Having “the Poor” with Us

We finished the “Questions of Travel” series a couple of weeks ago with very little fanfare from me since it hit just at the end of school; I hope you will go back and reread the many brilliant entries in that series. It is one of the things I’m the most proud of on the internet in my short time blogging–bringing these voices together in a discussion that was as complex and nuanced as it has been seems to me a real triumph. Thanks to the many contributors–what a great gift you’ve given us.

I had a conversation with my oldest daughter (who goes by Noelle on this blog) that I thought summarized so perfectly how I wanted to end this series. She’s been attending a VBS at another church this week (it’s awesome). But she came out on Wednesday really frustrated.

“Mom, why do I have to give all of my stuff to the poor?”

We talked about giving things away that we didn’t need.

“No, not that. My art. Why do I have to give my art away to the poor? I like my drawings. I made them. I don’t want to give them to poor people.”

It took awhile for me to figure out her VBS teacher kept some of her drawings to send to “the poor.” I asked Noelle to consider a little bit more about sharing and how her lovely pictures might bless people’s lives. I’m still not sure exactly what the teacher said to her; I’m always learning to filter what my kids say, so I don’t really know what comment it was that set her off. But after we talked about giving drawings away to her grandparents and cousins and friends, Noelle sighed as she grabbed my hand to cross the street.

“I like giving my drawings to people I know. But I don’t want to give it to poor people. Who are poor people, anyway?”

I looked at this child who plays weekly with Burmese refugees in an apartment complex that many suburban moms might consider unsafe but that she runs through with the familiarity of her favorite playscape. Her best friends from kindergarten speak Spanish and most of them live at the trailer park that borders her amazingly diverse public school. When we go on playgrounds, she doesn’t realize it yet, but she is always drawn to the people who are different from her, who speak other languages, who don’t dress the same.

This kid has no idea who “poor” people are. We’ve never drawn those categories. We talk about difference and celebrate skin colors and languages and cultures, but there is no rich and poor, as far as I know, in her six-year-old mind.

I squeezed her hand. “You know what? Let’s not worry about the poor. Thanks so much for sharing your drawing–you’re going to make someone very happy whoever they are.”

I love that my kids see no rich or poor, no us and them, just friends who are different. Someday we will have to talk about these things, but for now, we’re going to enjoy the easy friendships of this mixed-together lifestyle. It’s not always easy, but it’s the kind of life I would pick again and again for us–having the poor just be the people in our lives that we love.

 

 

 

Stan and Dan: Part Two

Questions of Travel

Read Part One of this story from yesterday. This is part of my Questions of Travel series as I struggle to work out how to deal with questions of poverty in our churches.

Jonathan drove up to the street corner near the access road where Stan and Dan hold up signs every Sunday morning. He asked them to go to church with us that morning; they said they wanted to wait a week till they could be more cleaned up.

When we saw them all last week, we’d yell through the open window to each other, “Good morning! See you Sunday! 8:45? 8:45!”

When the time came, the girls were giggling with excitement. It was as if celebrities were stepping off the TV into the living room: Fresh from the windows of the car, Stan and Dan were walking live into my children’s world.

Our cars are pretty small, so Jonathan picked them up in one car and I followed with the girls in the other. They were wearing well-pressed button-up shirts. They stored their back packs in the trunk. When the girls and I climbed out, Dan greeted me with a great big hug.

It’s the first time in five years of friendship that we’ve done more than smile and wave. It felt good, the slow act of walking in together. Stan kept smoothing his hair down.

We moved at the pace of his cane.

***

I knew this was hard and that what we were asking of them might possibly be ludicrous. I was not prepared to see my church again with the fresh eyes they brought.

There were some lovely moments: the line of people waiting to meet them during the “meet-and-greet” time, the firm handshakes and effusive welcomes that were exactly what I expected from my exuberant congregation.

But it was hard, too. I was painfully aware of what Stan called later the “slicked-up people.” Of our privilege, our side glances, our constant awareness of what we wore and how we looked. The new sound system sounded great, but I could see from their wide stares how much of a shock it must be, the air filled with songs they didn’t know sung in ringing harmony by a congregation full of people who had grown up singing acappella music with this intricate merging of countermelodies and resonances.

When we walked out of the service, Dan asked how we remembered all the music to all those songs. I shrugged, wondering how to explain a lifetime of growing up with those melodies every week.

Stan especially seemed overwhelmed by the people. He stood close to the wall, watched surreptitiously as people came over to talk to us. He kept asking how many people were in there. He told us every few minutes that it was strange, to be around such a large crowd, when he was used to being by himself in the woods.

We went to class, thinking a smaller room might be better. And they tried so hard. It broke my heart with pride to see them with their chins up, shaking hands, answering questions, looking people in the eye.

Stan kept clearing his throat, adjusting his shirt, running his hand through his hair.

I caught his eye in the middle of class and he widened them a bit, trying to poke fun of the fact that he was obviously anxious.

It’s hard to describe what I felt in that moment—the fierce protective love that welled up in me.

I write about it a lot here on this blog, the feeling that Richard Wilbur describes: “Love calls us to the things of this world.” And I feel that call so strongly with some people. It happened with a little boy in Brazil once. It happened when the Burmese group the first time I met them. And it happened with Stan and Dan on Sunday.

For some reason, we belong together. We are part of the same tribe. These are my people.

And like the little girl in Beasts of the Southern Wild, I desperately want to defend them, to say with ferocity, “I gotta take care of mine.”

Facing down the beast

But the problem is, with Stan and Dan, that’s just an empty phrase. I have no idea what that really means.

***

The class itself was great, but that day each sentence seemed loaded, weighted. I heard with fresh ears how our words must sound to them: “We don’t really struggle.” Or, “God calls us to be with those who are persecuted. Who among us can really say we truly understand persecution?” Or, “I don’t know anyone who is really that different from me. We should be getting out there. We should do more.”

They squirmed in their seats a little and I realized we were making them feel even more marginalized. What I saw as an earnest desire among people I love to move into the world suddenly sounded like the grand markers of privilege—why were we talking about this at all?

Why do we talk and not do? Why do we theorize and analyze? If we don’t know anyone who has been persecuted, then why in God’s name are we not running to meet them where they are?

 ***

We huddled at a small table over hamburgers at lunch. I loved the way we tucked our legs under the table like old friends. The girls sucked earnestly at strawberry milkshakes.

Stan said he’d try to go back, he really would, but he didn’t know if he could handle being around so many people.

Dan shook his head when he talked about the class. “If you want, I could tell you some things about persecution. The way people look at you on the street…” He didn’t need to finish the thought.

We invited them again, but today it’s two days later and I’m not sure we should take them back. It’s not fair of us to push them like that; I wouldn’t feel comfortable either if I were them.

We will do something. They are in our lives. They are part of our tribe now. There is no going back from that.

I just have no idea yet what it’s going to look like.

And while I adore my church completely, I think it is an indictment of us that people who look the most like the man we worship feel so desperately uncomfortable in our space.

I just keep thinking, my friends, this should not be.

***

Read all of the posts in this series on the Questions of Travel Series page.

Stan and Dan: Part One

Questions of Travel

I thought Stan was a con artist after seeing him for a few weeks on the street corner near the house we had just bought. Every day he stood in the same spot, just before a bridge by the access road to a busy highway, holding the same sign “Every little bit helps.” The hair was the same, well-combed, slightly long, very thin. The beard was the same, ginger with gray streaks.

But some days he had glasses and a cane, a slight limp. Other days he walked tall.

That’s so phony, I thought.

It was only when I saw them together one Sunday morning that I realized Stan was a twin, that there were two of them working that street corner, identical men I learned later were named Stan and Dan (I’m changing their names for the internet, but they really do have rhyming names). Stan walks with a cane and has glasses; Dan does not.

I felt bad that I had judged them. I rolled down my window at the stoplight and struck up a conversation.

I talked to them every time I pulled up to that street corner after that. My daughter, who wasn’t yet two when we met them, would cry if we turned right, away from Stan and Dan, and not left so we could see them. We began to change our route going most places just to have a minute to catch up. Mostly we talked about the weather: “It’s hot today!” or “Are you keeping warm?” Slowly they shared bits about their lives, how many blankets they had in their tents, what they ate (hot dogs and hamburgers cooked over an outdoor stove), where they settled (in the woods by the creek just up the way).

My daughter has known them since she could remember. When she was just learning to talk, she would point out every person we saw on the street. “Look, Mommy, is that Stan? Where’s Stan?” We began to call them all ‘Stans.’

I found it charming, the way they were part of the geography of her life, the way they greeted her by name, the quirky friendship we were forming.

***

One evening, coming home from teaching my college class, I saw Dan walking on the sidewalk a few blocks from the street corner. He was hunched over, kicking at things. I stopped and put my hazard lights on. I rolled down my window.

“Dan?”

He stopped and glanced over. His face was bleeding, huge welts on his cheek, his eye beginning to swell.

“Go on. This is none of your business.”

“Can I help you?”

“No, it’s just some idiot kids. Don’t worry about it. It’s not the first time. Go on, now. I’ll be OK.”

“Can I take you to the doctor? Do you need something?”

“No. I’m fine. Go on!”

He waved his arms gruffly, indicating I should move my car out of the way, then shuffled on. I hesitated, but it was dark and I didn’t know what else I could do. I couldn’t force him to get in my car. I couldn’t impose on a friendship that was so lopsided.

I knew it was unwise to ask a strange man into the car anyway and, despite the many conversations we had had, that’s what we were in reality—strangers.

I was struck by what I was: a privileged white woman who felt good about herself because she gave money and food and struck up conversations with two homeless men.

I saw just a glimpse of the reality of their world, a world I knew nothing about, a world I could never begin to enter, a world my chatter during a red light and handful of coins didn’t touch.

I went to bed sick to my stomach.

***

Not long after that, my husband ran into them at our grocery store buying meat and gas for the stove. He began picking up $20 gift certificates sometimes to hand them as we pass them on our way to wherever we are going. He writes notes to them from us in Sharpie on the outside of the gift certificate holder, signing our names, wishing them well.

Still, it’s not a true friendship. It bothers us, the distance the car makes between us and them

***

Just after Christmas this year, Stan flagged us down. Hurrying with his cane to our car, he handed my husband a Christmas card. On the front of the card were our names.

When we opened it, it smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and wood smoke. The card plays music when you press the red button and Bing Crosby croons, “There’s no place like home for the holidays, no matter how far you may roam.” Little dots light up like stars at the top of the card; beneath it is a pop-up picture of a cozy house surrounded by fir trees. In pen, Stan or Dan wrote “your home” over the snow-covered cottage lit by bright lights inside and “our home” over the dark forest behind it.

Card from Stan and Dan

They filled the margins of the card:

A Special Card for

A      “    Family

 

May Your Home

Be Bright and

Merry.

Because

That’s Where

Christmas

Really Is.

 

With Lots of Love,

Your Friends,

Stan and Dan

Both of them signed it, Stan with a flourish.

Inside the car was a folded up piece of notebook paper, with jagged edges from being ripped out of a spiral, on which Dan had written us a letter. I won’t type it up—it’s personal—but it begins, “Stan picked out the perfect Christmas card. I believe Family is what Christmas should be all about.” Then it goes on, to tell of losing their mother and father at a young age, of growing up on a farm, of the rough days they’ve had. And it ends with a poem about Christmas that I’ll reprint in its entirety because it is one of the finest gifts I’ve ever received.

That No Christmas Tree

Tis the Holiday season and I’m a lonely guy

I’ll make it through somehow, with my white Christmas lie

By telling myself I’m happy, full of holiday cheer

Blinded by the lights of that No Christmas tree this year

 

The air is full of laughter, voices are all around

While sitting in my empty room, I can almost hear the sound

Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, Be as Happy as can Be

Echoes through my empty room with that no Christmas tree

 

Then comes the smell of turkey, that I’ll neither see nor taste

Floating through a broken window, I’m thinking what a waste

That here I am, By Myself, I’m Happy as can Be

While glancing around my empty room, at that No Christmas Tree

 

Now Christmas is an emotion, one which I think should be felt

By touching the hearts of those you love, which often makes mine melt

This and being together, the family is as one

But with me and that No Christmas Tree, how can this be done?

My husband and I talked that night as we brushed our teeth: they’ve changed the nature of our friendship with this card. They’ve escalated it somehow. We are no longer strangers—they’ve shared some things with us that are precious and meaningful. We have to honor this.

We owe it to them to do more than just whiz by them with a smile as we get on with our lives.

Tomorrow: Part Two

***

Read all of the posts in this series on the Questions of Travel Series page.

 

The “Needy” (Tropes Christians Use When They Talk about the Poor)

Yesterday I posted the first of a few tropes (stereotypes, clichés, repeated images–whatever term fits best for you) that Christians rely on when they talk about the poor. The repeated image of doe-eyed babies, all sad and covered with flies, is one of the many woe-filled pictures Christians use a lot.

The next is less specific. There are no pictures to go with it. One of the terms we use, “the needy,” carries a lot of baggage.

“Needy” means always in need, always waiting with a hand-out, unable or (more often) unwilling to work for themselves. “Needy” implies rescuing. “Needy” implies someone will save them. “Needy” is lower, less-than, not-as-powerful-as.

We are not “needy.” They, always the mysterious other people, are “needy.”

We may use the term to imply how much our desire to help, but it necessarily puts the poor in a lower position of receiving rather than an equal position of empowering. I know it’s used in some translations of the Bible, but like many other terms, the way that we use it in our social context adjusts the meaning considerably.

When we say “needy,” the poor become objects of our actions–we objectify them. It is hard for us then to see them as people.

Starving Orphans with Flies (Tropes Christians Use to Talk about the Poor)

Talking about poverty is not new to U.S. Christians. One of the things I discovered when I began studying literature was how phrases that are sacred to Christians have become part of larger cultural representations of the poor or people that are different from us. Sometimes the site of difference is class (they’re poorer than us), sometimes it is race or ethnicity (their skin or culture is different from us), more often it’s both, but the language we use to talk about those differences is often Biblical. When we help them, we “lend to the Lord” and “open wide our hand.” Verses from the Bible crop up in the language about the government-sanctioned genocide of Native Americans in the 19th Century, about slavery, about foreign policy in China or the Philippines or Mexico. In U.S. history, almost any time we talk about “us” vs. “them,” there’s a strong undergirding of Biblical language.

One of the things I want us to do as Christians is to recognize that our conversations in 2012 are not being had in a bubble. There are historical references and cultural understandings that inform our conversations about “the poor.” We might react against or embrace these views, but they are still the ground beneath our feet.

There are some tropes, some repeated figures and ideas, that we as Christians use to talk about the poor. They are subtle, but we rely on them a lot in representing poverty. And I want to be really clear—I struggle with these tropes quite a bit. I’m not sure what I can and should say about the refugees I work with. It helps me, I think, to identify some of these tropes, so I’m going to list a few in the next few days.

Trope #1: Starving Orphans with Flies

(These images are from a really sharp entry on a blog called Young African Research Arena run by students of the University of Lagos. In this blog post, the writer questions representing Africa with these types of images “typical of most stories about Africa that one finds in mainstream Western news media – a veritable catalogue of woes.”)

I still remember watching TV with my parents and seeing pictures of children in Africa in tent villages, usually in the middle of the desert, with distended bellies, malnourished limbs, covered in crawling flies. A man with a beard in linen clothes walked among them, touching them gently on their foreheads, wiping away the flies. “For a dollar a day,” he said. It was back when we could only change our channel with the cable box; you had to get up to click the number for the next channel. But I didn’t—I watched in horror. Something must be done, I would think. Somebody should DO something.

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen images like that on TV, though they are there late at night on infomercials. They’re meant to appeal to our strong sense of pity—these babies have no one, nothing, and we should move to help immediately.

The truth is, of course, that it’s much more complicated than just paying $1 a dollar a day, the price of a cup of coffee in the 1980s before Starbucks made coffee $4 for a grande.

But still, in our churches, we often rely on this image when we talk about the poor. The poor are needy, they are sad, they are destitute, they live in unimaginable poverty, they rely on Western aid for their salvation. The pictures we often use in churches are of children with big eyes, sad faces, meant to tug on the heart strings, meant to draw us forth to DO something. We use the word “save.”

And I’ll be honest, I’ve done that myself in the past. I have pictures of babies gazing up at me doe-eyed and sad. I’ve used these pictures in fundraising efforts. I admit it to my shame.

I didn’t question this trope, not for a long time. It didn’t occur to me to wonder whether starving babies covered in flies might not be just a small piece of the story, that there might be enormously effective programs or NGOs or people doing real good on the ground in ways that Western media and Western churches might never find out about. I didn’t question whether raising U.S. Christians, myself included, to DO something, anything, was helpful or really, really hurtful. I didn’t wonder whether using this trope damaged both sides, “the poor” and the Christians representing them, by shifting the issue from how we empower people to how we “save” babies.

And there are very real consequences to using this trope. I have seen it over and over again in the attitude U.S. Christians bring to helping “the poor.” It’s there in the cock of the head, the sighs about babies, the “those poor things” being mumbled in church or on short-term mission campaigns. It’s there in the subtle racism and classism–”they” need “us.” “They” are all like that. ”They” can’t even keep flies off their kids. We don’t say it this strongly, of course, but it’s really a problem when homogenous churches depict people of different races and ethnicities in ways that Other them like these types of images do. I want to be clear–very few people say or write it this explicitly, but it’s the underlying idea in many of the appeals being made in churches across the U.S.–let’s help and save these poor starving babies.

Using this trope disempowers and alienates the poor.

The Language of Poverty (Guest Post)

In my month-long examination of poverty, it’s fitting to begin with a guest post by D. L. Mayfield. She is one of my favorite writers whose authenticity and dedication I profoundly admire. She and her husband just moved with their sometimes-napping baby to another city in order to live in intentional community in a diverse neighborhood. Her writing about poverty and our approach to it both inspires and challenges me regularly. I’m so thrilled to have her back in my little space.

I’ve seen it, the arguments about using words like “the poor,” how it neatly divides the world into the “haves” and the “have nots,” how it makes us safer as we push them away, how there are inherent flaws in categorizing anyone other than what they are, little christs, the image bearers of the invisible God.

But I can’t stop using the term, because I read it every day, find it soaked into the pages of the Scripture: the poor, the poor, the poor. Sometimes they are also called by other, heightened terms: the widow, the orphan, the sojourner among you. The oppressed, the beaten down, the afflicted. The poor, the poor, the poor.

Why does God talk like this? Why does he consistently evoke imagery full of blood and bones and dry desert sand, why does he insist on always talking about the poor, (and, conversely, about the proud)? Why is he ok with these words, these ways of talking about the world?

Because he wants us to care. Because he himself is invested, and he knows that we are not.

Words like “the poor” mean something. They are rich, compelling phrases that ask us to stop what we are doing and sit for a minute in the real world. For there is a veil here, one that we have been building up ever since the beginning of time: that the whole world is a set of isolated peoples, far-away issues, unknown and unavoidable tragedies. We are ourselves oppressed by our own world which is manic in its pursuit to ensure us that yes indeed we are happy with things the way they are. But some of us are not convinced. Because, deep down, we know. There is still the divide to bridge, there is still the call for the people of God to rise up and take notice, to welcome, to care for the poor.

This is God-language, the poor, for a reality that will not exist when the kingdom comes in full. The language might evoke images of malnourished children, victims of famine or trafficking or faceless, tragic circumstances. When you hear the words “the poor,” you might picture the urban slums, the fastest growing population on the planet (nearly 100,000 people relocating to urban slums a day, the estimates are). You might even picture the majority of the world, imagine a map where we and our lives are but the tip of the mountain, the rest of the world living in the valley.

But when God speaks and writes about the poor, he envisioned us seeing real faces, knowing real people, he never meant for it to be an abstract. And that is where we have gone awry, my friends, and this is where the word has become evil.

When we don’t know the poor, that is when they become the Other; easy to categorize, easy to help, easy to fix, easy to forget. When we only see them in short bursts, when we never truly live in their context, when we only get fleeting  glimpses from our safe perch. It is not the language that is the problem here; in fact, when we try to sanitize it (the economically unstable, the financially depressed, low-income) it only serves to create safe and sanitized boundaries. But in the words of the Bible, the human condition is found. When we read the words “the poor,” we are expected to feel something. If you don’t, then this is a grave problem. For us, the term is one to be bandied about, argued over, molded into whatever best serves our purposes. But for people living in poverty, it is another story. We would do right to remember what the majority world already knows: beyond being theological or evoking imagery, poverty kills people. It ends lives, changes them irrevocably, fills them with suffering. According to Scripture, the poor are never to be pitied; but they are to be taken care of, to be at the forefront of our minds just as they are in the eyes of God.

Lest we fall into the easy trap of sentimentality, we need to see the entire picture of the Biblical language surrounding the poor. Let’s not forget the New Testament, where Christ declares them blessed. In this radical new world the poor and oppressed and imprisoned are the heralds of the new kingdom, and they are the ones to whom the blessings will appear. Christ is choosing, even now, to be spreading his kingdom through our brothers and sisters in poverty. They experience more miracles, more presence, more influence, than we in our closed worlds can ever imagine. They are blessed to be the leaders of the upside-down kingdom, and we who are rich are constantly reminded of how hard it is to follow Jesus when we live on the mountaintop. Woe, indeed.

Maybe this is the real reason we have issues when talking about the poor; it constantly reminds us of our comparative wealth, and the baggage that comes with it. And this is ok; it is right to struggle through these words. But as we struggle, let’s keep reading the Scripture. Let’s use the words that God himself chose, and let us not mold them into our own image. Let us not be people who simply talk (or blog) about the poor; let us be doers of the Word and care for the poor. Most of all, let us be people of the valley.

And in these friendships, these life-long journeys into the lives of the poor, let us be blessed.

***Updated to add this note from D.L.: I have been greatly influenced by John Hayes (both in conversation and by his book Submerge) and the works of Shane Claiborne and Ron Sider. All three of these gentlemen broadened my perspectives on poverty, both by calling me out on my wealth and the sin of ignoring the poor, and also the concept of the poor being blessed and being the heralds of the new kingdom.***

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.

Short-Term Missions: The Ugly (Brazil)

Brazil, June 2002

The girls from the children’s home played their cards just right. They weren’t fools–many of them had survived and thrived on the streets before landing in the children’s home on a farm just outside of Sao Paulo. They had lived through their fair share of short-term mission trips, too, as the many murals on the walls of their farmhouse could attest. They knew just how to handle gringas.

The first morning of camp was cold. It was June in Brazil, one of the colder months of the winter. Few of the houses are well-insulated, so Brazilians wear sweaters and wrap up when it’s cold outside. These girls had closets full of clothes–I knew the children’s home took fantastic care of the kids that lived there. I had seen their closets; I knew what they had. It would never be enough to rival the rich girls in our youth group, but these kids were well-provided for and well-loved by their house parents and the staff who dedicated their lives to helping them.

But they didn’t pack any of their coats or sweaters for camp. Instead, they woke up that first morning and walked out for morning exercises shivering. They put their heads down and only looked up, doe-eyed, when the gringas came by. They ducked their heads again and shivered in the arms of the women whose mother-hearts were touched by their poverty and their distress. What loving Christian woman would keep a fleece or a coat on when poor orphans were shivering in the cold?

By the time they came to breakfast, they were proud owners of coats given to them by the gringas.

It didn’t bother me so much that the gringas handed their clothes over or that the girls smugly enjoyed them all through breakfast. It bothered me that they knew how to play the system so well. And though I’ve written a fairly glowing account of what that short-term mission trip was like (and it really was good), these girls had had so many visitors from the States, so many opportunities to perfect their coitada (poor baby) image that they knew just how to pluck the heart strings of the gullible women.

This is exactly how helping hurts. When, over years, orphans are treated like poor objects to be loved on rather than children, then they learn to think less of themselves, they become victims and manipulators. I don’t blame those U.S. women, I blame the system that taught those Brazilian girls how to act in that situation. They learned that women from the U.S. responded to poverty by giving them things–what kind of idiot would pass that opportunity up? They were using their street skills wisely. It was well-played. But it made me sad.

I’m a firm believer that short-term missions, done sparingly, done out of necessity, done effectively, can be a beautiful and important tool in the missionaries’ arsenal. But when it’s over-used, when it’s about the gringos coming and feeling good about themselves, then it teaches a lesson that I think is unconscionable: that orphans exist for white people to love on. They learn their worth and their value comes in playing the part of the coitada, the pobrecita, the beggar, or the fool.

I’d spent a year teaching those girls that they were powerful and smart. We’d had English class after English class in which I praised their brains and their accents and their voices. And in five minutes, they reverted into the age-old role they knew so well. And I blamed the many years of short-term mission groups coming to “hug the orphans” for undoing those lessons.

I called the children’s home director shortly after breakfast and by lunchtime, all of the coats were returned to the gringas. The children’s home girls, dressed in their own cute clothes, spent the day playing with the other children. The only way to tell they were any different was if you knew them–they looked just like everyone else. And truthfully, I think they felt better too.

It must be excruciating to be an object of pity. Any system that reifies that view, that brings rich privileged people on a trip for a little “poverty tourism,” that uses the “poor” as object lessons to change the rich, has to change.

The system has to change.

*****

Have something to say about short-term missions? I’d love to add more voices to this discussion. Leave me a comment and I’ll get back to you!

Short-Term Missions Series:

Short-Term Missions: The Good (Houston)

Short-Term Missions: The Bad (Houston)

Short-Term Missions: The Ugly (Houston)

Short-Term Missions: The Good (Brazil)

Short-Term Missions: The Bad (Brazil)

Short-Term Missions: The Ugly (Brazil)

Short-Term Missions: The Good (Honduras)

Short-Term Missions: The Bad (Honduras)

Short-Term Missions: The Ugly (Honduras)

Short-Term Missions: The Wrap-Up

How to Swim Like a Drowning Duck

We love to swim. My friend Caren has a pool near her house and her kids are best friends with my kids. My 5-year-old daughter is like her mother: cautious and worried about her form, she paddles by the side, looking on enviously as the other kids play, practicing over and over again dunking her face, kicking her feet. Caren’s 5-year-old isn’t like anyone in the world but her own self. She might have the worst swimming strokes of any kid I’ve seen–she knows the basics, but in the end, it’s a miracle that she keeps her head above water. Almost every time she swims, Caren has to tell worried strangers she’s fine, no really, that’s just the way she swims.

That kid with form like a drowning duck is having a heck of a lot more fun than my worried little girl on the steps.

That’s the answer, I think, to the question about how we as Christians should approach poverty: we have to worry less about our form and swim with the exuberance, the abandon, the miracle-ness, of that 5-year-old in the water.

The questions have been raised beautifully this week by Ann Voskamp, Sarah Bessey, and others. I read Ann’s call to action: “Faith cannot have a non-response.”  And Sarah’s poignant response: “I feel angry and helpless. And guilty. Inadequate. Selfish. Convicted.” And I thought to myself, I know what this looks like. This is my story, the one I struggle to share on this blog, the mess I find myself in, the friends I know and love.

I have been and still am that girl, convicted and broken by poverty. I am also deeply and overly aware of my mistakes, my own condescension and pride. I echo Sarah’s frustration: “I want to kick myself for thinking of another human being as ‘least of these’ – how colonial and smug can one woman be?” It’s paralyzing, to be honest. As with so many things, the complexities of poverty, the power dynamics of my skin-color, education and privilege are difficult to navigate. I have analyzed every smile, every hand shake, every hug. Was it too much? Did I have the right motives? Am I being offensive or obtuse? Soon I’m so distracted by own self that I wander off into the narcissistic abyss of our western world. I might as well grab my personalized drink at Starbucks on the way.

I don’t know, honestly, how to get past that. If you’ve read my blog at all, you know I have a lot of opinions about the way the church handles poverty. A lot. And I don’t think I’ve spared many punches, not about short-term missions, not about the way we approach the poor. There are a lot of things to say and we absolutely have to keep saying them.

There are important issues of form we have to discuss; otherwise we might drown ourselves and drown others. But sometimes we just need to jump off the deep end and get going. The form comes with time and practice and patience.

Here’s how I know this: I was teaching a class on the Rhetoric of Illegal Immigration to college kids at the university where I’m a grad student. We read the book The Devil’s Highway. I talked to my students about rhetorical choices the author made. But all I wanted to do was throw down the book and scream: these men died in the desert. They took huge risks and hired coyotes and became “illegal” because they would do anything to save their children and their families from the ravaging poverty in their village in Mexico.

Hardly anyone noticed they died–they were poor and not-white. They were a tiny blip on CNN. Luis Alberto Urrea took the time to write their story, to give them names and details, and it changed me.

I was teaching a class in which I was supposed to look not at what was said, but how it was said. But I couldn’t stop there. So I began praying every single day for God to lead me to some illegal immigrants. (How creepy is that? I might as well have put a sign on my forehead–White Lady Coming to HELP.)

My form was awful. But God just pushed me in anyway.

I prayed for weeks. I tried to volunteer at soup kitchens and shelters, but it didn’t fit. I was hungry for relationships, not volunteer hours. I had no time at all–I was back at school with a grueling schedule after a semester off for maternity leave. I had a 10-month-old and I was tired. And still I prayed, relentlessly.

I went to a fall festival for our church to hand out information in Spanish about the food pantry, trolling again with my gringo accent for illegal immigrants to befriend (creeper alert!). And then they walked in, all these hill tribers from Thailand, straight from the country where I’d lived for two summers in college. I didn’t know they were Burmese refugees. I had no idea what they were doing there. I just knew that they were the answer to the question I’d been throwing at God.

I kid you not, the hair on my arms stood up. This was one of those moments when I felt my life hinge in another direction. This wasn’t what I was looking for, but it was where I needed to be.

The story of the next five years, of the horrible mistakes I made, of the idiot things I said, of the impure and arrogant assumptions and motivations, could (and maybe someday will) fill a book. I still have no idea where this is going. This group just keeps growing together, our little village in Austin, our Hill Country Hill Tribers, and I’m amazed every day at what God has taught me, how he’s changed me, how he’s carved me.

Sometimes I help. Mostly I am helped. I have been acted upon and changed by these people, not the other way around.

And when I look back at my form, I find so much to criticize.  I’m not doing nearly enough and I’m convicted by my friends’ wise words to do so much more than I am right now. There’s so much room for improvement in my messy, bumping-along life. But I know better what to do, what to say, how to check my condescension, how to limit my damage, because I made the mistakes I did. My best practices come because I tried a million worst practices first and learned what it’s best not to do. Had I not jumped into the water to swim like a drowning duck, I might have stayed on the sidelines, practicing over and over again how to dunk my face and never really learning how to swim.

The poor aren’t the “poor.” They’re people. And like anyone they need relationships, long-lasting ones, with people willing to be authentic incompetent fools. My advice if you really want to get in there and swim?

Jump.

Short-Term Missions: The Bad (Brazil)

Brazil, June 2002

It was a simple miscommunication, really. They didn’t realize what they heard–how could they, when they didn’t speak the language? When a group of U.S. women saw a teenage girl crying during another teenager’s testimony about sex and drug addiction, they made the logical jump that she herself struggled with those things. They began praying over her. It could have turned south fast.

Someone came and got us and we began to translate and gently  extricate her from the situation. She was one of the most devout girls in our youth group. The U.S. women didn’t realize that, of course–they saw her skimpy tank top and shorty-shorts and read cultural clues that made sense in their own worldview. I did that too, the first few months in Brazil, before I realized that our youth group girls wore tank tops instead of halter-tops, shorts that at least covered their bootie cheeks, bikini bottoms that covered (most) of their boom-booms rather than string bikinis like their friends. (And their friends’ grandmothers. And no, I’m not kidding. The grandmothers wore thong bikinis. It’s Brazil.)

This girl, on this night, was crying about a brother who had a similar story. She was the one who came to church all the time, the one hurt by the addiction, not the one addicted. The women were gracious when we explained the mistake, but it was clear how easily this could have turned into a misreading based on lack of language and personal or cultural context.

What if the ministers and the translators had not been an active part of the leadership? What if the translators were serving outsider missionaries who, without realizing their misreadings, were missing the cultural clues? What if the power dynamic was with the outsiders and not the insiders? What kind of “healing” would have taken place that day that had little to no basis in reality? What damage would have been done?

It was a small example, quickly averted. The U.S. Christians were gracious and kind. But everywhere around the world, for generations and generations, outsiders have come in to cultures bringing their own assumptions, their own worldviews, and their own snap judgments. They’ve seen what they wanted to see–desperate poverty and not a community being transformed, sluts and not singularly-clad women, brown-skin and not people, ignorance and not simple difference.

I’ve seen the damage that can do, when people’s lives are “transformed” by the kind of gospel that lasts three weeks and involves raising your hand and accepting Christ and then being left with hugs and best wishes when the gringos go home. Those kinds of trips, where the cultural misrepresentations are never addressed and where the work is too fast and too shoddy to last more than weeks at best, are best never taken, in my opinion.

Had this little girl not been apart of a long-standing youth group with deep relationships and people who knew her well, the story might have ended very differently. Short-term missions are, in my honest opinion, a very, very difficult place to do real and lasting evangelism or life-changing transformation.

It’s like trying to microwave a creme brulee. It takes long-lasting relationships to change lives.

*****

Short-Term Missions Series:

Short-Term Missions: The Good (Houston)

Short-Term Missions: The Bad (Houston)

Short-Term Missions: The Ugly (Houston)

Short-Term Missions: The Good (Brazil)

Short-Term Missions: The Bad (Brazil)

Short-Term Missions: The Ugly (Brazil)

Short-Term Missions: The Good (Honduras)

Short-Term Missions: The Bad (Honduras)

Short-Term Missions: The Ugly (Honduras)

Short-Term Missions: The Wrap-Up

Short-Term Missions: The Good (Brazil)

Brazil, June 2002

The group of gringos came because our Brazilian church invited them to come.

Let me repeat that: they came because they were invited.

Our Brazilian church had been established for 30 years. It had a thriving youth group, a fantastic relationship with a local children’s home, an amazing outreach in the community, and missionaries who were committed to the directing the vision and ministry the church was involved in. Jonathan and I were among those missionaries; we were living in Brazil for two years working with the youth group, teaching English at the children’s home, and reconnecting with the culture in which Jonathan grew up. We got to Brazil just in time to start planning for the large campaign coming from the church that supported us and the long-term missionaries we worked with.

We spent months planning, strategizing, and organizing for the week in which that short-term missions group would be there. We identified needs in our community and asked the church to put together teams to meet those needs: English camp for the youth group, children’s VBS for younger kids, English classes for adults, a medical mission trip for the children’s home, and other smaller tasks that needed to be done.

The gringos came in families–no children came without their parents. They stayed together in family units so that parents and children were experiencing this new culture together and processing together what this could mean for their daily lives back home in families. Children’s lives were changed that week, both Brazilian and U.S. teenagers matured in the space of a few days. One of the U.S. boys had been the kind of teenage who played with the fire of boredom and indifference. We watched on that trip as Brazil caught his imagination and the people he met changed him completely. The transformation gives me goosebumps even as I type this. That same goober teenage boy is now a dedicated missionary in South America–the seed was planted that week and I watched it grow in him. Lives were changed on both sides and as the missionary, I was blessed to see the transformation in two different languages.

The tasks the group did were overseen by members of the Brazilian church. The U.S. Christians joined ministries that were already established, worked well with missionaries and Brazilian ministers to come into relationships we already had. They blessed what was already going on, enlarged our presence and provided opportunities we needed and wanted. The church laid the groundwork and followed up on the contacts made during that time.

The short-term mission trip was a tool in the hands of a visionary and well-organized ministry team on the ground in Brazil.

On the last Sunday they were there, we had a humongous party at our church before the service started to watch the final game in the World Cup. It felt natural and blessed to have gringos and Brazilians mixed up together. We were not two groups, we were one church on two continents. The same families had been coming in other short-term trips for years and the same people kept going long after we left; their children have grown up knowing they had brothers and sisters in another country who were beloved and precious. So when we gathered to watch, breathlessly, as Brazil scored the final goal that won the game and we ran as one group to the downtown plaza to join the rest of the city in ecstatic jubilee, it was glorious.

That’s what short-term missions can be–exuberant celebration and encouragement as one group of Christians gathers with another to mutually bless each other. It was good for the Brazilians and good for the gringos. It was a really, really, really good week.

*****

Short-Term Missions Series:

Short-Term Missions: The Good (Houston)

Short-Term Missions: The Bad (Houston)

Short-Term Misisons: The Ugly (Houston)

Short-Term Missions: The Good (Brazil)

Short-Term Missions: The Bad (Brazil)

Short-Term Missions: The Ugly (Brazil)

Short-Term Missions: The Good (Honduras)

Short-Term Missions: The Bad (Honduras)

Short-Term Missions: The Ugly (Honduras)

Short-Term Missions: The Wrap-Up