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?
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.
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.