation in the city, and those who don’t have to shop there won’t, unless it’s to see the man who brings his pet birds in with him, and is always eventually chased out. It smells really, incredibly bad in the egg section. The store branding involves huge swaths of neon yellow cracked paneling that seems to press against the back of your eyeballs after twenty minutes of wandering the aisles. Even the guy ahead of me in line the other day said that he’d rather have done an extra two years in the ‘pen than shop there.
Yet I won’t stop going, because this weakness that these visits produce in my heart is bringing me back to a space of needing God, and realizing that the world is a broken and hopeless place without Him. I’ve started standing in the longest check-out line (and trust me, they get long), because it lets me watch those coming in the front doors. They’re my neighbors, the youth I work with, and their families, and they’ve endured more than I can imagine. The poverty they have experienced is written all over their faces, speaking through their body language, and is concretized in the items they put on the conveyor belt ahead of mine.
Yet what I find myself chanting under my breath when I’m confronted with the broken people walking in through that front door is the reminder: ‘humanity, humanity’. This grocery store is the place where I am most vehemently reminded that we are all image-bearers, not just the shiny, happy Christians who we tend to imagine ourselves hanging out with in heaven.
There are bad days, of course, when grace-filled attitudes take too much effort and all I want is for someone to drive me to Whole Foods so I can buy imported cheese and overpriced granola bars. They are the days when the legacy of poverty in this city makes my chest tight and I get overwhelmed by how dirty the baby in the cart ahead of me is, and by the fact that most of the kids in the store are wearing pajamas instead of clothes. On those days I find myself whispering ‘maranatha, maranatha’ instead. On those days I want Him to come soon, to soothe my anxiety and solve these problems.
On those days I retreat to prayer.
Come Lord soon, come and be our refuge.
Come love the unloved, and feed the hungry.
Come and give my youth who are standing outside the front doors begging the 25 cents that I can’t, because of the contract that I signed with the social service agency I work for.
Help me to know how to reconcile the way that I chat with them before going in to buy my dinner, walk past them with a timid smile on the way out and then claim to be desiring solidarity with those on the fringes.
Lord, have mercy on me.
Meg Hers is an artist, dreamer and youth worker living in the post-industrial steel city of Hamilton, Ontario. She lives in intentional community in the East End of the city, and is the studio co-ordinator at RE-create Outreach Art Studio. RE-create is a drop-in art studio space where at-risk, street-involved and homeless youth can come and express themselves. She loves her neighbourhood, riding her bike and trying to figure out how to grow her own food in the community garden down the street. She blogs about wonder and daily life at thehers.blogspot.ca, good art at perfumeanddebtors.wordpress.com, and is on Twitter.