Archive for the ‘poverty’ Category

Friday randomness

Not a lot of dialogue about the Advent Conspiracy stuff from the last post … thoughts?

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My dad sent me a question he received from a friend via e-mail. The question is: “Where do you find Jesus discerning whether or not his blessing a person would be empowering” or “enabling” that person? What’s the basis for exercising such discernment today? (I’m familiar with the ‘pearls’ and ‘swine’ passage, if that’s even applicable.)”

Here’s my two cents:

I would say it’s become enabling when the other person comes requesting something and almost seems to expect you to say yes. Also, when debts go unpaid for weeks and weeks, that’s a problem.

There are times to flat-out bless someone with no re-payment expected, but most of the time, we work out some kind of re-payment system.

All that said, though, while we ought to keep these things in mind, I’m not sure Jesus does much discerning along these lines. He’s pretty indescriminant about how and who he blesses, because the blessings ultimately point people to him. We’re not going to get every “empowerment-enablement” decision right, and that’s not the point. The point is that we are identifying with the poor, and doing our part to demonstrate Jesus’ love to them and ease their lives just a bit.

One more thing: Context is everything. We don’t give change to panhandlers in Boston because we know Boston has EXCELLENT services for the homeless. (plenty of shelters, free wool blankets, meal trucks, church groups, low-income housing, etc…) In another context, we might come to a different conclusion. So paying attention to those factors are important.

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For those of you who don’t know, I (Steve) now work 3 days a week at a wonderful little book shop in downtown Boston. It’s one of the oldest antiquarian/rare/used bookshops in the US. Anyway, we get a nice discount on the books there, so you can imagine that my hold shelf is getting fairly crowded. I was especially excited about the books I took home yesterday, though, from a lot containing quite a bit of good Christian mysticism and spirituality classics. Have you read any of them?

When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations, Walter Wink

A Book of Hours, Thomas Merton

Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Thomas Merton

The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith, Thomas Merton

The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton

Meister Eckhart, from Whom God Hid Nothing: Sermons, Writings & Sayings, Meister Eckhart

There are still several others I have on hold but haven’t pulled the trigger on … should I?

Christian Politics, round 2

We must see what is going on today. Something different is happening. We have wasteful technologies used by billions of people growing exponentially, more expansive exploitation, more powerful bombs. And yet people’s hearts are the same as they were thousands of years ago: a chaotic mix of love and hate, creativity and destructiveness. But this is the problem. Our tools have “advanced,” but we haven’t advanced spiritually or morally. And so we, normal people, with the tools of destruction and wastefulness available for daily purchase, cannot handle the power. With all of the destruction that has ravaged the earth since the Industrial Revolution, one wonders if we can even call it advancement. Those who are convinced that we are at “the end of history,” at the apex of civilization’s development, fail to notice that the twentieth century was the bloodiest and most toxic in world history. And to sanctify this chaos, as our friend and priest Michael Doyle has said, the church’s precious words have been co-opted for profit: trust, fidelity, mutual equity. We can see them all around us in bank statements and on billboards.

Maybe, as a response, we in the church work for legislation that attempts to turn the tide, but these efforts often do not change the way we, as communities, live or think. Addressing our needs versus our wants and making sacrificial choices to buy less or differently is not something the state can do for us. We can see one reason why Jesus exorcized unclean spirits and opened eyes — the state wasn’t doing it. It’s the small things we do every day — the logs in our eyes — that are of great significance. (Even worse, in the face of escalating tension in the world, after 9/11 the government called us not to be frugal and thoughtful but to go shopping. One wonders if a nation that wholeheartedly buys into this scheme while launching two costly wars should have dangerous weapons anywhere near them.) We might hope to change the world through better, bigger programs to stop global warming, but global warming will not end unless people become less greedy and less wasteful, gaining a fresh vision of what it means to love our global neighbor. (Jesus for President, Claiborne & Haw, pp 192-193)

Another example of this is the civil rights movement.  Yes, I know many use civil rights to justify political action in order to remedy social injustices.  But have things really gotten better?  Sure, blacks can now use the same drinking fountains and bathrooms and attend the same schools as whites, but what about the racial tensions that remain?  Segregation still exists, people.  Today, we have thousands of ghettos full of millions of minority families struggling just to find their next meal, and we tell them that it’s solely their fault that they’re in this pickle. Desegregation led to white flight which led to suburban sprawl …

Did the civil rights legislation (I’m talking about the rulings here, not the peaceful demonstrations and prophetic words of folks like MLK) fix the human problem of racism?

And what about the other issue commonly used to defend political action: slavery.  Sure, whites don’t chain black people to each other and force them to work our fields anymore in America, but has slavery really been abolished?  What about the sweat shops in developing countries owned by American corporations?  What about the sub-human working conditions of immigrants across this great land of ours?  What about the turmoil those aforementioned minority families must go through in order to make enough money to survive?

No, slavery hasn’t ended … it’s just been reconfigured, cleaned up, outsourced.

Until we begin to view and treat others as our neighbors — loving them as ourselves — we won’t see permanent solutions to these problems.  I know one thing is for certain — no political legislation is going to enact this change.  Only the love of Christ, “made flesh” in radical communities across the world who are joining God’s redemptive work in the world, can.

Sylvia

Because they are our neighbors and friends, I have changed the names of the mother and children in the story below to protect their identity.

Tears streamed down her face, which was just inches from her son’s.

“I love you so much, Jose,” she said, squeezing him tightly against her. “I love you with everything that is in my heart. My whole heart. I would do anything for you, son.” She shudders and closes her eyes with every word. I’ve never seen anyone mean anything so sincerely.

Her tears were joyful tears. She was hugging the son that just minutes earlier she thought she might lose. In fact, she left her house with her 3-year-old son that morning knowing that she might not return home with him. The courts had caught up with her and sent a DSS social worker to her home with orders to be in court at 9 the next morning. The social worker made sure to remind Sylvia that she could have come with the Boston Police and taken her son away from her. Amazingly, Sylvia held it together through the unexpected visit, the intimidation, the fear.

OK, the other side of the story. It’s long, of course. A story full of abuse, allegations, missteps, coping mechanisms, and pain — lots of pain. Sylvia has six kids, only two of which she has custody of. Jose, the aforementioned 3-year-old, and Penelope, who is 2. She unjustly lost the other four, all older, several years ago, because unsubstantiated claims were made about her and her children. She had Jose just after she lost her other kids (three of whom, she found out last week, are now adopted and will never again be in her custody). He wasn’t supposed to live, and was in fact expected to be stillborn or have major birth defects.

But when he was born healthy, Sylvia called him her “miracle baby.” She also knew she couldn’t allow this miracle baby to be taken from her, as her other children had. This is where things get fuzzy: The short of it is, though, that for the next three years, Sylvia intentionally flew underneath the radar of the courts and the DSS that would rather her not become a mother again. She knew better, after all — she was a good mother. She gave Jose to her sister when things became too rough to manage. She had only done drugs as a way to cope with her children being taken from her. She was getting help for her anger. Everything she did — good or bad — was with them on her mind and heart. She knew she was no match for the bureaucratic juggernaut that is the Justice System, so she subverted it. Whether this was right or wrong, maternal love and instincts always win. I’d challenge any mother in a similar situation to say, without a doubt, that they wouldn’t have done the same thing.

But Sylvia was alone.

Her husband was unsupportive at best and malicious at worst, and would eventually — after giving her little Penelope one year after Jose — end up in prison. His family made outrageous claims to DSS about Sylvia’s competence as a mother and, to this day, stands as her main barrier to that quiet, undisturbed life with her children that she so desperately desires. Her family was downright backstabbing. When Sylvia refused to sell drugs for her dealer dad as a way to provide for her children, her father basically disowned her and turned her entire family against her. Dysfunction defined.

To this day, Sylvia has no family support to speak of.

But last Tuesday, a family stood beside her in an airy courtroom before a cynical judge as advocates for the woman and mother Sylvia has become. In situations like this, the chips are stacked against poor, Hispanic, single moms with no education or family. The only hope, as Sylvia knew when she prayed the night before in her living room, that God be the judge, not man.

The family that waited with her for five excruciating hours in court, and stood next to her in front of a judge wielding the power to destroy her life, was not a blood family, but a hodge-podge collection of neighbors who showed up to say that Sylvia is a good mother. She loves her children and would never hurt them. She has made mistakes in her past and has so far to go, but goodness gracious, so do I. So do we all.

But Sylvia is a wonderful mother. Jose is in Head Start and takes special classes for a slight speech impediment. They both are up-to-date with medical and dental care and eat about as well as WIC children can. Sylvia prays with and reads to Jose and Penelope before bed, takes them out of the house despite the difficulty, and is working toward her GED in order to go back to work. She is completely sober (over a year now) and has a 24-7 support system comprised of what might be the best neighbors on the planet. “It takes a village,” after all, right?

None of that mattered in front of that judge last Tuesday, though. “Is this Jose? Where has he been the last three years? We’ve been looking for him,” the judge called down callously and condescendingly. This judge had never visited Sylvia at home, seen her children happily playing on the living room floor or bouncing along on a pumpkin patch hayride. She had a limited scope of what had happened in the previous years and only had one concern: Where has Jose been the last three years and is he OK now? A fair question, but one deserving of a complete answer. If only Sylvia could sit down with the judge and tell her story as she had told us the previous night, with the same tears. Then, maybe, the judge would rule with compassion, or at least treat her like a human.

The judge’s ruling was that Sylvia will have temporary custody of Jose until the next hearing in January, when she’ll get to do it all again. The waiting, the praying, the crying, the confusion, the judge. In January, after home visits and reference checks, a final decision will be made as to Jose’s final destination. He’ll either stay with the mother who has said she would sacrifice her own life for his or go into the custody of the cold, bureaucratic State. Tuesday’s tears and emphatic declarations of love for her son were a result of two more months with a son with whom she thought she had just a few more hours. That’s grace.

You haven’t seen agony until you’ve seen a mother awaiting word on whether or not she’ll keep her child. There’s no description befitting of that scene, and no mother on Earth — I don’t care what she’s done — that deserves it. For the last two years, and for at least the next two months, Sylvia tucks two angelic children into bed each night, but every time with the sobering knowledge that four more out there are going to bed without her touch. As happy as she is to have Jose and Penelope, Sylvia yearns to have all her children underneath one roof, eating at her table, growing in love for each other and her.

Sound familiar?

true religion

art.widow.cnn.jpgReligion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

– James 1:27

This story is so, so sad.

single mom … bar graph … sharing food

From Wednesday’s Boston Globe: Single Mothers Need $58K to Make it in Mass.

Wow.

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This chart measures the U.S. population growth against church membership since 1980. Hmmmmm…… (HT: Fred Peatross)

population-vs-church-growth4.jpg

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About the middle of this past week, I was thinking, “This Pantry Challenge better be over soon because I’m not sure how much more I can take…”  Friday, our friend Pam came over with a small bag of groceries that she had been given by some friends going out of town for an extended period of time (and who needed to use up the stuff in their pantry).  It was basically two loaves of bread, hamburger buns, eggs, apples, and oranges.  I’m not sure if that’s “legal” in PC07 rules, but we accepted the offering graciously and humbly.

Chrissy commented that maybe we’re beginning to see what this whole thing is about … that the Pantry Challenge isn’t about some short-term contest, but about a sustainable way of life.  In other words, how can we begin to stretch out our food from now on, even after the contest is over?  How can we experience deeper levels of community as we begin to share resources (including food) with our friends and neighbors?  And what the heck is so “Christian” about this line of thinking?

Anyway, we’ve got the next few days’ meals planned out, but after that — who knows.  I think we’re learning some important lessons about living, though.

[related note: it looks like we may now be the only ones in the contest.  Sherri dropped out today, and has some great reflections on what this experience meant to her.  I’ll await official word from Will — who has the final call on the official “winners” — but my vote is for one of the families with kids that made it pretty far.  Kid-less people can tough it out and make due, but you folks with children deserve a medal for putting up with the inevitable complaints like “PB&J again?” or “I hate oatmeal!” (that last complaint was heard around our household more than once…).  Anyway, we won’t go to the store until we hear for sure that the contest is over … I’ll keep ya posted]

more east boston friends

UPDATE: Today, I, Steve, was hired by Vantage Global Travel to be their newest copy writer! Praise God! This position is perfect in so many ways, which could only mean our Creator is responsible. He is the giver of every good and perfect gift. So thanks to those who have been praying diligently for this…your prayers were felt — and answered!

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We ate dinner last night with a young couple that also recently moved to East Boston (in the last year) with the purpose of joining God’s work here. They moved from San Diego, where Matt (the husband) was involved in an organic, simple through-and-through, and completely incarnational ministry to the poor.

Here’s what it looked like: Christians living in six houses at the end of a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood known for its poverty, exemplifying Christ in word and deed. One day, they began handing out PB&J sandwiches to homeless people out of one of the homes, and after a few years, they were serving 250 families food every week. But that’s not all: They had huge “love feasts” every Saturday, where they would invite the poor, the homeless, the marginalized into their homes to sit at big tables and celebrate Jesus with them. They had an “open door policy” for the houses, where people could walk in and out. Now that’s extreme hospitality. Similar to the quote to which I referred a few months back. Very simple. Very relational. Very Jesus-centered.

Well, Matt met his lovely wife (Mary) in San Diego, was married last Fall, and soon after felt called to return to the Boston area (where he grew up). They have a vision for seeing God do in East Boston something similar to what He did in California. They are a Spirit-led couple who will become three next January with the addition of a new baby.

We have been praying with them and asking God what He wants to do in East Boston, and specifically what He wants to do through the four of us. Praise God for the ways in which He is leading us and confirming East Boston as the place we need to be right now.

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Thanks for your prayers about the job hunt. (or “job delivery,” as my friend Matt says…since God is going to “deliver” the perfect job…) The interview on Wednesday went OK — no big blunders, I was relaxed — but even better was the interview I had yesterday morning. It was to be a copy writer for a travel company, and I honestly couldn’t find any negative aspects about the job: easy commute, close to Chrissy’s school, flexible hours, fun team, great supervisor, deadline-driven, on-site fitness, travel benefits, good pay, opportunities to advance, yada yada yada… From what I could tell, I’m the leading candidate for the position. Don’t want to get the horse before the cart, but I’ll keep you all posted on any new developments. Keep up your prayers, though! They are certainly felt…

first Boston weekend

After four straight days of monsoon-like conditions in New England, today’s weather was stupendous. Blue sky, bright sun, 70 degrees. Amazing. We still feel like tourists in this town, like our vacation is going to end any day now. But alas, we live here now, and we’re loving it.

Our first weekend in our new home went great. I’ve already told you about Friday night. Saturday, we joined the worship gathering at Quincy Street Missional Church in Dorchester, which was started by our friends Aaron and Amy. That was an encouraging time. I’ve blogged about Quincy Street before, but here’s a reminder of how it got started: Aaron met Ma Siss, who has run a commodities closet out of an old auto repair shop for the last 30 years. She is somewhat of a matriarch in the neighborhood in which she lives and works. She asked Aaron and Amy to lead a Bible study for folks in the neighborhood (which was full of crime at the time), which they agreed to do. After the first study, those who attended asked if they could do the same thing the next Saturday. Three years later, the Bible study is now a small, neighborhood-based church that still meets at Ma Siss’s place. Each week, Ma Siss and some of the other ladies make an amazing “soul food” meal, which you are forced to smell throughout the preceding time of worship and fellowship. Aaron and Amy have had an especially significant impact on the youth of the neighborhood, forming a quasi-youth group and leadership team out of the formerly troubled teens. Chrissy and I met several of the phenomenal youths on Saturday, and We think we might try to work with them in some fashion this summer.

From QS, we went straight downtown to the Tremont Temple Baptist Church (the first integrated church in America) for the summer kickoff event of the Boston Faith and Justice Network. Aaron and Amy were instrumental in starting this network as well (they really are all over the place). I can’t even begin to express how encouraging this event was. The speaker for the evening was Bart Campolo (yes, the spawn of Tony and head of Mission Year), who gave a workshop before the main event on forming authentic relationships through barriers of race, gender, etc. If you’ve never heard Bart speak before, he is passionate, exciting, and extremely intelligent. Like his dad, I guess. After growing up in inner-city Philly and now living in inner-city Cincinnati, Bart brings amazing insight into cross-cultural communication, and offered some great tips on how to form authentic relationships with people who are different from yourself.

The real treat came during the main event, however. The praise team from a Brazilian church in town led us in worship, which was powerful (the members also happened to be students at Berklee College of Music, one of the best music schools in the northeast). Then Bart got up and gave the best speech I’ve ever heard on the connection between Christian faith and social justice. He worked from the story of the Good Samaritan, working it in a way I’ve never heard. The priest, he said, was ceremonially clean and didn’t want to stop, in the same way that many Christians don’t want to get involved in people’s lives because “it might get messy.” The Levite, he said, was a blue-collar man and didn’t want to be late for work — just as many Christians don’t help people because of the time and money it might cost. At one point, he got real flustered and asked if he could speak candidly to us. He lamented the fact that he is always asked to come motivate young people to be compassionate, saying he was frankly sick and tired of doing that. It’s not always going to be fun, it’s not always going to make me “grow spiritually,” and it’s going to be messy — in short, it’s not about me. It was a powerful moment. If you have an opportunity to hear Bart Campolo, take it. He’s great (and extremely challenging).

Today we explored our new neighborhood of East Boston some more, walking (with Damon) down the longest street in town and back. We saw so many friendly faces and were further convicted of God’s hand in bringing us to this beautifully diverse part of Boston. So many of God’s children living here from different tribes, tongues, nations. Exciting! We grabbed a slice of pizza in the North End (Italian district) this afternoon (after a bit of a nap) before going to check out where Chrissy will begin working tomorrow. She gets to sit on a pier on the Boston Harbor all summer, greeting tourists and helping kids who are coming to learn how to sail. Lucky!

We are already excited about some of the ways we can begin serving those around us here in East Boston. Being some of the first to move into the Maverick Landing townhomes, we have an amazing opportunity to be a welcoming and hospitable presence to those moving into the neighborhood. Please pray that we’ll recognize these opportunities and walk through the doors God opens.

Shalom.