Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Loving My Neighbors

Spirit of the PoorI am a visionary. That means I dream big dreams. One of those dreams is for everyone to be treated with dignity and as equally valuable persons. I struggle with this, especially as my dwelling spot on this earth is smack in the middle of a culture of consumption. And while to all appearances we consume in a vacuum, there really are far-reaching consequences. One of those consequences is systemic oppression and systemic poverty. I am participating in a synchroblog hosted by my friend Esther. She and some friends dreamed this up as a way of conversing about economic justice and how we can be intentional in bringing it about through our choices. This is my first 2-cent contribution to what I imagine will be a very productive ongoing conversation.

It is often said that education leads to freedom. In ideology, it can definitely be true. In the real world, it's not always enough; sometimes there are systems at work preventing those living in poverty from rising above their circumstances.

In the real world things get broken, and so do people. In the real world, there is too much “emergency” and not enough “fund.” In the real world this happened to me, and my middle-class blinders got shattered.

I realize the subject is uncomfortable and tense because everyone wants to believe the American Dream could work for all people or if it doesn’t then it is their fault. The school of life taught me it is a lot more complicated than lifestyle and choices. I don't believe there's a black and white answer of either you're a responsible person or an irresponsible person. I think there are deeply rooted injustices needing to be addressed.

As I see it, I now have three choices. I can ignore the injustice and keep on doing my own thing. It’s sad it is an option, but that is a product of systemic privilege. Second, I can rage about it until I feel better, garner a lot of support, but really accomplish nothing except creating feelings. Or third, I can participate in an ongoing conversation where I place my tiny fragment of knowledge and experience next to other peoples’ tiny fragments of knowledge and experience and learn some practical ways to change things.

I am all for Door Number 3. I’ve become convinced that it's going to take a widespread community effort to be the change we all desire.

How can I help?

There are a number of ways to demonstrate love to those struggling with poverty. This is the place where I join the discussion and try to be a part of the change. Here are some things I have learned:

1. Do not see a person as a "problem." See the person! Acknowledge humanity before addressing circumstance. Avoid labeling someone as a generalized group entity, e.g. “the poor,” and adopt people-first terminology, e.g. “a person living in poverty.”

2. Calling by name. I will find out someone's name because it restores a sense of dignity and worth. It says "You matter so much you are worth knowing by name." (I am always thrilled when people start a conversation with me by calling me by my name rather than a pronoun.)

3. By listening to those “in the trenches.” Sometimes the best way to combat the despair of people in poverty is to listen to their story. "What is it like for you?" I need to put myself in their shoes as they tell me their history. I know my heart is guaranteed to grow a couple sizes. I guarantee I will be humbled by their stories.

What are some practices I plan to avoid?

1. Judgment, when I should be extending grace. Let me just lay it flat. I am beyond tired of the designer purse/iPhone toting/babydaddy tropes. I will not participate in that nonsense. I will learn compassion.

2. Shaming, when I have the opportunity to empower and encourage, or even offer assistance. I will treat everyone with dignity, especially those who wear rags.

3. Disgust/Avoidance, when I should be listening and learning. People need to be seen and heard. Acknowledge presence. Look people in the eye. Engage in dialogue.

4. Rationalizing. It is easier to talk about who is the problem, playing a blame game, than it is to actually move toward understanding what is at work behind the scenes. I am done with looking away.

Shattering the Stereotype.

This is the section where I brainstorm ideas and not necessarily promote them. It's more a "what do you think?" kind of challenge. I wonder if this change can start with giving real people in real disadvantaged circumstances a way to be heard?

We tend to talk about and around those who are truly hurting in the midst of their circumstances. We give them a generalized label of “the poor” rather than an actual individual voice. I think that needs to change. Empathy comes through testimony, not just observation.

What if the whole blogosphere or even the whole of social media or even just a small intentional group of people (hello there!) devoted a full day to using our platforms for an interview process; hearing real live stories from those actually in poverty? What if we devoted a whole day to closing our own busy mouths and simply listening. And not listening only but actually hearing: the pain, the grief, the discomfort. We are doing a little bit of that here with this synchroblog, but I will be the first to say I can get mighty tired of the sound of my own voice saying the same thing over and over. I want to move forward. And while it isn’t my cup of tea to absorb the desperation of humanity, it is still something I purpose to do. Because I love. Because this matters. Because each person in the human race matters.

It is hard to grasp the meaning of poverty. It is an overwhelming issue requiring a complex solution. I can’t be a part of every facet of that solution. I CAN show up, listen, and learn from the studies and experiences of others. Tell me YOUR stories, friends.


  1. So much wisdom here, brave friend! I love your poetry, and thought maybe you would have a poetic take today. But I'm thrilled to see that you are sharing your analytical side. It's helpful.

    And I'll respond to the question of giving real people in real disadvantaged circumstances a way to be heard. I think it is exactly that. And more than that, it is opening ourselves to the possibility that we have our rankings wrong. That maybe people in tribal or subsistence farming cultures have a way of life that is as precious as ours, as worthy of protection as ours, even as worthy of replication as ours!! We tend to think that it's a good thing to try to replicate our way of life and spread it around the world, replacing low-consumption cultures with high-consumption Western culture. But if we imagined others as our teachers, rather than only the beneficiaries of our charity. That might just help us get things turned around. That's my two cents to add to yours, anyway. Now we have four.

    Love you, friend. Thanks for linking up.

  2. Jamie, I love your idea of spending a day listening. My life (not just my eyes) were opened when I went on a delegation to Nicaragua with my then 13 year old daughter. Spending 5 days living in the home of a campesino (peasant is the closest translation) brought me to the point of listening because they had become my close friends. You wrote that "there are systems at work preventing those living in poverty from rising above their circumstances." I believe there are systems at work preventing those of us who live in relative afluence, from breaking our of our chains and living more simply." It is incredibly hard to do, I know.
    I developed the three stage image of:
    - climbing a foothill to see the territory beyond one's own life. I call this perspective. looking for opportunities to engage with others in acts of solidarity.
    - taking an expidation with others to cross the plains and mountains. These are actually engaging with others in acts of solidarity.
    - arriving at a completely new place. I call this transformation. It sneaks up on you as changes in your life gradually change.
    Glad to read your words. I've seen your picture many times.

  3. Seek to know God's heart. Yes. You are starting to live like a mystic. (Well, not just starting. You just reminded me of that line in The Artist's Rule. :) I really should get you a copy of that book!)

  4. I like putting on the ol' analysis cap once in a while. I'll probably not make more than a sometimes habit out of it. I highly suspect there will be a poem somewhere in future contributions. I love that we're having this conversation and I appreciate you hosting it.
    I, too, think we have much to learn from other cultures. I would love to see things turned around that way.
    Much love to you, too.

  5. That's a very good point, that the systems keep us trapped (or sleeping) in relative affluence as well as with poverty. It helps me focus on extending grace rather than assigning guilt. I appreciate your three stage image. It is helpful to visualize the journey we wish to take. I will personally be looking for opportunities to listen and learn and engage in acts of solidarity. (However scary that might be.)
    It's good to meet you. I've seen you around Esther's space, too. Bless you, friend.

  6. good to meet you too, fellow visionary,

  7. I enjoyed reading this piece, particularly your determination to take practical steps - things to do and things to avoid. We need to make actual changes in our individual and community lives and the encouragement of others who share these concerns is really helpful and enlightening.

  8. Thank you, Juliet. I typed out a long comment for your piece and then wordpress ate it. I tried it 3 times and gave up. Sorry. But I really did appreciate your words. They gave me courage and hope and grace. So thank you.

  9. You're right, Jamie - it will all of us working together to get to the heart having a true spirit of the poor. To create real and lasting, meaningful, change.

    I like your idea of interviews with families who live in poverty. I recently read a lengthy article by a report in the Bronx, who spent over a year doing just that... it really opened my eyes, especially to what the education system is like for a girl growing up in the worst part of the Bronx.

    I have done this is in the past... and I have some interviews stored on my computer. To tell you the truth, I love these life stories the best! There is incredible wisdom, I've found, in the poor... especially the poor who don't think of themselves as "poor" - who don't walk around in self-pity, but who instead are watching out for others.

    Jamie, please hold me accountable to this, your idea... because I've gotten away from it. And it breaks my heart.

  10. Susan, I'm sure I will need the reminders every bit as much as you. The problem with the nature of blogging, we get swept up in the next conversation and fail to dwell for very long on the import of our discussions. I'm glad we will be intentionally revisiting this once a month. May God keep our hearts tender as we seek to understand and interact with our reality in a compassionate way. I appreciate your story and the stories you are gathering. Thank you for being so devoted; story is more than a passing fancy for us. It's our life. Bless you!

  11. Jamie I loved your post. I think for me change has always stemmed from relational understanding and love which is what you describe here I believe. Your idea of platform sharing excited me, as it's one thing I find personally irritating about blogging - none of my mama friends in my inner city mamas group are bloggers you know? Excited to see what comes from this conversation.

  12. Thank you, Leah. Your compassion is evident in your voice and I appreciate that so much in others. I think it's very important to hear from those in low income communities who do not normally have access to blogs. I think there's a fine line between highlighting the voices and just using them as a token for demonstration or a way to assuage some guilt and I am very timid about getting near that line. But I want people to be truly seen, heard, and listened to, or as you deftly put it, I want to create a relational understanding. Not just another place to be gawked at. So this is going to need a "tread carefully" approach. A friend of mine runs a Chicago ministry called and she is working toward doing just that. It's a good place to start and I hope I can learn from her work and words. Bless you for joining the conversation and sharing your heart. You are making a difference because you care.

  13. Jenny, I appreciated your post so much and I'm all mama-bear-mad that Disqus ate the comments. Praying for their restoration because it is so important. I'm glad for your perspective in this conversation and I'm so glad we're friends. I love you dearly.

  14. I love this: "We tend to talk about and around those who are truly hurting in the midst of their circumstances. We give them a generalized label of “the poor” rather than an actual individual voice. I think that needs to change. Empathy comes through testimony, not just observation."

    Jamie, you bring about some great points. And I love how you lay out the three options... It is so easy to just hear about all of the injustice around the world (that our own lifestyles often escalate), get overwhelmed by the question "what can I actually do about this huge problem," and then either ignore this problem or just talk about it. However, as human beings and as followers of Jesus, we cannot just shut our eyes and close our ears to the problem (and we cannot just talk/write about it.) Rather, if we are truly following Jesus, his footsteps will lead us to walk alongside, sit with, listen to, and develop genuine and caring relationships with our brothers and sisters - especially those who are on the margins.

    Thank you for choosing number 3! Prayers as you continue to follow this path!

  15. Yes it is a fine line. I actually cofounded an inner city mama to mama support group six years ago and that is part of the reason I have such big feelings on these issues on a local as well as global scale. But I really never write about it online because those friends are such a treasure to me, I would never want to accidentally hurt them in any way. Six years ago before I had gotten in relationally I would have been much freer with my words and ideas on this topic. But I want to encourage others in the blessing that relational understanding is - still learning how to tread that line :)

  16. Thank you, Emily. Your prayers are so encouraging. It is hard to walk alongside and sit with others. It is hard to live awake. It is hard to be a listener. May God give us grace to swallow the discomfort and work toward building relationships. And wisdom; that is needed, too. Thank you for sharing yours. I so appreciate your input.

  17. I am praying for the wisdom to recognize opportunities to build that relational understanding that are within the scope of my limitations. I long to stretch myself and my family but often I find that chronic health issues and caring for small children keep me far more isolated than I'd like to be. I'm sure there are opportunities close to home. I'm sure there are little things I can do to help bring changes. May God give me the grace to see and embrace them.
    Bless you for starting that support group and bless you for being sensitive to the feelings and dignity of your friends.

  18. Love you, too. Hope you got a touch of cabin fever break over the weekend.


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