The Man at my Gate

There is much more to being poor than I thought.

I don’t know much but I’ve been watching and learning and bothered long enough to understand a couple things a little. Poverty is more about power than possessions. It is an interesting fallacy that that the poor of America are characterized by the rich largely by their need for goods. If you ask them, they will talk about powerlessness, being voiceless, isolated, diminished. We have actually witnessed visitors going into homes in one of the underprivileged neighborhoods we work in who end up discounting the poor-ness of our host (which, apparently, was very important to the worthwhileness of the visit). Why? Because they had a nice TV or their kids had a new gaming device. If only. If only poverty was just about having stuff. It is about the 11th grader I met with for a while who never, with the help of her involved parent, could get answers from her guidance counselors and administrators about her missing test scores. It is about charges from the power company that are undocumented, unfounded, and unchallengeable. It is about the stark absence of carpool lane access in inner city Los Angeles except for the USC exit and the implementation of a new system that fines drivers if they do not research something online, print documents, and get to a particular office to buy a device.

One young man in our neighborhood explained being poor as having no space to reflect. That’s another thing I’ve noticed about being poor; quiet, isolated times of reflection seem to the culture and rhythm about as bizarre as a passion for curling is to me. A yearly personal retreat to evaluate my accomplishments and struggles the past year and then to articulate some new, exciting goals and dreams for the next? Some daily “me” time? Counseling after I witnessed that traumatic event on my street? Right. After the potholes are filled. After all the school bathrooms have toilet paper.

In addition to poverty being about power and space as much as or more so than any material want, it is also about race. The more I live here, the more I am aware that some of the rhetoric I believed about laziness, or bitterness, or apathy that explained whole groups of people being impoverished while others for the most part were not was terribly wrong. And racist and distancing. I once thought, yes, there’s still some racism, like in the south, and that is oppressive to the poor. But now I see that post-civil rights America is still widely and wildly addicted to racial discrimination and boundaries and that the over-privileged, me included, don’t even see most of the tell-tale signs. Because it hasn’t affected us and we are the standard and we don’t have to worry about contributing to negative, prescriptive, damning stereotypes at every turn. Most (as in 80% of) white people polled by Gallup in 2007, thought that black people got the same educational opportunities as their own kids. 49% of black people agreed. The average white family has 12 times as much wealth than the average black family in this country. In a study released in 2004, black and Latino males are three times more likely than white males to have their cars stopped and searched for drugs – even though white males are four and half times more likely to actually have drugs on the occasion when they are stopped. I know this isn’t fun. I object when I read these things. But I object for all the wrong reasons.

Before I fuel any more pre-existing thoughts that I have become a mouthpiece for the most liberal, Californian, ignorant democrat, social-gospel watered-down Christian and much worse, before I contribute any more to the distance between the privileged and the poor, or suggest that the picture of poverty that I am starting to absorb is all about doom, there are a couple other things I’ve noticed.

Yes, poor-ness is more about power than junk. And junk is easier to drop off at a donation center. But there’s a way to disperse power–to give up what the better-off inherited. There’s a way to share and I have seen it. To disengage from what we have long thought we earned and realize that it was originally taken. All will fade and all is a facade. There is a way to align ourselves with different power constructs and find true power in downward mobility, in crumbling the pyramid, in making small steps away from the trajectory of unjust systems established before us and perpetuated by us. I believe the Church should be the best at this Upset. That local bodies should be utterly confusing because power in the church was originally quite opposite than power in the world. “They had everything in common.” What school you went to or how deep your dad’s pockets are has very little relevance when you are telling all people (most of whom are completely different than you) about Jesus and helping each other administer and experience shalom. It doesn’t take a head pastor. It takes every member ministry. It takes ownership and generosity and messy beyond messy. One young woman recently challenged me with this question: “Do Christians all believe they are really called to live in the neighborhood they do?” Or did they land there. She lives in a community that outsiders say they cannot live in because they are not “called.” And the Upset is better for her.

There is also a method of reflection that those who are labeled “poor” have to teach the rapidly growing, urbanized, plugged-in, crowded world of the privileged. There are deep thinkers, solid hearts and epic storytellers here in the noise. People who remember, who know how to put down roots when the soil is barren and overlooked. People who do not require a beautiful landscape, a new album, or tranquil circumstances to pray, reach out, remember, or worship. They also do not require alone time because they have never had it. This is spirituality that money cannot buy. This is a fine strand – too rare but so precious – that the Christians who are poor have maintained across the globe through turbulent history and a sea of worldly disappointments. With or without the Red Sea splitting, they finger their way across in a real, earthy faith that is not afraid of lamenting and not afraid of premature celebration. It is a strand of tenacious spirituality that those who can pay for annual vacations (that carry the job of “reconnecting” and “renewal” until the next vacation) cannot buy. But the vacationers could worship beside it. They could look for it and ask about it and validate it. They could accept that the poor know a lot about the Jesus life and the Trinity and that meeting them means meeting Them in so many ways.

And there is a way to see people without dismissing their race nor holding it against them. There is a context in which a corrupt history of slavery, oppression, underdogs, disobedience, and all out hatred is part of the holy book of plot-twists, adoption and forgiveness. The Church, which hallows the Bible as its code, ought itself cycle through this story. This is Church. It is a bizarre context and one that is created faultily throughout human history, but it is what we have and how an infinite God has chosen to be displayed to the world, so poorly but unconquerably. There is a way to unlearn attitudes against other races and to challenge definitions our hearts disagree with but our behaviors have blindly reinforced. There is a way to repent, ask for forgiveness, mercy, from those who are still living the hell made by the sins of our forefathers.

I’ve probably made piles of errors and blunders but it is too much a part of Life here and Life there to shut up about because I don’t have things figured out. All I have for a modest proposal are simple questions. Questions we have wrestled with and wrestle with and will wrestle with. Questions I want to model asking for my kids. Who makes up my church and why? What are non-negotiables about my church experience and why? Are we or am I excluding groups of people inadvertently? What are characteristics of the daily life I live and why? What are daily behaviors I want to employ to contribute to the Upset? To ask forgiveness? To divest myself of flat, disconnecting estimations of the poor and align myself with attitudes that reconcile?

One thing I know for sure: the local church that is home equally to the poor and rich because they have lost sight of each other as such is holy ground. That church family is “thy kingdom come” and sanctuary and upset. That body has purpose and relevance for today and tomorrow.

“So tie me to a post and block my ears, I can see widows and orphans through my tears. I know my call despite my faults, And despite my growing fears. But I will hold on hope, And I won’t let you choke, On the noose around your neck. And I’ll find strength in pain, And I will change my ways, I’ll know my name as it’s called again.”

– The Cave by Mumford & Sons

“Yesterday I was alone/ Today you walk beside me/ Something still unclear/ Something not yet here/ Has begun./ Suddenly the world/ Seems a different place/ Somehow full of grace/…There are shadows everywhere/ And memories I cannot share/ Nevermore alone/ Nevermore apart/”

– Suddenly from Les Miserables Movie, 2012

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