Resources for a Discussion about Christians and Poverty

Can you tell that this is a topic I care very deeply about? The more we educate ourselves and discuss the issues of how Christians talk about and relate to “the poor,” the better our ministry and the more effective our work will be.

Here are some of the resources I’ve found in the last few years that have made a difference to me. I’ll be adding to this list periodically, so if you have any additions, let me know.

Books: (all links go through makbooks.org, a way to buy books and support the work of Makarios in the Dominican Republic)

When Helping Hurts, by Brian Fikkert, Steve Corbett: This book does a really great job of assessing the way Christians talk about poverty and reframing it in a way that is challenging and critical. The intended audience is people who say something I think we’ve all heard, “But we just wanted to help!” They do a great job of putting sound development practices into conversation with Christian ideals in a way that will teach us how to help without hurting.

Toxic Charity, by Robert Lupton: From the product description–”In Toxic Charity, Lupton urges individuals, churches, and organizations to step away from these spontaneous, often destructive acts of compassion toward thoughtful paths to community development. He delivers proven strategies for moving from toxic charity to transformative charity. ”

The White Man’s Burden, by William Easterly: This is a development book that has changed the way we work at Hill Country Hill Tribers by teaching us the power of a bottom-up instead of top-down approach. It outlines the needs in the developing world, then evaluates the very wasteful, futile and prideful ways Western countries have tried to meet those needs. It’s convicting and challenging. Though not intended for a Christian audience, it will change the way we as Christians view development.

Blogs:

These are some blog posts I’ve found really helpful in looking at the way we as Christians talk about poverty, short-term missions, adoption and other related issues. Some of them link to pages with a compiled list.

Jamie the Very Worst Missionary’s take on short-term missions or poverty tourism.

Rachel Held Evans, “Poverty Tourism, Poverty Elitism, and Grace

Kristen Howerton’s posts on Rage against the Minivan are some of my favorites. I think her very practical post about what you can do to help orphans and eradicate poverty is a great place to start.

Our Little Tongginator had a post a while ago that was so beautiful about adoption: “Love and Adoption

My friend Constance pulls from her vast experience in philanthropy and development work in her blog, “Give a Little

Esther Havens is a world-renowned photographer whose pictures are empowering and beautiful. I love when she tells stories on her blog.

My friends Mark and Ali don’t always blog, but when they do, it changes my life.

On-the-Ground World Changers:

These are people whose organizations whose work  I know personally or know someone who knows them. In a cynical world, these are people making a real difference. You can support them financially, through prayer, or  by buying one of their amazing products to help artisans earn a fair and living wage.

Hill Country Hill Tribers: I’m the co-founder and executive director of HCHT. You can find out a bit more of our background story in parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 of a series I wrote about why we started this group. If you’re ever in Austin and want to meet an artisan, let me know!

Noonday Collection

Chance Bags

Raven and Lily

Freedom Stones

Eternal Threads

Good & Fair Clothing

Makarios

Dominican Joe

The Church and Poverty: On Friendships and Mutuality

I want to begin my series on Christianity and poverty with a post by D. L. Mayfield. I’ve recently begun to read her writing and I’m so impressed by the maturity and insight she possesses. I hope you enjoy hearing her words about living with refugees as we launch this series every Thursday for the next few weeks.

I have been fortunate enough, like Jessica, to have stumbled into an amazing multicultural community right in the midst of my city. I live in Portland, Oregon, and 8 years ago I started volunteering with Somali Bantu refugees. I went into volunteering with the aim of being a missionary to an unreached people group. I quickly realized that things weren’t as cut-and-dried as I would have liked them to be. Evangelism wasn’t as simple as showing the Jesus Film in Somali, and helping wasn’t as easy as giving food and money and clothes. To be a missionary, or even a friend, demanded an inordinate amount of relationship. But this can be hard to explain to people who want to know what your “ministry” is.

So, I ran around doing the things I knew I was supposed to be doing with the poor. Once, I took a bunch of refugee kids to a VBS (Vacation Bible School, for those not in-the-know). This was the second summer most of the Somali Bantu kids had been in America, and they were languishing in the heat and lack of supervision that summer brings.

My dad was a pastor at a large, successful Megachurch in the suburbs of Portland. Hundreds of kids crammed into a beautiful auditorium filled with good-natured volunteers running around trying to stop children from killing each other. The theme of the week was “Serengeti”, and the whole place was decked out with African-themed decorations. (What this had to do with Jesus, or the Bible, I still don’t know to this day.) I had brought a van full of kids from the apartment complex, and they stared in silent amazement at all the large cutouts of giraffes and elephants decorating the stage. They clapped their hands and screamed along to the songs, they listened patiently to the Bible story, they made their crafts and ate their snacks with gusto. I was so proud, so self-congratulatory for being a good missionary and bringing these kids to the church. And then, as I was herding the refugee kids towards the water fountains, I overhead a small child talking to a volunteer. “Oh! “ he said joyously “they brought us kids from the Serengeti!” Several children turned and pointed at me and my group, and I felt my face began to flush as I realized the church kids thought the refugee kids were props.

This happens all the time, especially in the church. No one is more guilty of turning the poor into props than me. I do it to make myself feel better, or to feel like a good Christian. I also do it in order to get other people involved in the work, to convince my church or friends or family to make the leap into service. Even when done with the best of intentions, however, using the poor as tools in the story of Us will always have detrimental consequences. We take away the complexities and the realities of working with the poor, and we make it a simple and marketable experience.

The reality is, of course, one messy business indeed. I am learning this at an astonishingly slow speed: there is no quick solution to any given problem. The Somali Bantu face so many forms of oppression it can seem overwhelming: they are a non-literate, tribal, animistic, Muslim, polygamous, patriarchal people transplanted into the middle of Portlandia. They come from war, violence, suffering, death, and at least a decade of waiting for freedom in refugee camps. They are not immigrants: they have no home they can ever return to. Life is very, very hard.

But it is still rich. Even with all the troubles and complexities stemming from their culture and experiences, they have made my life unbelievably richer. We have weathered births and deaths and weddings and sickness together. And the longer I have been in the community, the less like props they have become to me. They are real, precious, complicated people who I love and cherish (and, let’s be real, get extremely frustrated at). They become people in need of redemption, just like me.

So how can the Church make an effort to humanize the poor? How do we escape the dangerous language of the savior complex, the idea that we the elite can neatly and systematically “save” people from poverty?

It starts with friendships. It starts with a world where the Church knows the poor so intimately we simply must value their full stories and experiences. And it is as much for our sake as it is for theirs. I wholeheartedly agree with Shane Claiborne when he says “I truly believe that when the poor meet the rich, riches will have no meaning. And when the rich meet the poor, we will see poverty come to an end.” (The Irresistible Revolution, pg. 114).

Therein lies the rub. We can’t stop at an awareness campaign or a feeling of outrage or reading a thought-provoking book (although they are all great places to start). We need to be intimately involved with the poor. Of course, we all have a million reasons why this isn’t a possibility for us (I’m in school, or I have my babies, or it isn’t safe, or even I will . . . in the future). But I am here to challenge you with this thought: until we break down those barriers between us and the poor, they will always be with us. They will always be separate, devalued, and oppressed. They will continue to be mere props in our stories, stories we tell to feel better about ourselves.

I have had to make some conscious decisions in order to frame my life around relationships with the poor. For starters, they needed to become my actual neighbors. So my husband and I moved into the low-income housing complex where many of my refugee friends live. Next, as Jessica pointed out in her post several days ago, we have to be intentional about creating a life which is conducive to interruptions. Flexible, moldable–and open to the Spirit of God. And it became less about me “saving” them and more about bringing the Kingdom in any way possible. I became a conduit, a vehicle for love, simply by making my life more available and vulnerable.

I am in the thick of this journey. It is fraught with difficulties, tears, and setbacks. But also too, there is the joy, the peace, the supreme happiness of being in solidarity with your neighbors. The mutuality, the back-and-forth visits for tea and sympathy, the sharing of toys or vegetables. My life has been changed, irrevocably, by getting to know the poor. And I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, it has been the greatest blessing of my life. All throughout the Gospels, Jesus hung out with the poor.

By the grace of God, the poor have befriended me. And this is where I have found Jesus, and where I have come to love Him even more.

D.L. Mayfield lives in Portland, Oregon. She blogs somewhat erratically on the Kingdom of God, babies, and intentional community at http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com Part of this blog was excerpted from her column on Mcsweeneys Internet Tendency, first published on March 26th, 2012.  Link to column: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/savior-complex

The Swiss Army Knife Approach to Poverty

Reading back in my journals from the summers of 1997 and 1999 that I spent in Thailand, I’m not going to lie, is pretty embarrassing. I was a college kid who had taken a few classes and had pretty much figured out the world at that point. I knew that my worldview was pretty much the answer for what ailed the world. There were few problems I couldn’t handle, very few questions I couldn’t find pat answers to.

Maybe someday I’ll quote from those journals so you can see how bad it was. I’m not emotionally prepared for that kind of idiocy to be out on the world wide web.

One of the best things I did was marry a guy who thinks I’m amazing, brilliant and gorgeous and yet still doesn’t agree that I have all the answers to everything. He questions me all the time, pushes and challenges me, to be a better and more thoughtful (OK, humble) person.

I knew, in that time period, that I wanted to work with the poor. And I also knew what that should look like and how they responded. I was totally and completely wrong.

I wrote two pieces in this series about how Christians approach poverty, wanting to give for the wrong motives and how we should have humility in our giving. As I’ve been thinking about our approach to poverty, I realized the metaphor that comes to mind most often is that of a Swiss army knife.

When I was 9, my parents gave me my first Swiss army knife for Christmas. I loved it immediately. Not only did it mean I was old enough to handle something that sharp, it gave me a measure of independence in my creativity. I created the most elaborate forts and hide-outs in our back yard, carved pan pipes, and whittled bows and arrows. I was a tomboy at heart and I loved to be barefoot outdoors. I could walk out with a water bottle and my Swiss army knife and be ready for a day of adventure.

Source: Swiss Army knife catalog

The thing about a knife like that is that it has all the tools you need at your fingertips. You don’t know if a bottle opener, a screwdriver, or a penknife will be called for in a given situation. So you pack all of them in your pocket, ready to use whatever you need. After my first one fell apart, I had several replacements, and only finally stopped carrying them everywhere when I started traveling enough to regret losing them over and over to customs when I inevitably forgot to take one out of my bag.

The ready-made attitude of having a programmatic, answer-filled response is what I’ve often seen in the church when we approach poverty. We repeat the same programs, we design ministries around our churches or our desires or our history. Sometimes it works, but often it just makes things immensely worse, like using an axe when a scalpel is required.

But the most efficient and effective ministries I’ve seen (and there are many), don’t walk in with a plan but with ready hearts to do whatever is needed. They have a Swiss army knife in their metaphorical pockets, armed with a screwdriver or toothpick or those tiny little scissors.

In the book The White Man’s Burden (a title I should point out is intentionally ironic), William Easterly talks about the difference between Planners and Searchers. Though he’s talking about foreign aid through governments and NGOs, I think his terms are very appropriate to our discussion about how we help and talk about “the poor” in Western Christian churches. Planners approach a problem with a goal in mind and a solution already worked out. Searchers listen, learn, ask and seek, and then develop an appropriate solution to any given problem. As Easterly says, “All the hoopla about having the right plan is itself a symptom of the misdirected approach to foreign aid taken by so many in the past and so many still today. The right plan is to have no plan” (5).

It’s clear, from his book, that not having a plan doesn’t mean not being ready to make a plan, it just means not imposing our will and our worldview on others. We don’t bring the tools we think we’ll need, we bring several tools at once and use the exact right one that fits the situation.

At Hill Tribers, we’ve moved our lives and our plans over and over again. The group keeps changing, the artisans drift in and out, the needs alter every few months. We started with weaving, and now we’re making jewelry and sewn products too. We’re fitting all of this into our part-time job, full-time mom schedules. We adjust and adapt, but one thing never changes: we are committed to doing our best to help our friends and we’ll use every tool that’s available to us in order to best meet their needs.

We’ve done this as part of a community of people who are helping “the poor,” both here in Austin, and around the world. Conversations with these wise people who are deeply involved in the lives of people who are both exactly like and totally unlike them, has changed our approach. I want you to hear from them. So I’m turning to some of my favorite friends and asking them to share with you from their vast wisdom about how we as Christians can approach poverty.

Every Thursday for the next few weeks, I’ll introduce a new guest post from a friend as part of this new series.

This Friday, look for some resources I’ve compiled, a list I hope you’ll help me add to as we continue this discussion. I don’t really care about whether #Kony2012 is still “trending” or not. These are things we’ve GOT to talk about. Let’s keep at it, learning the issues of representation and authenticity that are critical to these discussions.

 

More than Just a Bracelet

This last week, our newest product launched on the Noonday Collection website. If you don’t know about Noonday Collection, you have to check them out. We met the founder, Jessica, last year through a mutual friend and have watched in amazement as their company grew by leaps and bounds. The reasons are pretty simple–Jessica and her team have impeccable taste and they work with some amazing artisans who receive a fair price for their beautiful work.

When Jessica asked us to come up with some designs for their new spring line, we were pretty ecstatic. We had two artistic crocheters who had been designing some lovely earrings and necklaces that we launched last year, like this signature piece:

And then we found out that one artisan moved to Houston almost overnight, which just left the amazing and indomitable Huang to handle all of the jewelry-making.

HuangNan2w_IMG_6809-1

We asked Huang to come up with some samples and she’s worked her fingers hard all spring to design new bracelets, while she’s teaching her friends her intricate techniques as quickly as possible in order to increase our capacity to make new jewelry. The thing is, she’s a natural teacher and leader, and it’s been a joy to watch her assess her friend’s ability and assign them tasks so increase the speed at which they learn her lessons about tatting and jewelry-making. They have a pretty good time hanging out together.

I love this picture because it captures so many of their personalities. Huang’s second from the left, working hard on adding chain to a new piece.

While she was busy teaching her friends, I took the base of the bracelets, the crocheted parts, and hung them out in the sun. Huang also dries mustard for her friends, a tangy smell which seeps into the cloth. A day of drying out in the sunlight and they are perfect. As I pulled them off my make-shift clothesline, I breathed in the smell of my neighbor cutting his grass, the outdoorsy scent of my fence posts still warm with the heat of the setting sun, and the organic smell of cloth that the wind has blown through all day. We do this with all of our Hill Triber products and it reminds me of my grandmother’s stories of pulling their laundry in from the line. I love that this project has brought me back in many ways to a simpler, lovelier time.

We worked together to add the findings on the bracelets, bronze ribbon clasps and a shiny gray bead to give it a little zing, and then hand-delivered them to Jessica’s house.  A few days later, they appeared in the Noonday photo shoot.

If you want some ideas about how to look good and give back this season, go to their spring/summer lookbook.

What I love about Noonday Collection is that every item they sell has a story and a maker just like Huang, an artisan whose work contributes to the livelihood of her family. Check out our bracelets and grab some earrings, or a bag, or a gorgeous belt. You’ll be glad you helped women all over the world create a better world for their families using their artistry.

Ask Not What “The Poor” Can Do for You…

Part two of a series on Christianity and giving to “the poor.” Read part one here.

In more than ten years of working with people in a wide variety of circumstances in a different socioeconomic bracket from me, I’ve learned one crucial lesson about giving: What I want to give, the gifts or talents that I bring to the table, are less important than the needs that are on the ground. Instead, I need to cultivate a lifestyle of interruptibility.

I borrow this phrase from some missionary friends of mine who are heroes I look up to immensely. They’re working in the city where we used to live in Brazil; my friend Ali grew up there as a missionary kid and she returned to her hometown not to teach but to listen. They’re experts on interruptibility. I have no idea how many people are living in their tiny house (they probably don’t either), but they’ve turned generosity into an art form. There’s always, always room in their lives.

This isn’t true for me. I’m not spontaneous. I love to help, but I also like a plan.

Which is why it’s so hilarious that God called me to a ministry that uses few of my talents, at a time when I least expected and wasn’t looking for it, when it was inconvenient and uncomfortable and just plain difficult. He pushed me past my plans and into a space where my life was thoroughly and completely interrupted.

I hate selling things—I was the worst Girl Scout ever to sell cookies. I quit a retail job in high school after two hours. I could no more convince you to buy a car than to fly to the moon. And yet I sell jewelry, scarves, bags and other items pretty regularly.

I’m horrific with numbers. Really, really bad. I took the dumbest math you could take in college, math for artists and idiots. And yet I’ve become an expert on spreadsheets and item numbers and inventory totals. My kids play “inventory” the way other kids play grocery shopping.

I know nothing about weaving. Absolutely nothing. I’ve taken a few weaving lessons over the years, but in the beginning I had to call my mom to even ask her the right terms, like “weight” of yarn. I did all kinds of research to learn about backstrap looms (which are used by weavers in Central America and Central Asia—did you know?). I found a yarn company in Maine, and now one in Thailand, and I’ve learned the Thai term for roll of yarn (“jai”—I think).

I’m a college English teacher who spends half her time teaching the alphabet to two preschool daughters and half of it teaching the alphabet to widows in ther 80s. I speak two languages that I worked hard to learn in my 20s, and now I spend my time around Burmese, Karen, Kachin, Chin, Karenni, and various other dialects I don’t understand (although I did learn two very valuable phrases last week: “crazy white people”—which prompted a lot of giggles from our artisans—and “don’t worry about it” in Burmese. VERY useful).

My life has been interrupted by this ministry. I’m not using the gifts I thought I would use, I’m not going in the direction I thought I would go. I wanted to do educational development in South America after my graduate program, not work with Asian refugees in Austin.

Praise the Lord for the interruption. I have been changed by these relationships and by this ministry. I have certainly been impacted more than I have impacted anyone else.

The reason that I’ve been in these odd places using things I’m not good at is because these were the needs that arose. When we asked the women we had just met what they needed, they said a chance to earn money at home and basic English. When we asked what they could do, they said weaving and sewing and other traditional artistry. So we crafted our ministry around them, around their needs and their gifts and their community.

And in this time, I’ve been blessed to work with a very good friend who keeps me constantly reminded that we’re recovering perfectionists, that we’re here to listen and serve, that we’re moving at the pace of the community. Caren and I have done our best to interrupt our lives for the sake of the women that we’ve grown to love.

I’m not saying this to say how amazing we are, but to show you a bit of what I’ve seen. Like I mentioned in my last post about how not to give, I’ve certainly forced my gifts and myself upon others or served in ways that were more about me and less (or not at all) about the people I was serving. It’s taken me a long time to get to this place.

Through Hill Tribers, I’ve come to change the way I approach poverty. These women are not “the poor,” they’re some of the most hilarious, resilient, wonderfully real women I know. They’re my friends. Sometimes they’re sad, sometimes they’re stoic, sometimes they’re warm, sometimes they don’t know quite what to do with me, but always they’re real people who need real relationships, not token “poor” who I need to serve because I need to feel good about serving.

This lesson came home to me in my conversation with the very wise young woman who was an intern and then our Communications Director this past year. Kelsi Williamson and I are getting ready to speak at ACU this week about Social Justice and as we were talking over what we were going to say, I loved hearing her take on her time with us. Truthfully, I’ve only been blogging about Hill Tribers for a few weeks on my personal blog and, while we tell the stories on our gorgeous website that Caren has built with pictures Kelsi has taken, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. (I will say, if you’re going to start a non-profit, get a graphic designer and a photographer on your team—best decision ever). We may never know the whole story of our artisans. We certainly cannot tell all the things we’ve seen. Kelsi was saying how hard it is sometimes to do things that you can’t describe, that no one will ever know. She has blessed me this year as I’ve watched her roll up her sleeves and tackle whatever has come.

Being willing to take on what arises and building a plan based on what you hear after a lot of questions, what you learn from listening and learning, is more important than what you bring to the problem. I watch healthy parents do this all the time—you parent the child that comes, you adjust your lives to the crying baby or the disabled child, rather than inflicting your dreams or your will on them. You go to ball games when you dreamed of musicals because your child is inexpliably good at soccer and not singing. But somehow we miss this point when it comes to poverty. Christians need to get much, much better at listening, learning and adjusting our giving to the needs on the ground rather than giving based on our gifts and our goals. Then we will find that “the poor” cease to be different and instead become beloved friends with whom we might just be able to develop lovely and equal community.

God Loves a Forceful Giver

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, I had just started my new grad school here in Austin. Like everyone else, I watched the coverage and was horrified. There wasn’t much I could do, though. I mean, why would they need new English grad students in New Orleans?

And then one of my best friends called. She was the interim volunteer coordinator at the Red Cross in Austin, a job which had involved some spreadsheets and some filing, until the largest crisis in our region hit and she got word that thousands of evacuees were headed our way. She needed someone she could trust, she said. Would I help?

I spent that first week racing to and from my brand new classes while I did a series of odd jobs around town. I helped set up a calling center. I spent the evening at a high school gym receiving evacuees. I spent most of my time in the Austin Convention Center, which had been turned into a massive place to house thousands of people while they searched for loved ones and figured out their next steps. I missed Matthew McConaughey when he came for a photo shoot. I’d been standing in the spot where he took pictures just minutes before he arrived—I was mad, my husband was pleased.

One day, my friend handed me a Red Cross vest and told me to be a bouncer. I’m 5’7” with curly hair and I’m pretty slight—I thought it was kind of funny. There were only a few entrances at the time, and people were only being allowed through one main door to keep tabs on who came in and out. She needed someone to stand at one of the other doors.

There were services set up, wonderfully well-coordinated systems that already existed, and programs being created on the spot when needs were discovered. I watched as my friends and her colleagues poured themselves into the situation. They called the people with food, blankets, counseling, knowledge, influence, and special skills. Churches were involved; non-profits were doing what they do best.

And my job was to stand at the door and turn the rest of the people away.

Some of the people that came along were well-meaning, like the family who drove up with clothes that they had gathered that morning and were willing to drop off there at the Convention Center. They were gracious when I gave them directions to the church who was handling all of the donations.

Some of them were confused, like the poor college guys with a battered couch in the back of a pick-up truck. They kept asking me where to take it and I finally told them to try Goodwill. I’m still not sure where they thought people with no homes were going to put an old couch.

Some of them were just plain mean. One woman, who was clearly crazy, went from entrance to trying to convince us “bouncers” to let her in to help and then berating us when we told her no.

But the worse one was the woman who pulled up with a truck loaded with plush animals. She stopped at the curb, turned on her hazard lights, and began calmly unloading her trunk at my door. When I told her she couldn’t leave them here and tried to tell her how to get to the local church, she griped me out. Those babies need toys, she told me, hands on her hips. When I tried to tell her how many toys had been donated (rooms-full) and that there were people that were willing to take and organize them, she looked at me like I was an idiot. She had gathered these toys from her friends, she said. She would be taking them to the children. Kids needed toys. How could I stand to keep there and keep these precious babies from having the toys they wanted?

Finally I had to call security, the actual bouncers, in the form of some very helpful firefighters. She wouldn’t budge. She was there to give. She finally stomped away, but the toys were still stacked by the door when my shift was over.

I was shaken by that experience, and I got only the tiniest taste of the criticism I saw my friend and her colleagues endure that week. The implication of her argument and her words, that I was the one standing in the way of the people inside being helped, was ridiculous. She had not met the children. She had not been inside. I had spent several hours in that room and had no real idea what was needed, but I trusted the experts who did.

What shook me was her vehemence, her calm sense that she was there to give, and therefore she should give. We started a saying that day that I’ve used several times since then: Not “God loves a cheerful giver,” but “God loves a forceful giver.”

I’ve seen this type of giving, well-intentioned and completely unneeded, in a variety of situations.

That’s how a children’s home in Brazil ended up with a room filled with unopened boxes of clothes.

That’s how pallets of the wrong type of food, baby formula when rice is needed or corn when cooking oil is needed, end up on tarmacs at airports in random places in the world.

That’s how huge amounts of donated t-shirts wreck the local textile industry.

That’s how missionaries end up making up jobs for short-term mission trips, just to give them something to do.

It concerns me when this giving of time, of effort, of food, of clothes, of a trunk load of toys, is ultimately about us. With little sense of what’s needed on the ground in a particular situation, we give because we want to give. We want to feel helpful, we want to feel needed, we want to feel that we’ve done our part.

As Christians, we want to serve “the poor.” At least I did, as a young high school student or college kid, brimming with idealism, insultingly arrogant that my million-watt smile (because my parents could afford braces) and my “slumming” it t-shirts (I didn’t want to insult “the poor” with my nice clothes) would make an easy difference in the lives of the people I was serving. I had food drives and community events to bring clothes and canned goods to “the poor.” But honestly, it was not about them, it was always about me.

It was always, every time, about me.

I’m not sure when that changed. Year after year of being with people in a different socioeconomic bracket has changed them from “the poor” to my friends. And now I look back and cringe. The way I was giving was not the way to give.

Anyone who works with people who are of a low socioeconomic level can tell you, what’s needed and what’s offered are rarely the same thing. Even rarer are the people who say, “You tell me. What do you need? What can we do?”

In our work with Burmese refugee artisans at Hill Country Hill Tribers, we’ve seen forceful giving from time to time, stories I won’t tell you on the internet but might mention if we ever meet in real life. They’re kind of ridiculous, to be honest. Mostly we laugh, but it’s not always funny.

Here’s what we need: People who are willing to squat down, eat some Burmese food, and teach our artisans English. And a church that lets us give without making it about numbers or pie charts. We’ve been so blessed to be a part of a church that’s willing to trust us to help in whatever way is needed—our church has paid for many of the supplies for our artisans for years. I love that the budget lines read “yarn,” “sticks for looms,” “needle-nose pliers,” “1 mm crochet hooks,” or “washers for necklaces.” That’s not true for most churches. We’ve just started a new program where people are being matched to teach English in the homes of illiterate Burmese women and men. It’s being done because we asked and listened to our refugee community and our church is responding to that call. Beautifully, because our Karen and Karenni artisans have been Christians for generations, they asked us to teach them using the Bible, which we’ve been pleased to do. We’re responding to their requests and their needs and meeting it to the best of our abilities, whether we’re “gifted” that way or not. We’re not forcing English on our artisans, we’re sharing it with them because they asked for it.

We’re learning together to avoid the pitfalls of how not to give.

This is the first in a two-part series about the way Christians give to the poor. Part one is how NOT to give. Part two, on Monday, will be about how TO give.

Why I’ve Stayed

I originally published this post in January as a way of articulating some of my reasons to remain in both my local church and as part of a more traditional church. I took it down because it felt too vague and out of context, so I’ve made some important changes to that original post. I was thinking at the time of a conversation about the emerging church movement and how many of my good friends intentionally left behind the more established churches in order to begin new church plants in cities around the country. We were missionaries for awhile in Brazil, and then came back to a U.S. church that was losing people in our generation right and left to start new churches or for other reasons. We stuck around. Looking back, here are some of the reasons why:

I’d love to say I stayed a member at established churches because of some thoughtful theological reasons. Mostly, it’s for practical reasons: we didn’t live in the same place long enough to start any churches like the emerging church friends I admired. Then, when we whipped from Brazil  to the US to Chile to Texas, established churches were our instant family. Interestingly, the churches that looked most like us were the most different from our worldview. My comfort zone is probably more in line with missionary-established churches in South America, with their amazing racial and socioeconomic diversity, than in the upper-class suburban white churches we found.

People asked us the two times we came back from South America if we were glad to be home. I remember staring blankly at someone–home is the church where I grew up where women can teach and questions are asked, or the communities in Brazil and Chile that loved and welcomed us immediately. Rich white churches in the middle of suburbia that didn’t know what to do with us took awhile to feel like home.

But they did, in time. And it’s not like I made it easy. My precious church in the American South has no idea how much I judged them; it breaks my heart to think back on it. I saw women who were content to be silent, who let the men eat first at small group while the women stayed behind to chat, then cleaned up. I saw young mothers who stayed at home with three or four tiny children. I saw a sea of white people in the midst of a black neighborhood and the largest population of Hispanic immigrants in the region.

They saw a girl come in who wore professional clothes when the young moms were lucky to have brushed their teeth before our weekly women’s Bible studies; they wondered if I was one of those “feminists” they’d been warned about (I was). Some of them pitied me for having to work and support a husband who was in school when it should have been him supporting me at home with babies (a Bible class teacher told me that once). They assumed I couldn’t have children (they asked me how long I’d been struggling with infertility–I was 25). We were in the midst of a serious culture clash–I felt left out, they felt unsure. Praise the Lord for the older women who took us all under their wings.

I will never forget the night I aired my grievances aloud over dinner to my favorite mentor in our church. She listened quietly as I railed. I already had some great friends who broke the mold, but I was reacting against what I saw as the pervasive culture in the church. We had just finished a Bible study in which we’d learned to be better supporters for our husbands, who were designed by God to be wild at heart (still don’t agree with that one) and it sent me over the edge. I talked and talked and talked. Finally, her hands folded gently in her lap, she called me out. She told me I had no idea what I was talking about. She pushed my view of these women, who I had known for months, with stories of what she had seen for years. The growth they’d experienced, the changes they had made, the difference they made in the lives of neighbors and friends, the Spanish-speaking Bible study going on in one house I didn’t know about, the marriage that God had transformed after an affair, the adoption stories that pervaded the congregation, the complexity and life God was drawing forth in this church.

Praise the Lord for her. She took me down and changed me, as iron sharpens iron. She gave me new eyes to see the church I was in. It was not my life–we knew we were only going to be there for two years–but it was a good life for this community. Of course it was small, but it was also intimate and generous. In the short time I’d been there, they’d carved a large space for me, whether I deserved it or not. That conversation allowed me to grow deeply in love with that church. We already knew the preaching was fantastic (the best we’ve heard before or since) and that many of the people were wonderfully like-minded. But she opened my eyes to see the rest of the group, the ones who felt so different from me. They might have watched Fox news and voted Republican, but all of us were being acted upon and changed by God (and I bet she told them to accept the CNN-watching, Democrat-voting, feminist-view-spouting girl, too). And now, amazingly, the church I felt might be too conservative has since hired a woman as their youth minister. I assumed they fit into a stereotype that they didn’t. I was wrong.

It took me two years to get over leaving the church I once thought I could never belong in.

This, to me, is the heart of church. If it hadn’t been for that life lesson, I might have stayed angry, allowed my stereotypes to change the way I view God’s people. They may not agree with me, they may not look like me, they may not think like me, but this is not a club of like-minded people, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis. Our differences are our strength. God’s body is much more glorious and complex than I saw in my youth and my judgment.

So if you’re walking back in or looking at us from the outside, give us a chance. We may look like we’ve bought into the system, but I guarantee there are more of us than you think who are resisting from the inside. We are deeper than we look on the surface. We fight injustice with casseroles. We deliver light with hospital visits. We change lives by holding hands and holding babies. We are ugly and old and wrinkled, or young and too dressed up and distracted by our children. We are not living the lives you think we should live. We’re probably not living the lives WE think we should live. But God is working in us, that I can promise. And the story, when it’s all played out, is going to be bigger and more beautiful than any of us can imagine.

The Spiritual Discipline of Playing Hookie

I’m taking a break from poverty, postcolonialism, the future of the church, and other fluff to write about a serious topic: happiness. Linked with elizabethesther.com.

I had a calico cat when I was little named Ginger. I loved that cat more than my life. I loved her with the passion that only an 8-year-old girl can bring to cat-love. Those were the days when cats roamed freely in the alleys, when tomcats came by and a few months later, tiny bundles of kitten loveliness became the center of my world. I loved Ginger through every litter she had that we, painfully, regretfully, gave away. (Seriously, no one spayed in the ’80s.)

It hurt me to my core that Ginger didn’t love me back. I would have carried her in my arms, in a baby bonnet, in a stroller, on my shoulders, all day every day if she would have let me. But she was light and fleet and she escaped my grasping 8-year-old hands. Finally, in desperation, my mother gave me some advice: Sit on the picnic table and ignore her. Look at the trees, watch the birds, whistle a tune and act as if you couldn’t care less about that dumb cat.

It made no sense. But I tried it anyway. Sure enough, within five minutes, she was purring against my leg with the force of a diesel engine. Ginger loved me on her terms; if I chased her, she fled. If I left her alone, she would sneak up when I least expected it.

This is not my cat, but it looks like my cat–same intense stare that Ginger had (source: wikipedia.org)

Happiness treats me the way my cat Ginger did. When I run after it with grasping hands, I lose it every time. I can’t tell you how many birthdays and parties and vacations and nights-out have ended with a twinge of disappointment. Chasing happiness, I sometimes found it, but more often than not, it fled from my eager expectations.

I have found joy and contentment that way, the kind of disciplined and repeated sense that my life has meaning and purpose and that I am a person of value and worth. The repetition of these disciplines is crucial for me. I need to find joy in my everyday life, in my choices, in my partner, in my children. Sometimes they make me happy; always they make me joyful.

I’ve made myself adhere to a very important spiritual discipline: playing hookie from my life. I have lists and action items and bullet points. I have children to raise and a dissertation to write and a non-profit to run. When I’m the busiest and the most stressed out, I’ve formed what I think is a really good habit: I stop caring, at least for a few hours.

Yesterday, I ignored my emails and the quiz I need to write for my class, who is going to discuss The Help this afternoon. Instead, I went shopping with a friend and our kids. The last time I went shopping was early December. Seriously. I bought a shirt and some pants, and then meandered through an outdoor outlet mall while our kids clambered on the pony rides and merry-go-rounds. It was blissful.

And I’m a bit readier to face my day because of it.

“Happiness” has the same root word from the Latin as “happenings,” which means to me that it is circumstantial. I can create circumstances that I think will make me happy, but soon that happiness will slip away in the night like a cat on the prowl. I was happy on my little afternoon of playing hookie yesterday.

More importantly, I was joyful. Circumstances can affect, but don’t dictate, my joy. I cultivated joy in some of the darkest days of my life, when I was alone and lonely in a high rise apartment in Chile with no money and few friends and nothing to fill my time. I read and read about joy and the discipline of it was important. It trained me. Since then, I’ve often felt joy in painful times as well as good–not at first and not always clearly, but there nonetheless, quietly undergirding and speaking through the pain and anguish like the alto line that supports the soprano’s melody. I have to discipline myself to listen for it.

Happiness comes along when I least expect it. Last week, a song came on the radio that I had sung thousands of times in my life (Oh, long ago crushes of my high school years, if you only knew how I agonized over you with every line of  “With or Without You.”) I turned the radio up as loud as I could and sang, each note in perfectly-remembered harmony. The windows in my car were down and the air outside was cool and damp after the rain. For a girl that’s lived through as many droughts as me, rain is always a happy thing. I hadn’t picked the children up from pre-school, but suddenly I missed them. For the length of the song, I was eagerly and exquisitely happy.

Then it left me, chased away by toddler fits and no naps and too much work to do on my dissertation. Happiness was gone, but I still had joy to sustain me, the kind of joy that comes when you call it, that’s loyal through the good and the bad, that welcomes me whatever my mood, that warms my feet when it’s cold outside.

Happiness may come and go, but I’ll be OK–since Ginger, I’ve been a dog person anyway.

This American Life

“I really can’t bear much of American life these days—surely no country has ever been so filthy rich and so hideously uncomfortable at the same time”  (Elizabeth Bishop in a letter to Robert Lowell from Brazil, August 1957).

The Brazilian consulate in Houston lost our passports on September 12, 2001. That’s right, the day after 9/11. It’s no wonder, then, that it took us four long months to get new passports. We were moving to Brazil and we were supposed to arrive on September 20. Instead, we got there in early December 2001.

Being in Brazil just a few months after 9/11 was really touching. People would stop my husband and me on the street to ask us if we were Americans and tell us they were praying for our country. We were so blessed by the way people talked about our country for the next year. The world was behind us and we felt it in our little town.

The international mood had shifted by March 23, 2003. That’s the month George Bush and the U.S. government declared war on Iraq. I watched as friends and loved ones participated in a series of protests that eventually became one of the largest world-wide protests in history. They were shouting against my country all over the world.

File:Die In.jpg

Source: wikipedia.org

A couple of weeks later at a table at a youth camp, a Christian woman whose opinions I valued more than most people I know turned to me and said in all seriousness, “American culture is the cancer of the world.” She meant it and she expected me to agree with her. I was surprised to find myself really offended. When I disagreed, she spent the rest of the night telling me how awful my country was.

Though I can be pretty patriotic, I am usually among the first to criticize our American culture. And I was (and am) vehemently opposed to the war in Iraq; if I had been in the U.S., I would certainly have gone to protest. But living in Brazil it was a bit different. It felt like someone was talking bad about my mom all over the world. It’s one thing for me to talk about my family; it’s another thing for other people to do it. So when she told me that my culture was the cancer of the world, I got angry and huffy.

It still makes me mad. And I don’t agree with her. But I think she made some excellent points in that conversation I’ve been thinking about ever since, about our colonial viewpoints and our self-centeredness and our navel-gazing. And despite the fact that I was too frustrated to really respond well in Portuguese, I do think it’s important for me to hear and acknowledge other people’s criticisms of my culture.

For me, the most important thing about living in Brazil was realizing that my normal wasn’t everyone else’s normal. I don’t think most Americans realize that our culture isn’t normal. Look at us–we even use the word “American” as if we’re the only people on this continent. We’re a pretty insular bunch. Most Americans I know don’t speak another language. It’s not easy or convenient to travel to another country, like it is in Europe or places in South America and Asia. We’re used to being the center of the media world. My favorite question came at a high school movie night in Brazil with our youth group: “Why are Americans always saving the rest of the world from aliens?”

That’s a really good question.

Jonathan’s answer at the time: because we’re the ones making the movies. My answer now: it’s one of our tropes, the white savior trope. (I’ll be getting to that later this week.)

My point is not that we should hate our culture, just that we should recognize that our culture is not normal. Yes, it’s our normal, but it’s not everyone’s normal. It’s not the viewpoint everyone uses when they’re seeing the world. There are so many ways this plays out, but I think the first step in having a good conversation about how we as Western Christians talk about the poor is to recognize that we use a very specific constructed viewpoint. It’s not God’s viewpoint, it’s an American Christian viewpoint. As Western, rich, privileged Christians who grew up with specific narratives about faith and pioneers, faith and soldiers, faith and conquerors, we have a very specific way of speaking about the rest of the world. There are phrases we use and ideas we hold that are specific to our historical and social moment.

It doesn’t mean our culture is wrong–I don’t think American culture is the cancer of the world (though I’ve read a lot of anthropologists lately who might disagree with that). It just means our normal is not everyone’s normal. Our expectations and viewpoints and values are not shared by everyone else in the world. Realizing that is the first step in a constructive conversation about poverty in our churches.

Coming soon: how World War II shapes our narrative of national identity. (No, really, this is going to be fun, I promise!)

The Value of a Slow Conversation: Moving Forward from #Kony2012

The attention of the social media world is like the eye of Mordor. (I’m an English nerd–bear with me.) For a few days, the world was watching with all of the fiery intensity of the giant orange eye in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie and talking about how we as Christians portray poverty. The twitter feed has been rapid. The blog posts have been enraged. The Facebook feed has been dizzying. We have talked about, around, over and through this whole issue and everyone has said their piece in time to be relevant. We have collectively turned our gaze on this conversation.

Source: Wikipedia.org, “Sauron”

But soon we will move on. With the insatiable energy of our newsspin cycle, we will seek out the next controversy or story to digest and discuss. We will burn our way through another issue without having really said very much.

The story will remain. Invisible Children was around before the Kony 2012 video–it was the last in a string of videos about the LRA and Uganda that have helped educate a generation of Christian college students and young adults on an issue that has  been going on for two decades. And hopefully they will still be around after this video. Who knows why this video and not their first, “Invisible Children,” or their others caught on with all of the burning intensity it did this week. Social media, like the eye of Sauron, is intense. It’s hard not to be consumed by that gaze.

We as Christians have been talking about poverty for years. The criticisms brought up this week about Kony 2012, while new to many, are certainly not new. Invisible Children often made videos that were as much about themselves as the people they were portraying. It was part of their voice and a way to connect with their audience. “Look at us, we’re just like you, cool hipster kids who want a make a difference in the world,” they argued effectively. It was being able to connect with them that made young Christian college students so engaged with their videos. It was their use of video of themselves as much as Ugandans, among other things, that raised concerns from development groups and other people on the ground about whether or not they were portraying the situation responsibly and ethically.

There are legitimate and real issues that need to be addressed about the way that Christians represent and view the poor. These have not been adequately discussed in the many, many posts and status updates and tweets with the hashtag #kony2012. These discussions take time to think through. So while social media burns on to its next topic, this seems like a great opportunity to launch a real and lasting discussion about this one.

I’m not sure what format I think this should take–I’m pretty late to the social media party. I’ve been really frustrated with the way that we talk about these issues in the past. I’ve been thinking through poverty and issues of representation for years, reading books and having in-depth conversations about postcolonialism and the West. It is one of the issues I’m writing a dissertation on. But I just started a blog a couple of months ago and I just this last weekend activated my Twitter account. After this Kony 2012 debate, I’m really glad because for the last several years, I’ve thought to myself, “You know what I would say…” and invented blog posts in my mind. This week, after this debate, I’m going to say some of the things I want to say about poverty and Christianity and responsible representation.

So if you came around looking for an adoption update or a post about Hill Tribers, stay put: I think the way we talk about the poor, orphans and widows, and (in one of our stock Christian phrases) “the least of these,” goes across a variety of conversations. Whether talking about adoption or fair trade or sex trafficking or mission trips, there are questions we should be asking and parameters we should be setting up. This conversation may take a while. It should. It is complexed, nuanced and crucial.

The worst thing that could come from #Kony2012 would be for this issue to burn up our desire to think through how we represent and discuss the poor. It’s important to change our viewpoint of what we mean when we say “the poor.” It’s critical to push past the argument, “Well, at least they did something” towards questions that address the issue of what happens when “helping” is instead harmful and degrading.  The goal of these kinds of debates is not to NOT help the poor, it’s to help the poor responsibly.

For the next few days, I’ll talk about how we can prepare ourselves to do that.

I know I’m not the only one–if you see a blog post that you think furthers this conversation in helpful ways, please leave a link in the comments section. I’m going to be asking some of my amazing and articulate friends to weigh in on this as well in the next several weeks, whether #kony2012 is still the most popular hasthag or not. Maybe this will turn into a real conversation, whether online or over coffee. That’s the best way to move forward after the gaze of the world has burned on. Before the next crisis in Christianity about poverty, let’s take this opportunity to talk and learn and listen. Slowly.

Edited to add: After I scheduled this blog post for this morning, I saw this great post by Brett McCracken that kind of says everything I wanted to say: http://stillsearching.wordpress.com/2012/03/17/in-praise-of-being-out-of-the-loop/. What else do you see online that furthers this conversation in helpful ways?