Category Archives: Community Living

Missionary Kids, Downward Mobility, and My Friend Sarah–Guest Post by Brianna Meade

Brianna sent me this stunner of a guest post and I love how it swirls together several topics that are valuable to me: missionary kids (I married one), intentionality, downward mobility, and the facing the fears that are inherent when we interact with people who are so different from us. This is a lovely, thoughtful meditation, coming from the best place–in the very middle of a life being changed. I am so grateful for Brianna and her honesty here. 

 

 

 

Missionary Kids, Downward Mobility, and My Friend Sarah

Guest Post by Brianna Meade

 

 

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I’m a missionary kid who didn’t want to be a missionary kid. Instead of “I’m from Thailand,” I want to say “I’m from Chicago.” In fact this is what I do say.

Being an MK is interesting in a, “Wow, that’s cool, but I don’t understand you at all” type way. Not so great for relating to people. Living in a hut in the jungle on the border of a third-world country doesn’t help if you are desperate to fit in. People rarely know how to respond when it’s brought up. It can be a conversation jump-starter, but it can also be the type of thing where you start to feel alone as the conversation fizzles out because nobody knows what to say.

When my past is brought up, I’ll ramble on about Rice and Elephants and the Thai Language. I’ll hedge my sentences and stories with, “I know you don’t really want to hear this story, but…”  I’m embarrassed by how I grew up, but the bigger issue is that I feel alone. I don’t feel at home in Thailand and don’t belong among Americans–especially American women.

I know what you are thinking if you know anything about missionary kids. Feeling like I don’t belong is a classic MK attitude. MK’s feel as if they don’t fit in either culture. The whole idea of a “Third-Culture-Kid” came from the theory that those who grew up in two cultures only feel at home in a “third” culture that incorporates both–that is, in their “own” created culture. You’d think the one place I’d feel at home is among other MK’s who have the same background, but I don’t. I’m just as uncomfortable around other MKs as around girls who grew up in Chicago. During college, many MKs I knew found solace in International Dinners and Third-Culture Kid Retreats. I avoided all of this.

I don’t talk about Thailand, ever, unless it is brought up.  My years as a missionary kid were difficult and jarring and ended with a full-blown eating disorder that almost killed me. So when other MKs wax nostalgic for Asian noodles or dumplings or bring up how much they miss their “real” home, I feel disingenuous. I feel numb and apathetic.The twinge of sadness that exists just makes me want to run harder towards the American dream.

When I arrived in the U.S. for college, I tried to assimilate in order to avoid being the “weird” one. I abandoned my MK roots as soon as I could figure out how to dress in North Face jackets and procure boots that looked like UGGs. I tried to assimilate in every way. I steadily acquired pop culture awareness and memorized the names of celebrities.

I rarely claim my childhood in Asia (where I lived for 15 years–more time than I’ve lived anywhere else) as home. Was it my home? I was always an outsider there too. So where does that leave me?

Every once in a while during college, I would go to a Thai food restaurant and ball my eyes out. On the way out, I would swear never to go back to the restaurant again as I wiped snot off my face. It was too confusing and much too painful.

And so, when we moved to North Carolina, I was still hard at work leaving my past behind. So it seemed strangely serendipitous and out-of-nowhere that our apartment complex contained a greater percentage of people of Asian descent than it did  Caucasians. Did this make me happy? Did it make me feel like I was home? On the contrary, it made me feel more exposed and maybe even a little uncomfortable. I didn’t want to presuppose that I had anything in common with my Indian neighbors because I knew (and implicitly felt) that I was just as complicit in stereotyping people–just as likely to misunderstand someone and miss the real story. But in the process of avoiding any representation of my past, of side-stepping my roots and of trying to become someone else, I’d forgotten who I was.

One day I went to the park and found myself surrounded by a large Indian family and several Chinese mothers with their children. I was with my daughter in the sandpit and I felt that familiar feeling of being somewhere you have been many times. Of returning to a place that you have been away from for a long time.

Then we stumbled upon a church that was half-white, half-Chinese-American demographic and oriented towards reaching out to the cultural diaspora that was our town. I felt my shoulders slump a little and my butt relax deeper in the seats. I kind of wanted to cry, but it was a moment that again, I shared only with myself. It was the first time I felt slightly less alone in an American church. The first public place that it might be okay to work out my culture issues and feel safe.

It was also the place where a Southern girl (as American as mac n’ cheese) taught me how to re-embrace a part of me I had left behind. This friend was named Sarah*. Sarah and her family are Jesus-seekers and wholehearted members of the small Presbyterian Church (PCA) that we are all a part of.

When I first talked to Sarah, she mesmerized me with her stories of intentionality and engagement. Every afternoon, she takes her boys out to the parking lot, sets up some yellow cones to warn drivers, and they spend the late afternoon riding bikes. By six pm, her Indian neighbors have also come outside and their kids join the fun. She positions her lawn chairs and hands out extra bikes that her family has collected to any kids that don’t have bikes. The Indian boys and girls call Sarah “auntie,” a term of acceptance.

One story Sarah recounted was a turning point for me.The Indian women in her neighborhood often come out in groups for their afternoon walks. One day, all the women came out, gathered their things, and left Sarah to care for all their children.  Then this became the routine.

Sarah felt perplexed by this. Though she was thankful that they trusted her with their children, she felt left out. In Indian culture they explained, the communal aspect and “it takes a village” mentality meant that a single adult sufficed as a babysitter for all the children. One day, Sarah confronted them and said “I want to walk with you. I don’t want to always babysit your kids.” The women tilted their heads and giggled at her as she tried to convey her desire. The discussion was a mix-up of cultural confusion, clumsy language dynamics, and the desire to connect.

And so she joined their walk. She grappled and wrestled to grasp the conversation. She understood almost nothing during the trip.

This is everything that getting to know someone who is different than you should be.  It is the initial terrifying jump into the unknown of possibly offending someone. It is the unwieldy silences between difficult vocabulary words in other languages. It is the complexity of relationship when individualism and village mentalities clash and bang.  When the noise that goes up shatters into the loud dissonance of the family-frameworks and culture we have come from.

It can be a lesson in self-consciousness and embarrassment. It can mean perpetuating cultural stereotypes (sometimes unconsciously), and then backing up and understanding an individual story, turning around in your dialogue and realizing you have, perhaps, gotten it all wrong.

When Sarah told me this story what resonated was her feeling of being “outside” and out-of-her-depth. And I think this is important. When we think about downward mobility and cross-cultural interactions as vocation we are correct. But we also acknowledge that vocation is not easy, comfortable, or natural. Vocation can be gritty, like digging in a sandbox and getting granules of sand stuck under your fingernails. It forces you to question your motives—forces you to think about your own pride and perhaps even your own racism or aversion to cultural nuances. And this is not fun. This is far from fun—but it just might be vocation even though it hurts.

When I think about vocation, I think about writing, in which I feel the flow of an organic creativity that begins in my thoughts and ends up in my words on a paper. But I sometimes forget the agony and disruption of pen on paper, of trying to find the exact word I am looking for, of exhaustive editing and not explaining something well, or being misunderstood. Writing is vocation, but it is not easy, it is not trite. It takes time and patience and humility. Humility as we fight for words, fight to be understood and resist presuming or placing constructs upon other people and ourselves that do not fit or are not honest.

My neighborhood is composed of many Indian families. Should I reach out? By using the words “reach out” am I already conveying a kind of cultural superiority or colonizing mentality that exposes me? Am I okay with silence in between words? With trying to meet other people with open hands and finding closed hands or vice versa?

I think vocation means trying things on for size, even if the pants don’t fit you at the ankles and you have to roll the legs up a bit. Even if you were once-upon-a-time a missionary kid, but feel like that part of you has disappeared into the background. And I’m just at the beginning of this—at the starting line of “maybe I’m called.”

Yesterday, I was  coming out of my apartment and I noticed my Indian neighbor standing outside with a little girl my daughter’s age. I yelled, “Hello!” even as my words seemed to echo back at an embarrassing decibel. She looked around to see if I was saying hello to her, and the start of a loud and confusing conversation began. I walked up to her, and we exchanged the formalities of name and relation. Her name was hard to pronounce, and I rolled it over my tongue and under my breath several times, trying to grasp some fluidity. My little Zoe and her granddaughter eyed each other.

And then we had a moment. I don’t want this to seem like a “happy ending” or the conclusion to a story about race and culture and understanding. Because it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t conclusive and it wasn’t definitive.

This moment was mid-conversation. I think it was also mutual. I commented on her granddaughters absolutely gorgeous eyelashes—which were black and beautiful, and I said, “They look just like my daughters. They both have amazing lashes.” She nodded and laughed.

Was this moment as meaningful to her as it was to me? I don’t know. After this, we stumbled through another exchange. She asked her granddaughter to “high-five” my daughter (who refused to comply). Then I asked her questions about her family but I asked them too fast.  I needed to go. We laughed and nodded goodbye.

And that was it. Perhaps my vocation for downward mobility is a budding one even though I have past multi-cultural experiences. Maybe it is for you too. Maybe you aren’t equipped. Maybe you’re not sure you even want to go out in your neighborhood and meet people who have different backgrounds. Maybe, like me, you’ve left a part of you behind, and you need to reach out because it will help you even more than it will help them

 

 

 

unnamed-1Briana Meade is a 20-something writer and blogger at brianameade.com. She is a contributor to Early Mama, a site for young mothers and often writes about the intersection of faith, culture, and motherhood. She lives with her husband and two children in the Raleigh-Durham area and is a graduate of Wheaton College

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts on downward mobility, please click here.

 

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santa is not sustainable

Perhaps the first image of the modern-day representation of santa--done by Haddon Sunblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

Perhaps the first image of the modern-day representation of santa–done by Haddon Sunblom for Coca-Cola in 1931.

 

 

Sustainability is something people in our line of work talk about a lot. How can you stay for the long haul, and not burn out? How can you make sure programs, traditions, and services are not based solely on you and your work, but can continue on for many years? Sustainability is like the opposite of how many evangelicals typically work: quick, fast, results oriented, crash-and-burn. One of the reasons we were so drawn to our mission organization is that they have a commitment to contemplation–recognizing that without taking the space for finding God in your own life, you will never be able to care for others.

Which is why it is super helpful to think about what can be sustained for the long haul when it comes to strategic decisions regarding time, money, and emotional energy. 

Like Christmas.

We made the decision that it wasn’t sustainable to fly to Oregon every Christmas. It’s a hard decision (um, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” by Dean Martin is on repeat this morning, along with “A Tender Tennessee Christmas” by Amy Grant, even though I never lived in Tennessee. Because Nostalgia). But it’s the right decision for us. Neighbors and friends have come out of the woodwork, and we are going to have ourselves a patchy, somewhat merry, somewhat sad little Christmas. Which seems pretty sustainable for our future.

What about celebrating Advent?  

We light Advent candles with our daughter, read some Scripture, and pray. She gets super excited to blow the candles out, and the rest is probably over her head. Is this sustainable? Yes, I think it is. As one of my friends pointed out, if one of my neighbors asked how we celebrated Advent, this would be an affordable, accessible option. Is unwrapping a piece of the $50 Playmobile nativity set every day of Advent a great way to engage your kids in the story of the birth of Jesus? Sure. Are “kindness elves” awesome? Totally. Are fair-trade chocolate Advent calendars the best thing ever? Yes, absolutely.

But are these things sustainable, for our neighbors both near and far? I don’t think so. Many people do not have the resources to pull off these bits of “Christmas magic” that we so casually revere. I am all for whimsy and encouraging imagination and celebrating with some good fair-trade chocolate, but I also want to recognize how so many children do not experiences these privileges in any way.

Which brings me to Santa. 

Santa, and his cultural counterpoint of the perfect, Norman Rockwell family christmas, took ahold of our cultural imagination many years ago. I used to not care at all about this. Growing up, we were pretty lackadaisical about it all (and my parents refused to lie–so if we asked, they told us santa was a fake). But we still laid out the cookies, got a few presents labeled “from St. Nick”. But my biggest memories were of Christmas eve services and sitting quietly in front of a brightly lit tree. 

Now, in my neighborhood, I can’t help but see images of a weird, materialistic holiday everywhere. Red-nosed reindeer and some fat man with presents, as far as the eye can see. And I am starting to loathe it. Because Santa is not sustainable.

For those who grow up poor in America, Santa is another reminder of failure. Kids can’t help but grow up and be saturated with the story, which puts pressure on the adults in their life to find the time/money/energy to get the presents the kids want. People go into debt, people spiral into depression, kids are disappointed and feel shamed, Christmas morning turns into another reminder of the inequalities of the world. The picture-perfect family Christmas is the same way–for many, all of these images we see in the movies and on tv are just a stark reminder of our own families–the mental illness, the addictions, the abuse, the empty seats around the table. The myth of the perfect family Christmas is not sustainable either, because our nuclear families were never supposed to be the point.

What is sustainable, then? 

I have learned some things from my Muslim friends. Their holidays are smashingly good–count yourself blessed if you ever get invited over for Eid. I have seen Eid celebrated in several different states and countries, and there are always striking similarities: the celebrations are marked by food, friends, family, prayer, and generosity. 

That’s it.

A lot of food, or just a little. Your family, what remains of it, plus your new family you have formed in the diaspora. Friends, neighbors, co-workers invited to experience the richness of your culture and celebration. Prayer, early in the morning, and throughout the day, thanking the One who created us all. Generosity–extra food cooked, coins given to the children–reminding us to always extend our table.

That, my friends, is sustainable.

I’ve started to think about what I want the holidays to look like for me and my little family. Food, friends, family, prayer, and generosity. All the elements have been modeled to me from the beginning from my own parents, and it is time to claim them for my little space now. Even thought sometimes I will be far from my parents and sisters, i will still value family, and use the definition that Christ gave me (we are all brothers and sisters). I will cook food, even if it doesn’t look pretty. I will pray the prayers that have been spoken throughout the centuries to celebrate the coming of Christ (the Magnificat, my friends, is extremely sustainable). And I will try to be generous, try to escape the pull to only seek out what is best for me and mine in these dark and bright weeks. I will try and stick around long enough to have space for those who have been bruised and battered by the cultural expectations of Christmas. And there are so many of these souls, more than we can possibly know, longing for a real, sustainable celebration–firmly anchored in this real world, yet a mirror of the great parties we will have in heaven.

 

Like Mary, may our souls magnify the Lord. May we seek out the humble and exalt them, fill the hungry with good things.

And most of all, may we be ever mindful of His mercy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Am I Going to Be a Giver Today? (Guest Post by Haley Baker)

Haley is my girl. My bestie. She gets me. We can have the most insightful, spiritual discussions and then be complete and utter nerds. She is so honest, and so great at taking care of people. But if you had told me two years ago that Haley would be living in Uganda, I would have laughed hysterically. Doing without just wasn’t her jam.

But more than anything, Haley listens to God. So when he tells her to live her best life now, she jumps. i have been so inspired by her journey, even as I mourn the fact that it is taking place to far away from me. I have been pestering her for a while now, hoping she would give us an insight into her journey in loving her neighbors. And man, did she bring it–just like I knew she would. 

 

me and haley and my awesome, cake-faced baby.

me and haley and my awesome, cake-faced baby.

 

 

Am I Going to Be a Giver Today?

Guest Post by Haley Baker

 

 

I never thought I could live in a 3rd world country. I always dreamed of being the kind of person who could do that kind of work but never thought it would actually be me. In my heart, I always cared about the poor but I spent more energy convincing myself that since I wasn’t “rich,” my giving was never very sacrificial. I am now more convinced than ever that the more we seek our own comforts the more we marginalize others. I remember telling D.L. Mayfield that I never wanted to move to Africa. I really liked my life. Then 8 months later, that’s exactly where I found myself: Northern Uganda. The opportunity snuck up on me when my husband and I were presented with the opportunity and we were in a place where we were willing to say “yes” to God. Be careful what you ask for! We just spent 13 months in Uganda and are planning to go back in early spring for the next 3 to 5 years. I chuckle a bit to myself because in so many ways I’ve yet to “arrive.” My husband recently pointed out to me that I still own more than 15 pairs of shoes after our big downsize.

Last month I felt nervous to come back home because I know myself too well. I like iced caramel lattes far too much and temptations like obtaining the IPhone 5 are real for us. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with those things, I also know how prone I am to make unnecessary trips to Target to make myself feel better. I’ve wrestled for months to reconcile our American spending habits with the very real needs of people in the developing world to the point where I’ve made myself crazy. We only eat meat about twice a week in Uganda because not only is it difficult to prepare, but most people we know hardly eat meat. I’ve actually felt guilty about that.  Toward the end of our stay, I visited 11 orphans in the bush who don’t even own shoes and I began thinking, “If I gave up meat, what could I do with that $15 a week? That would pay for 3 children to go to school every month. I could come back here and bring those naked babies some clothes.” I wonder, at what point can you say that you’ve arrived? Your sacrificing is enough. Recently, an Africa friend said to me, “I wish I could see what your life was like in the states before you came here.” I felt ashamed because I remember how much of my living was for my own self and my own comforts and I don’t want to be that person again. Every day, I have the opportunity to make choices that really do define the kind of person I am. Even in Africa I have to ask myself, “Today am I going to be a giver? Am I going to sacrifice my alone time, my money, and my comforts for the betterment of someone else?”

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I think as humans we have a tendency to be “all” or “nothing” and that can make downward mobility feel overwhelming or unattainable. When we can’t make radical, downward shifts all at once it is easy to give up and throw in the towel. Don’t do that! Let’s keep wrestling with those tensions. Even in Uganda I struggle with those tensions. I know that I can l go without running water but please, oh please don’t ask me to go without electricity. My husband and I live a somewhat comfortable life in a 3rd world country because I told myself that in order to “survive” there I would need an indoor toilet and decent coffee. You have to figure out what works for you. Not everyone is called to take the same steps or make the same changes in their life. Downward mobility is going to look different for you than it does for me and I love seeing how Jesus is wrecking all of our lives when we take that risk. I’m much more interested in listening and sharing stories than I am about who is doing it better than the next person.

Even after reading this whole series, I still sometimes ask myself, “What is downward mobility, really?” Isn’t it about embracing Kingdom values and purposefully moving towards valuing what Jesus valued? For me, downward mobility wasn’t just about downsizing my stuff. You could be an incredible minimalist and still not care about the vulnerable. Giving up 90% of my worldly possessions to move overseas was the easy part. Showing solidarity and digging deep into relationship with people who are different than me is what is difficult.

In my own experience, downward mobility is nothing apart from Jesus. My sacrifices are nothing apart from Jesus. If He isn’t the one guiding us then the whole pursuit is self righteous and ultimately purposeless. Sometimes the changes I have made in my life make for an incredibly lonely place to be and I can’t wait for the day when He comes and fulfills His kingdom once and for all. At the same time, I wouldn’t trade this downward mobility journey because of the joy and love I have experienced over the past year. And I am still trying to figure out my life just like everyone else. We need each other and we need Jesus to do that.

 

 

unnamed-2Bio: Haley Baker is an advocate for vulnerable children in Northern Uganda. She and her husband are from Portland, Oregon but are in the process of returning to Uganda for the long haul. They will be doing sustainable business and community outreach. They have no littles of their own but hope to adopt some day. You can follow their adventure atwww.rickhaleyandjune.blogspot.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

 

 

 

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Downward Mobility Interview: Suburban Edition

My friend Stina (hey, remember her? She blew up the internets with her “I’m a Downward Mobility Dropout” post) asked me if she could interview some friends of hers. I said yes, of course (and I would love to have a few more interviews like it!). Matthew and Diana’s story is very encouraging to me, and I resonated with so much of what they had to say about joy, community, and sustainability (and bedbugs and expensive rent). Actually, it made me miss our apartment complex in Portland something fierce (currently, we live in apartments where there is zero community space and very few families due to the small sizes of the apartments). I just adore these pockets of kingdom people and kingdom communities, which are all over our cities and suburbs. Let’s keep sharing these stories!

 

 

Downward Mobility Interview: Suburban Edition

Interview by Stina KC.

Matthew and Diana Soerens and their daughter Zipporah live at Parkside, a low-income apartment complex in an affluent suburb of Chicago, Illinois. Diana worked as a public high school teacher for seven years and is now working part-time at their church, Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.  Matthew works as the Field Director for the Evangelical Immigration Table, a national coalition of faith-based groups seeking to encourage changes to U.S. immigration policy consistent with biblical values.  He’s also the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009).  Matt and Diana met while both students at Wheaton College, and they held their wedding reception in the courtyard of their apartment complex in 2011.

Stina KC recently interviewed Matthew and Diana about their downward mobility journey in Glen Ellyn, a wealthy suburb where the median household income is nearly $90,000. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Q: Tell me about your experience with downward mobility. Why did you decide to move into Parkside?

Diana: I spent six months in a rural village in Mexico and I loved the simplicity of that lifestyle. I took a lot of joy in doing things slowly and in the relationship with other women in the village. I wanted to go back overseas after college but the doors were shut firmly so I started getting involved with World Relief, a local refugee resettlement agency. Our church was helping a refugee family and they were resettled in the Parkside neighborhood. I started coming to Parkside all the time and hanging out with Matt because he lived here. His roommate Jonathan had a vision for an intentional community and they recruited me to move into the neighborhood. Then I married Matt! And we never left.

Parkside reminded me about everything that I loved about living overseas without having to leave the suburbs. I loved the neighborhood, I loved that there were people outside all the time, and I loved the hospitality of the neighbors. It was the culture I was searching for, the place I was looking for. It was home.

Matthew: That’s an important point for us. We don’t live here because we want to make some kind of virtuous sacrifice. It’s not that we are focused on living in the most low-income place; we just love living here. If we are going to live in the suburbs of Chicago, this is where we want to live. The culture here is different from the suburbs, it’s much more community oriented and this is where we want to raise our daughter.

My story is somewhat similar to Diana’s. I had come back recently from living overseas for six months and I was living in this really nice house in Wheaton but it was killing my soul. I have been here for a long time, over seven years now.

 

Q: What is the structure to your community? Is it just the two of you or are there others living at Parkside who are there for the same reasons?

Diana: We do Bible studies with the middle school kids. We do basic discipleship with them. I’ve been meeting with the same group of girls for over two years now. It has been great to see how they’ve grown.

Matthew: We have a community meal on Monday nights, which is mostly our intentional community. There are about ten people in our community who live at Parkside who, like us, went to Wheaton College. We have a rotating meal, which is an opportunity to host outsiders and entertain guests. We also have a community prayer time Monday through Thursday evenings.

 

Q: Why do you continue to choose to live at Parkside?

Diana: It would be easy to live in the suburbs and never leave my Christian bubble. I could go to moms group at church and just hang out with my church friends. One reason is to interact with a diverse population and get out of the white Christian bubble.

Only one in ten immigrants have ever been welcomed into the home of an American and I find that really sad. I want to change the way immigrants are received into this country. Being hospitable to our neighbors and receiving their hospitality in return is a big value I have.

Matthew: This is important for me because my job is focused on immigration policy issues. I fly in and out of this community way more than anybody else who lives here; I’m not a typical resident. I work with pastors and politicians, so it’s important when I get home that I am still interacting with immigrants on a relational level.

 

Q: What do you does “downward mobility” mean to you?

Matthew: We aren’t downwardly mobile as much as not upwardly mobile. We haven’t consistently downsized; we just moved into a bigger apartment. But we have stayed in the same apartment complex and don’t plan on leaving. Mobility implies a direction and I don’t think we are systematically becoming less affluent or consumeristic, but hopefully we are capping where we’ve reached.

 

Q: How has your experience with downward mobility changed since becoming parents?

Diana: I have a lot more street cred as a mom with the other moms at Parkside. It opens up a lot more doors for relationships. I love staying at home with my baby here. I think I would go crazy if I lived in a big house; I would die of loneliness. One great thing about living in this neighborhood is that I don’t have to be lonely if I don’t want to be. There are always neighbors to talk to, I can go and knock on somebody’s door, there are kids playing outside all the time.

The most difficult thing is bedbugs. They are horrible and drive you crazy. They have bitten my five-month-old daughter. The level of infestation in the complex means we’re never going to completely get rid of them.

Matthew: It’s difficult because the best way to get prevent getting more bedbugs is to not to let any of our neighbors into our apartment, which defeats the purpose of living here. We have a bunch of kids in here twice a week and after they leave we say a prayer over the space to try and keep the bedbugs away.

Besides the bedbugs I feel like we are doing downward mobility lite, or at least incarnational living lite.  We’re in the suburbs. We don’t have a lot of crime. We don’t live in a food desert; we can walk to four different grocery stores. We have friends who are living in desperate urban areas where there are shootings and crime. We don’t have to worry about getting shot.

Diana: Also, rent is expensive here. I struggle because we could be paying this much for a mortgage and building equity. That responsible financial thinking starts: “Maybe we should buy a house because we’re in that stage of life.”

 

Q: What did your friends and families think when you decided to live at Parkside? Did you get pushback?

Diana: Yes, from my parents. They were scandalized by how much we were paying for rent that goes toward a crummy apartment. And they said, “You’re going to walk out to your car and find it on cement blocks! They’re going to steal your tires!”

And the truth is there is no real crime at Parkside. It has had its fair share of issues in the past, like gangs and drugs and prostitution, but the neighborhood has cleaned up since World Relief has been resettling refugee families here. Our neighborhood is really vibrant and safe and family friendly.

 

Q: Do you have any words of encouragement/resources/advice for people considering downward mobility in a suburban context?

Matthew: There is cool downward mobility, and then there is halfway downward mobility where you live within walking distance of a Starbucks. No matter where you are, in a rural context or suburban context or urban context, there are communities like the one we live in. There are almost certainly people in your neighborhood who are living at or beneath the poverty line.

Diana: I know it sounds cliché, but we receive more from our neighbors than we ever give. Even if you don’t live in a diverse or under resourced area, get to know your neighbors and build a community.

Matthew: I don’t want people to feel guilty, like they have to live in a neighborhood like ours, because we are living here because we want to. I think if more people tried it they would discover that they really love it. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a better way to live, but for us it’s a better way to live.

 

 

Thank you, Matthew and Diana, for sharing your story. Feel free to ask more questions in the comments!

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I’m a Downward Mobility Dropout–Guest Post by Stina KC

Stina and I are real-life friends (our babies are besties, too). We met at the little Mennonite church she talks about in this here essay, and I am so glad we did. Stina and I were recently talking about this Downward Mobility series, and I expressed my disappointment that there weren’t more posts about the struggle of it all. Oh, I can write about that, she said. And boy, can this girl write.

I’m grateful for her honesty, which is so hard to share in public. So often we just want to hear the stories of the out-and-out-successes. But I am drawn to the stories of hunger, of struggle, of inner conflict and even failure. Because there is a lot of “failure” in the upside-down kingdom, at least by empire standards. I am learning to make friends with it, however, one little day at a time. 

 

 

 

http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20130327/new-york-city/babywearing-101-classes-sprout-across-city

 

I’m a Downward Mobility Dropout

by Stina KC

 

 

When my daughter was born, we lived in the most diverse neighborhood in America. She learned to walk in the hallways of an apartment building filled with cooking smells from our East African neighbors. During that bleary first year of motherhood, I would pace the noisy streets outside our apartment building with my baby strapped to my chest, praying that the drone of cars and traffic would lull her to sleep. I would shield her little face from cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes as I walked by strangers on the street. People were often drunk at the bus stop one block away and prostitutes hung out at the corner when the daylight faded. I would keep walking, moving quickly to avoid contact with my neighbors.

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My husband and I first moved to this neighborhood when we were recent Christian college graduates, young and idealistic about Jesus, Shane Claiborne’s “Ordinary Radicals,” and downward mobility. We didn’t make much with our AmeriCorps stipends and social service salaries, but we didn’t care. We shared duplexes with friends, saving money on rent to buy fixed gear bicycles and shop organic at the co-op. We belonged to a house church with other young misfits, going dumpster diving and holding clothing swaps. But even though we lived in the most diverse neighborhood in America, we didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t like us.

After our house church crumbled and our faith began its slow cynical drift, we started attending a small Mennonite church a few blocks away. On that first Sunday morning, a gray-haired man with kind eyes thanked us for coming and gave us a fair trade soup mix, a special gift for visitors. I knew we were home when, in our first hymn, we sang about becoming “midwives of justice.” During the sharing of prayers and concerns, a man asked for prayer for immigration reform. Another shared the news of South Sudan. I relaxed in my pew.

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I listened to my voicemail message one evening in late October after putting my daughter to bed. Something about the lead test results. I should call this number, it’s urgent. I sat down at the kitchen table, hitting redial.

Someone answered: “Your daughter’s lead test came back elevated. Do you know how serious this could be for her development?” I didn’t know anything about lead. I googled it and a shot of fear like ice water raced through my body. Behavioral issues. Long term learning disabilities. Brain damage

As the man on the phone rattled off some tips for limiting exposure, I wrote manic notes on a discarded envelope. “What’s your address?” he asked. He looked it up on the city’s database. “Oh, yeah. You’re in a high impact area. You live at 2825 Park? I see cases of elevated lead at 2828 and 2830 and, wow, it’s all over the place. The blocks around you, too.”

The county sent over a woman with a smoker’s cough to test our floors and windows for lead dust. (“I love the fixtures in here,” she said. “We get to see so many old homes.”) We got the results a week later. Our bedroom window well, the same spot where our daughter loved to slap her hands while watching city buses and bike commuters, had lead levels of 38,700. Safe levels are below 400.

I thought about our neighbors on the third floor, the Ethiopian Pentecostals with two small children who hosted prayer meetings on Tuesday evenings, shoes in a pile outside their apartment door. I thought about the Mexican family who lived across the street in the house with the broken steps and abandoned toys in their yard. I wondered about the kids who get picked up at the bus stop on 28th and Columbus. Have they been tested? Do their parents know?

At first, my moral outrage fueled conversations about petitions and tenant rights and lawsuits. We could stay and fight. But then I started leaving the apartment for most of the day, camping out at my parents’ house so my daughter wouldn’t be tempted to play at the windows. Soon, we were apartment searching and then signing a lease and suddenly it wasn’t my problem anymore.

We moved two and half months later, in the middle of January. Our Mennonite church friends helped carry our craigslisted couch down icy steps and load it into a Ford pick-up. Three hours later we stood in our new apartment across town, surrounded by boxes and Rubbermaid totes from Target.

The next morning I took my daughter outside, her snowsuit zipped up to her chin. As I watched her toddle along the sidewalks, I thought about my old neighbors and their kids and the lead dust they were breathing. I never really knew them, only a handful of names in my memory, and we were gone now.

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This story is painful to recount. I have felt guilty for leaving, for not fighting my landlord like the “midwives of justice” that my church sings about. I know it isn’t God’s will for my daughter to breathe in lead dust. I also know it isn’t God’s will for any child to breathe in lead dust, to live in poverty, to attend crappy schools.

Jesus’ call to downward mobility felt so obvious when I was in my early 20s. But over the years, I never put in the daily work of building mutual relationships with my neighbors and so, when the crisis came, it was easy to leave them behind. Now I panic that I am becoming one of those wishy-washy Christians I always belittled, their faiths flimsy and fearful. I worry that my faith is drifting, that if it isn’t radical and downwardly mobile it’s just ash in the wind.

Still, I return every Sunday to my old neighborhood for church. I smile at the corner stores and familiar graffiti murals from my car window. I keep showing up, singing the hymns, making small talk over coffee cake. I keep leaning into the body of Christ, this holy community of which I am one imperfect part. And I pray small short prayers, asking God for more faith, another opportunity. Asking God for courage and obedience and grace.

 

 

DSC01407Stina is living up the last year of her 20s by doing things that scare her, like writing for strangers on the internet. She is an angsty Anglican/Anabaptist hybrid who likes to use words like “intentionality” and “marginalized” in everyday conversations. Stina lives in the American heartland with her husband and daughter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.

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Downward Mobility as Reconciliation — Guest post by Krispin Mayfield

Today you get to hear from the best boy yourself. Meet Krispin, my husband–and yes, we are using real names around here today. It’s been a slow journey moving towards the place where we can be authentic and wise in a world stripped of anonymity. I love my husband so very much–he is the thoughtfulness to my flash, the calm to my riot. His gift to people is simply his presence; his gift to us today is his ability to articulate a bit of our family’s journey towards downward mobility. 

Downward Mobility as Reconciliation

Guest Post by Krispin Mayfield

Throughout the life of the church, people have struggled to differentiate between universal commands and specific callings. Great commission? definitely a call for all (thus, the “great” part). Being sent across political and cultural borders, like Paul? just for those called. Jesus called the rich young ruler to give up all the he owned, but we wonder, Is this descriptive, or do I just have to be ready to give up all I have?

It is important to keep these command categories in mind. I am a “professional minister,” and part of my income comes from donations from those who do work 40+ hours a week, or more, and sacrificially give to the ministry in this neighborhood. To say all are called to my specific lifestyle is both unbiblical and illogical.

Nonetheless, all followers of Jesus are called to be on mission with him. So it is important to look at what his mission is. Jesus cites Isaiah’s words as his own mission: He is anointed “to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

I don’t believe everyone is called to live among the poor, although I do wonder if more are called than the tiny, single-digit percentage of missionaries who are living among the poor (particularly considering that 60% of the world is living in poverty). I do believe we are all called to both care for and be in relationship with the poor. Pick any section of the Bible, the Torah, Psalms, Prophets, Gospels, Epistles–God is continually showing his heart for the poor.

Furthermore, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, both with those separated from God and from ourselves. As disciples, we are called to take part in breaking down walls of hostility between ethnic groups, genders, socio-economic classes. This includes demonstrating the inclusivity of the Kingdom by drawing near to those who are different than I am, which certainly includes the poor.

There’s this theory that if you target those in power in society, “trickle-down evangelism” will occur. This is the idea that if you target government officials, CEO’s, and the like, they will reach out into all of society. This happens sometimes, but I have also heard first hand from poor folks who were forced to sit in the back in church because of their socio-economic status. Sometimes trickle-down evangelism happens. But then again, sometimes the fact that we spent all of our time and resources focused on the wealthy unintentionally teaches an incorrect theology of the Kingdom: that God cares more or less about people based on their income, power or status.

In every society, there are strong boundaries between classes, and it is difficult for the gospel to cross those boundaries. Some have even suggested its best to look at each class as its own culture. For five years, I found it so difficult to connect with my poor neighbors. Then, I attended a workshop that approached socio-economic class the same way I had approached cross-cultural interactions when I lived in China. You’re not going to just “click,” because there are cultural differences – the unspoken rules, values, etiquette, – just like in any culture. It’s even harder to see when the person on the other side of this cross-cultural encounter looks very similar to you and has the same citizenship. But really, it’s a lot of work.

This is the Kingdom, to seek relationship and reconciliation with those marginalized, those who are typically only sought out for cheap labor, high interest rates, and social work projects. But Jesus commands us to seek out the least of these, to pursue relationship with them, to invite them to the table, to invite them to be our friends, our brothers and sisters, our church elders.

When I started off my track of “downward mobility,” in the wake of reading Jesus For President by Shane Claiborne, it was more of an experiment than anything. We were struck by how much of the Bible talked about the poor, yet we knew so few poor people. We wanted to find out, firsthand, what Jesus meant when he said, “blessed are the poor.” We wanted a first-hand grasp on James’ encouragement: “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?”

Much of the discussion about downward mobility is whether you should do it. Those who oppose the idea claim, “you don’t have to be downwardly mobile to be more spiritual.” But, really, the Kingdom isn’t about shoulds. It’s more like this: if you opt out, you’re missing out. By seeking out those exactly like us, we are impoverishing our own salvation. If God is King, and his citizens include ethnicities, genders, socio-economic classes, and backgrounds, when we section ourselves off, we are missing out on the entire Kingdom of God. I see the face of God clearer and clearer, as I move into intimacy with those made in his image.

I went to Bible college for four years, and completed by master’s of counseling at the same university. But, sitting down with someone from a different experience than mine helps the Bible come alive, and the Holy Spirit works to show me what I’ve never seen before. The Bible, after all, was largely (though not completely) written by individuals in communities that were under some sort of oppression, were refugees, had only God as their hope. It’s nothing magical that happens when the marginalized read the Bible, but as we study it together, I have a greater, richer understanding of it.

I don’t think everyone is called to live in a poor neighborhood. But everyone is called to love the poor. And so, here’s the secret. living in a poor neighborhood makes things easier. My goal isn’t to be as impoverished as I can bear. But my goal is for reconciliation, and as it turns out, through this process, this is really what dictates my lifestyle decisions.

*Note: many, if not most, of these ideas have from my mentors, community and books I have read. A great resource for these ideas is the book Submerge by John B. Hayes.

cutest boy, cutest baby.

cutest boy, cutest baby.

Krispin Mayfield works on music stuff here: https://themaidenname.bandcamp.com/ and photography stuff here: http://bloomingtonave.portfoliobox.me/

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If You Knew Me, You Would Care

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Another day, another dollar, another crisis I should be caring about.

Another day, another post, another thought on downward mobility–how the term doesn’t work, how it isn’t good enough, how if we don’t have love . . .

Another day, another question. Not the ones I used to ask (Lord, send me. Let my heart be broken by the things that break your heart.) but the ones I don’t care to admit to anyone (have I done enough yet? Can I relax now? When is enough enough?)

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I started a new job this week, it’s perfect for me in every way, down to the level of chaotic ambiguity that surrounds the classroom. I teach literacy to adults who may never have held a pencil in their lives before. We meet in a computer lab, a battered fooseball table for my desk. I don’t know all of the stories of my students, because we don’t speak the same language. I can guess at the little I know, which is laughable. And it is hard, wearisome work, to go over the ABC’s a thousand times and then for us all to realize that nobody remembers them still–the after effects of war, trauma, unmentionable acts committed against the body and spirit. Learning to write your own name becomes a symbol of something so much more: you are an overcomer.

Refugees have changed my life in so many ways. Once I meet a group, a clan, a tribe, I want to know so much about them: the way they dress, the tattoos on their face and hands, what their favorite food is. I want to know about their past, if they want to share it. I want to talk about all the ways that America has been kind, and all the ways that she has been cruel. I want to be a friendly face, a listening ear.

I want to know all these stories, and more, because they are the only things that get me to care about anyone besides myself.

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My husband just checked out a book from the library called If You Knew Me, You Would Care. In it there are large, breathtaking portraits of women–survivors of unimaginable traumas. These women were interviewed and photographed by other women, and their stories shock and amaze. Their faces, so large, so human, so crystal-clear, run the range of human emotion: improbable joy, blankness, defiance. I could look at these pictures for hours. The stories, I only glance at briefly. How much more tragedy can I bear?

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Perhaps this is why the images in the book are so big. The hardest quotes, filling up an entire page. To me, they say: Don’t look away. If you knew me, you would care. If you stopped to humanize me, even for a second, it would change the way you lived your life. Because caring doesn’t equate with an emotion–sadness, shock, gratefulness. Caring equates with tangible, physical acts: cups of cold water, Jesus would say. A coat to someone in need if we owned two. An hour or two out of our day to visit those imprisoned or in the hospital.

But it’s easier to close the book, go back to my life of worries. I write blog posts about downward mobility and dream at night of one day having a space for my child to run in the grass; I spend an hour or two praying for eyes to see and hands to bless my neighborhood, and sink exhausted on my couch every night, escaping either into a book or a television show.

Because I know people now, and they have made me care. But here is the other truth that no one want to talk about, that we spend all our time protecting at all costs: our culture thrives on forgetting. On distractions, petty concerns, and the crushing pursuit of individual comfort. Every day is a struggle to care. The only thing that makes it easier is if you are forced to confront it, time and time again. If you put yourself in the position where you can’t opt out–where there are no drive-through Starbucks, clean and bright Barnes and Nobles, massive church complexes with state-of-the-art sets. Where instead there are tangible evidences of the disparity of our economic system, where people are much more comfortable in voicing both their joys and complaints in the streets. In order to care, it turns out, I have to be in a place where every day I have to look one simple truth in the eye: my reality is not the reality of the majority world.

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I read an excellent blog post this morning–honest, searing. In it, the author says:

“Can we, being part of the top 10% wealthiest in the world, be trusted?  How does our dependence on wealth color our self-assessment and judgment?  Regardless of how earnestly wealthy Christians try to be directed by the Holy Spirit of God, we’ve all still got our goods—not to mention our social standing, class, gender and ethnic power.  We remain comfortably perched above global exploitation.  Is that just “the path” Jesus has called us lucky ones down? Or have we neglected something in the ‘I’ll follow you wherever you go’ tune?”

No matter where I go, I’m still comfortably perched. No matter what I do, it isn’t enough. Yes, yes, Funfetti and all that. I know that God loves me no matter what I do. But he also loves the people being crushed by the systems that make my life better. He Loves them. He is in constant sorrow over them. He will avenge them, surely. And he would like me to get to know them, for my own sake as much as theirs.

Talking about downward mobility doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when we are talking about the suffering of people in places like Syria right now. Almost every day I am in contact with someone who has experienced their own form of Syria, has overcome so much more than I could ever imagine. Every day my hands are open, empty, pleading. I don’t know how to help. I don’t know how to do anything except show up again, to prepare to be overwhelmed once more. I look into their eyes and think: that’s why I moved into your neighborhood–so then I can’t escape your reality as easily as I would like. 

Shane Claiborne worked at a mega church for a year, and this is what he walked away with: “the problem isn’t that there are rich folks and poor folks in the world–the problem is that the rick folks don’t know any poor folks”.

Because we all have the image of God in us. And if we knew the poor–as in, longer than a week, a blogging trip, a year in the ghetto–we would care. We would care to the point where love would compel us to do things both crazy and mundane. Our lives would revolve not around safety and security but around justice and righteousness.

And we would all be richer for it.

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My internet friend Marilyn contacted me about spreading the word about some tangible ways we can help Syria. She put together a blog on some practical kits that concerned people can put together. Click here to read more at her space, or you can go directly to International Orthodox Christian Charities for more information on the kits.

All images from If You Knew Me You Would Care, by Rennio Mafredi. For more information on the book (a part of Women for Women International), please click here.

 

 

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One Very Small Thing, A Thousand Very Small Things

This week I wrote a little piece for my good friend Addie on one small change we can make in our lives in order to see justice come.

For anyone that knows me, I don’t do one small things very well. I want to talk about ALL THE THINGS, ALL THE TIME. I’m a teensy bit intense. But the more I thought about it and talked it over with a few friends, we all agreed that when it comes down to it, the only thing you have to do to turn your life upside-down is open wide the doors to whatever it is that God is calling you towards. It’s really that simple, but trust me–it will get complicated and wonderful and terrible, fast.

So I wrote about opening wide our doors, and how for me that happened when I started volunteering with refugees.

As I wrote, I couldn’t shake the image of Syria out of my mind. I couldn’t escape the bits of rhetoric and argument I caught on social media sites, the words of the President shocking my ears. I couldn’t quite figure out what I thought about the whole mess, because I was being told that bombing was loving and that not bombing was hateful. I thought about how perhaps the best way is the smallest way, the mustard seed way, the upside down kingdom way. How maybe instead of rushing into Syria with weapons, we can open wide the doors to our hearts, our homes, our cities, and our countries to other stateless wanderers, people whose lives have been stolen by the greedy and the powerful.

It’s hard to type this out here and hit publish. I know already what people will say, how childish and foolish and micro it all sounds, knitting away while Detroit burns (or teaching ESL while gangs kill each other, or praying for people you have never met who are starving, or in danger of being gassed, or dying of preventable diseases). It is all those things, of course: small, weak, and seemingly naive. But I have placed my hope in places where Jesus told me to look for his kingdom: with the poor, the meek, the mourning, and the merciful.

And, of course, the peacemakers.

One of my favorite writers, Heather King, has been writing some excellent posts about war. In one, she quotes Pope Francis and his recent speech about Syria: “Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war, violence begets violence”…”War never again! Never again war!”

Those last lines rung in my ears like the song I had been searching through for days now. My spirit lifted, I felt it gasp and breathe deep at the possibilities of that sentence. War never again. Never again war. I had been daring to hope that this was a possibility, that this was indeed God’s dream for the world.

One of my other favorite writers, Shane Claiborne, talks a lot about the idea that another world is possible. This, to me, is the essence of the teachings of Christ, the words found explicitly in the manifesto that is the Sermon on the Mount. It doesn’t make sense, that the peacemakers will one day be upheld as the children of God. It doesn’t make sense to turn the cheek, to eschew the violence-for-violence rhetoric of the powerful and the scared. It doesn’t make sense until suddenly it does, when you realize that all along you have been dying for someone to tell you that it wasn’t supposed to be like this. That we can stop demanding violence and war and death and payment, and we can start living like we believe that one day there will be no war.

Pope Francis is calling for a day of fasting and prayer for the Syrian refugees on Saturday, September 7th. I will be joining–will you? Are we ready to believe that our very small prayers matter? I am.

I believe that there is a God who loves all of us, and that he does not conform to the patterns of the world.

Nor should we.

 

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You can read my One Small Change Piece here.

Sign up for beautiful and thought-provoking prayers for Syria to be e-mailed to you once a day.

Heather King’s excellent blog.

Sweden leads the way in offering residency to all Syrian refugees.

Today is a really good day to read Jesus’ manifesto on the ways of the kingdom of God.

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Re-Neighboring and Staying — Guest Post by Deanna Martinez

It’s been one of those weeks. Two people were killed in a drive-by close to us, and the mood at the park was somber yesterday. A semi-famous Christian political figure came to my neighborhood to buy barbeque sauce and told news reporters it was like stepping into a third world country. It’s hot, and people are just trying to survive.

But there are also the joys: people sharing food, neighbors telling me all their favorite state fair memories, the friendly pre-teens who splash with my daughter at the public pool. It’s one of those weeks where the good and the bad are so intertwined, and I don’t have the energy to untangle it all.

Which brings me to this guest post. Deanna is one of the reasons I stay in this blog-writing (and hosting gig). I just met her out of the blue internet, and here she is encouraging us all with her insight and obedience, her sorrows and her joy. I too have been encouraged by the gentle writings of Bob Lupton, and encourage you all to do the same (my favorite is this one–thanks John and Jill!). It is clear to me that Deanna views her neighborhood, with all it’s mess and trauma and glory–with a sense of gratefulness. It is a gift to her, given to her by God. And that’s exactly how I feel about my own little corner of the MidWest.

 

 

Re-neighboring and Staying: Some Thoughts Living and Teaching in the City

Guest post by Deanna Martinez

 

The idea of downward mobility has fascinated me since I first started to grapple with what Jesus meant when he said that in His Kingdom, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The meek shall inherit the earth, and the Kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit. The life and teachings of Jesus subvert power structures and confound the wise in such a way that I feel drawn to him. I understand a bit why Peter says “Not just my feet, Lord, but my hands and my head as well!”

 

Life in this upside-down kingdom brings freedom.  My security does not come from my savings account.  My authority is not based on having advanced degrees or a library of leather-bound books.  My value is not determined by my zip code.  I desire a life where bridges are built and barriers are taken down.  I am convinced that God’s heart is with the marginalized, and I want to find myself there.  My prayer is that my life would be an instrument of his peace and reconciliation.

So long story short, I live with my husband and son in Compton, California- a city made famous by the gangster rap of the 90′s, stories of corruption by notorious city officials, tales of poverty, screwed up school districts, and all manner of dysfunction that comes with the “Inner City.” I was not born here. I did not grow up here. Why do I live here?

 

Sometimes my response depends on the day, but we have been influenced by the writing of Bob Lupton and others in books such as Return Flight. Lupton talks about how healthy communities are diverse in every way- culturally, economically, and racially. As people flee urban centers because of crime, unemployment, and lack of housing, there is a drain of resources. The new enclaves that are established by the people that have left also suffer. These neighborhoods are often marked by a distinct lack of cultural, racial, and economic diversity. One of Lupton’s solutions to this issue is that people begin to return to areas that have been largely abandoned by those with resources. He calls it “re-neighboring.”  The goal is that all neighborhoods would be integrated and diverse.  I can contribute to my city’s development by paying property taxes, buying my groceries here, and sending my kid to a local school.

That’s the idea anyway. If care is not given to ensuring that affordable housing options remain intact and mom and pop shops don’t get pushed out by big box stores, criticism of gentrification and economic changes that don’t bring benefit to all residents are legitimized. Sometimes I have to refocus my motives in all of this. What is the metric of “improvement?” Is it when people stop leaving their couches on the side of the road? When front lawns are nicely manicured and teenagers stop tagging up the ally around the corner from my house? When we get a frozen yogurt shop? When these things are my focus, I must acknowledge how entrenched I can be in my middle class values and culture. That is not why I live in Compton.

 

I also am also confronted with this in my profession.  I teach at a school not far from my home.  Education is often touted as the great hope for students in disadvantaged areas.  Get good grades!  Got to college! Get up!  Get out!  You can make it!

But what if my student sincerely loves working with their hands?  Is there not value and dignity in leading a quiet, honest life, working each day to support your loved ones?  As an educator,  I value learning.  But when I reflect on what I really want for my students, the narrative of upward mobility is not necessarily one I wish to promote.  Rather than climbing the ladder, I desire to plant the seed of another Way.  What if they excelled academically?  What if they become doctors, lawyers, and engineers?  And then what if they stay.  They don’t have to, but they choose to.

 

My students know well the frustration of having a health care provider that doesn’t speak their language, or of social service providers who don’t understand their community or where they come from.  So my question to them is, “What if it was you? Why can’t it be you?”
Development does not mean things get neat and tidy and clean and Compton simply turns into a place where people can hide their messiness with money.  Development means that people have access to opportunity.

 

My street is getting better and I will tell you how I know. I know that kids play in the front yard now. They ride their bikes up and down the street. Houses that once stood vacant for months, sometimes years are now inhabited by hard working families. There are birthday parties with plenty of pozole to go around.  And I find that I our lives slowly intertwine.  And my son is going to grow up like this.  And I would not trade this choice for anything.

 

 

 

deanna 004Deanna and her husband live with their son in Compton, CA.  She’s not hard to make happy- a good cup of coffee, the neighborhood kids hanging out in her kitchen, or life shared over a meal is all it takes.  She is figuring out on a daily if not hourly basis what it means to love her neighbors well.  She sometimes writes about it at www.whatmakesitgreat.wordpress.com, and occasionally tweets much more superficial thoughts at (https://twitter.com/DeaBeEm)

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the ministry of funfetti

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I used to read a couple of blogs, just for the fun of getting filled with rage. I can’t be alone in this addiction–the viscious cycles of self-rightousness, anger, and cynicism. All of the blogs that made me feel both superior and strangely sad were ones by women with beautiful houses, chevron typography, gorgeous home-cooked meals, and a belief that most troubles in your life would be solved by trying harder.

A lot of those bloggers and writers would talk about the little things they did in life, and the pleasures to be found therein: creating a safari-themed birthday party and spray-painting tiny giraffes and elephants gold, filling their walls with artfully constructed Scripture references, pictures of their spotless children running through fields of wheat.

I would read, transfixed by the perfect curated-ness of these lives on the screen, both scorning their temporal pursuits (HELLO! PEOPLE ARE DYING IN DARFUR) and yet strangely longing for that assuredness that everything matters. That finding moments of beauty wherever we could get them actually did, in fact, matter to God. the trouble was, I just couldn’t believe it.

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As many of you know, my little family and I are in a Christian order among the poor. I like saying those words aloud, like the way they trip off my tongue. For I have spent my entire life, even as a little girl, pursuing martrydom. When I was small, I was obsessed with missionary biographies, Bible stories, and Joan of Arc was my patron saint. I created a hierarchy in my mind of who God loves best (those who do big and wild and scary things) and I wanted to be right at the top. Which brings us to today, and joining a Christian order among the poor. I have many of the trappings of my heroes now: a self-sacrificing narrative, exotic locations, strange and terrible and beautiful and miraculous things happening. The trouble is, based on that hierarchy I created long ago, it turns out I am just using my friends and neighbors on the lower ends of the economic spectrum as conduits to make God love me more. Even though I have tried hard to do the oppostie, the people I am supposed to love and serve are still functioning as props in the larger story of me.

Obviously, this is a little devestating to realize, 20+ years into the game.

When I asked God about all this, he told me some hard and true things. Which basically amounted to what I had heard my whole life but didn’t have the wherewithal to actually believe: that God loves everybody, exactly the same. No matter what you do.

If you grew up like me, then you are waiting for the asterik to that sentence. Sure, God loves everybody the same. *But he really likes it when you go to Africa. Or start a food kitchen. Or adopt through foster care. Or buy cool, over-priced shoes that may or may not give an orphan in some nameless country a complimentary pair. Or turn your TV into garden for succulents. Or whatever it is that we believe we must do in order to be fully loved.

God took away my asterik, and now I don’t know how to classify myself anymore. I’m just a sheep of his hand, and it is more lowly and lovely than I could have ever imagined.

//

I am reading a book by Jonathan Martin, and he talks a lot about how Jesus is the example for everything. Yes, of course, I said, as I read along, but at some point I realized Martin wasn’t just talking about Jesus being all about love and social justice, some anti-folk hero who died for our sins. Instead, he focused on how Jesus was beloved by God, how he knew he was, and how that affected his every moment.

Martin also goes on to talk about the difference between King Saul and King David in the Old Testament. From day one, people looked at Saul like he had already arrived: so handsome, so tall, so brave and so fierce. It appeared that God had gifted him, so he was thrust into leadership right from the start. And it absolutely ruined him.

David, on the other hand, was forgotten for many years. Off tending sheep while all of his brothers did the “important” work. But what we in our hubris usually imagine to be a desert or a wilderness is actually the best gift of all: a place of obscurity, where God has us all to himself and tells us how much we are loved. David had this in the fields, years and years of soaking in his belovedness. And even though he went on to do many stupid, terrible, ugly things, David never forgot that he was loved. As Martin writes in Prototype, just go read the Psalms (seriously, go read then right now). That sense of belovedness underlies every single sentence: the joyful, the sorrowful, the angry and the awe.

This is a hard truth for me, a girl who always grew up reading the stories of the Bible and thinking but all those people God uses are so horrid. I’ve always hated David, just because I could never wrap my brain around the fact that this adulturous, murderous, neglectful father-type could really be so loved by God. Because if God could truly delight in a person like that, then why am I trying so damn hard?

Because, you guys, I never believed he loved me after all.

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This first year in the MidWest was supposed to be our Year of Jubilee, the Year of the Lord’s Favor. And it was, oh yes indeed, it just looked so different from how I thought it should.

But here, at the end of the apprenticeship year, I feel a bit like I had my own time in the wilderness. I found myself in situations of no importance, of little power. Nobody was throwing us parades, if you can believe that. And by the end of it, the hierarchy I had created in my mind about God and his love had started to crack. Because even if you sell all that you have and give the money to the poor (or move in next door) and have not love–well, I think you know the rest.

There came a point a few weeks ago where I noticed that I was yet again baking a Funfetti cake for one of my neighbors. If I had to count it up, I would say that I have made hundreds of these cakes for people over the years. I just really like doing it. There is someting about the sprinkles, the colors, the pleasures and joys of teaching people the elements of baking. I know it is horribly uncool (preservatives! peak oil!), and I should be making seasonal fruit galletes and all that (which I do, occasionally), but I just can’t quit the Funfetti. I love making these cakes, just like my own mom made for me.

I was making this particular one for a neighbor who is moving far away, to a situation that is likely very bad. My heart was sorrowful as I baked and frosted, as I did the only things I knew how to do. And as I did this I wondered “what will I do with the next person who moves in? Won’t they probably end up moving away and breaking my heart? How do we keep doing that most radical thing of all–keeping room in our hearts to love–when we are constantly, lamentably wounded?”

And I feel like God said: you keep baking cakes.

//

Some of the most unrecognized ministries are my favorites.

Like, the ministry of playing yu-gi-oh cards with awkward adolescent boys. The ministry of bringing white styrofoam containers of Pad Thai to people whose baby is very very sick. The ministry of picking up empty chip wrappers at the park. The ministry of sending postcards. The ministry of sitting in silence with someone in the psych ward. The ministry of gardening flowers. The ministry of listening to teenagers talk about their relational crises, and not laughing hysterically. The ministry of making an excellent cup of coffee. The ministry of noticing beauty everywhere–in fabrics, in people, in art–and in the wilderness.

The older I get, I realize now that the ministries I once thought so trivial I know think are the most radical. I spent the last year being stripped of anything that would make me feel lovely to God and I came out a different person. Because I discovered that he always loved me anyways.

I’m not Joan of Arc, it turns out. I’m just somebody who likes to bake cakes.

If I had said that at the beginning of this post, it would mean almost nothing. But because I am writing out of a place where I know that God loves me, my ministry of Funfetti is different. It’s radical. Anything that asks us to walk in our belovedness and extend that to other people is the best kind of madness there is.

I think about those blogs I used to read, and all the feelings they would bring up. And now I just want to sit down, over a good direct-trade cup of coffee, and say to those writers: spray all the things gold. Bake all the tarts. Make all the lemonade’s you want. And take all those little lovelies and run, run in the direction of the world’s brokenness.

In my world, there is a lot of pain. People in abusive situations. Addictions. Mental Illness. Sickness. Poverty. Demons. It’s like the New Testament, come to life! And God is asking me to run, not walk, into all of those contexts. Because I know God loves them more than I do, and the gospel of Jesus is one of freedom. I am being asked to start living like I believe in that love, like I believe another world is possible. I am being asked to bake cakes and knock on doors and believe in healing and deliverance and transformation because that is what our God does. I don’t always know what it looks like, but I can tell you from personal experience: He loves.

Because every year is the year of the Lord’s favor. I just needed the eyes to see it.

//

 

 

 

My friend Kelley is doing an online book club and this month we are reading Prototype by Jonathan Martin. I highly encourage you to read it. Plus, today you can head on over and ask him some questions.

 

 

Also, my family and I are trying to be a bit more open about the work we are doing in our neighborhood and the miracles we are experiencing, and asking for support along the way. It’s hard to write about on the internet, which is a good sign. If you are interested in learning more about our organization, our ministry, or just want to process the places God is calling you to run into, we would love to hear from you. Send me an e-mail at dlmmcsweeneys@gmail.com.

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