Category Archives: Community Living

Writing About Thanksgiving (Part 1)

Do you guys know the Enneagram test? I tend to think people who get waaaaay too into personality types can be a teensy bit boring, but there is something decidedly spiritual about the Enneagram. I think it is because it points us to our flaws just as much as it points to our strengths. Anyways, this was my Enneagram e-mail of the day (I’m a 4, by the way, if that means anything to you):

 

Remember that your Direction of Stress is towards the Two, where you people-please, try to find needs to fulfill, and call attention to your good works. Is this showing up in you today?

 

Um, yes. Every damn day. And this especially comes out during the holidays, where I go into a zealous sort of overdrive, trying to cram goodwill into every thing I do. I think that this year marks the 10th or 11th time I have made a traditional (yet pared-down) Thanksgiving meal for refugee friends and neighbors.

Celebrating holidays is always such a mixed bag for me . . . this year it has come up more than others. It’s just unbelievably difficult to celebrate holidays with a). people who don’t celebrate your religion/culture and b). people for whom the holidays are the worst time of year and they just want to hibernate/drink/medicate until January 2nd. And that sums up a large chunk of our relationships–which causes me to constantly wonder who am I cooking this for for?

This year is no different. I went to the store and bought all of the supplies for the meal and I never know who will really show up. There is a large, lovely family of Kurdish refugees who we are friends with and we invited them over. In true Muslim hospitality, they then insisted that we come over to their place on Saturday for an epic 4+ hour feast (my daughter was in heaven, both because she loves Kurdish food/music but also because she got to watch cartoons and was surreptitiously fed pieces of candy all day). It was so relaxing and so wonderful and makes me feel very pitiful about my own awkward attempts at hospitality. I think they are coming over for Thanksgiving, but as they are quick to tell us–they don’t like trying new foods or going to new places. Life is hard enough, and they prefer to eat their own foods on their own terms (one of the few things in life they can control). It has taken me years to get to this place, but I am trying to have open hands about it all. I am prepared for nobody to eat much this year, and it will be ok.

 

 

she waited patiently for 3 hours while the food cooked, and then she was ready to EAT.

she waited patiently for 3 hours while the food cooked, and then she was ready to EAT.

 

All this to say: I did write about a Thanksgiving we had a few years ago and it is up today! I am super excited to tell you that I am going to be writing semi-regularly for the Good Letters blog (which is run by Image Journal). The company I will be writing with is . . . intimidating, to say the least. I think I will have a post up over there once or twice a month, and I will be sure to link here.

 

So head on over to read about my type 4 tendencies, hospitality, and the Day We Cooked the Big Chicken.

 

 

 

 

 

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The State of Our Union Address

What are we doing here? is a question we ask ourselves often, constantly, a thrumming beatbox to our jam-packed lives. What are we doing here, what is the point of all of this: relocation, downward mobility, eschewing hierarchy, doggedly believing that Christ is here?

All we ever do is learn from people, I told my husband last night. That is truly all we do. We don’t do anything of importance, we are stretched too thin by too many needs to ever really be of use (the one thing that I so wanted to be). We do not have opportunities to share complicated doctrines or theologies, we are not making a difference in the world. But oh, how we are learning from people. How we are wide-eyed and mouth-closed, how we are the opposite of workers, how we are trying so hard to pay attention and notice all of those important lessons we somehow missed along the way.

Peter didn’t pay good attention in the Bible. He scoffed and scorned those women who showed up and said what they all wanted so badly to be true but couldn’t let themselves believe: that Jesus had transcended death, that he was alive, that his kingdom was here, that forgiveness and resurrection was now available for all. Peter didn’t believe them, he ignored the marginalized just like everyone else. But when no one was looking, when he could no longer ignore the hope in his chest anymore, when everyone else had left–he ran to the tomb as fast as his legs could carry him.

All we ever did was try to be good, productive, correct. All we ever do now is stand still and notice. All we ever do these days is run, run as fast as we can to where we can only hope our signs of resurrection will be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

teeth and kitties

the other day i almost bought a living social deal for a costco membership, until my husband gently reminded my of my scruples. this is the problem with public journaling blogging. people remind you of grand-sounding things you said once, quite some time ago. but life marches on, and you move into a beautiful lil’ house that actually has a basement where you could purchase and store sensibly-priced paper goods in bulk, where your life could be just a tiny bit easier. time is a river rushing by and there are so many ways to remember that you are always coming up short in your quest to identify with people on the margins. there are so many ways to tune out the prophets.

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where we live, going to the dentist is an ordeal. we live in the midst of a city, as urban as i have ever experienced. we are surrounded by payday loan companies and “treatment centers” and halal markets. But the only available dentists for miles and miles around are all students: bright-eyed young things who poke and prod your mouth and have to call in a crash of supervisors for any little old thing. it takes forever (it costs relatively little). people make mistakes. a one-visit procedure stretches into 3 or 4. i take my daughter to these students because she is complaining of tooth pain. they look at me and my medical insurance card from the government, and they loudly tell me that i really should be bringing her in for a cleaning every few months. i hang my head, ashamed, letting this young thing think whatever it is she wants to about me. my daughter’s teeth are perfect, they cannot see any cavities. i only feel slightly better.

my husband got his tooth pulled last year. it is one of his canines, you can only tell when he smiles so wide that his eyes get lost in the crinkles. before this happened i didn’t know there was yet another way to categorize people in our society, a way that we not-so-subtly put people in their place. there are people in our country who are missing teeth, and there are people who get them replaced. nowadays, i know so many people with the tell-tale gaps. my students, the ones who are so recently arrived here in this country, they are in the midst of it. a student will be gone for a few days, then come to class, holding an embarrassed hand over her mouth. she doesn’t want to talk. when she finally does, i see it: 4 or 5 teeth pulled, many in the front, just like that. no replacements, no nothing. we all have the same insurance. the government will help us all pay for the teeth to be removed, but replacing them is viewed as “cosmetic”. vanity of vanities, to want to look in the mirror and remember for a second, how it all used to be.

i don’t mind the gap in my husband’s smile, i think it is rather cute. but the dentists said that since my husband is so young that is could permanently mess up the way the other teeth in his mouth move around, could cause him many problems in later years. so we scrimp and save for a year, shelling out what amounts to more than what we paid for our (admittedly not-so-great) minivan, our identification coming to a screeching halt. my husband is on his way to let students insert a screw into his jaw; in a few months they will affix a new, shining tooth. he will go on with his life, eating whatever he pleases, working in his professional capacity, bearded, pleasant, whole.

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a few months ago our cat was bit by another; the wound was large and gaping and we didn’t know what to do. we tried to clean it up but by the next day it was clear that this was bad news. we found a cardboard box and brought her to the vet; they put her anesthetic and cleaned her wound and put in a drain. she was gone the whole day and when she came home we had to put a cone around her miserable head. she moped, for a week, and we bought her special kitty food to coax her. she got better, day by day. we fixed the screen door so she couldn’t get out anymore (our neighborhood does have the meanest cats you ever did see) and she meows pitifully, longing to be out. but it cost us so much money to save her that we can’t afford for it to happen again. a neighbor came over and sat under our tree in the backyard and we talked about pets who got hurt, and all the ones who died because vets were not even an option. all the animals we loved so much when we were young, the ones we clutched and cooed at and kissed; the ones who fell by the wayside, who were attacked by the robbers of the world, the ones that we were always powerless to save. i look at my cat, gleaming and whole, and it is a marker of difference. of options. the opposite of identification.

teeth and kitties, such vulnerable parts of ourselves. the whole world is a place that is liable to hurt us, to weaken us, decay us and bite us. some of us have access to resources and money where we can forget about these realities for a few more months, a few more years. we can justify ourselves to people just like us all the day long, but in the end, the same Christ looks at all of our hearts. and he will ask all of us: did you learn from the prophets, the ones i sent you all along? the gap-toothed and the sad, the wounded and the un-whole? because they are preaching to us, all the time.

they are the reminders of the kingdom that is slowly barreling into our hearts and our minds and our lives, a kingdom where every tooth and every kitty is cherished, valued, and most importantly, mourned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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on homesickness

There was a moment, just a moment, when the happiness overwhelmed me. I was driving a white minivan through the sun-drenched outer boroughs of Portland, the one where the grass was already dead and brown, where the cars pile high in the front yards, where the hipsters are few and far between. Navigating the streets I know so well, driving on auto-pilot; almost audibly my thoughts came: I’m home. The sweetness inherent in that thought–of being known and wanted and comforted–is quickly swallowed up by the realization: no, I’m not. I don’t live here anymore. I am embarrassed, look to my left and my right. But no one is there to see my slip into nostalgia, watch my new life and my old cause confusion in my eyes.

It is so cliché, but it must be said: I am homesick, no matter where I am.

One great thing about being married to a counselor is that sometimes they give you free observations about your life. The other day my husband told me that to an outside observer, it might look as though I was compelled to seek out relationships with people who are very, very different from myself. Conversely, he also noted, it appeared that my family and community were consistent sources of comfort for me. These two poles on which I staked my life sometimes seem to be in opposition to each other: what is safe, what is unknown. What is comfortable, what is exhilarating. To pursue one means that naturally, the other falls by the wayside.

Last week, in Portland, I was fed full and watched my daughter play with her cousin, I attended a baby shower for my older sister, I went for long walks with my mother, I made root beer floats with my father. Everywhere we went and ate and played I was looking for others, the worlds hidden between, for the marginalized of our society. They are few and far between in Portland, a city that is supremely silly and somehow never satiated in the desire for acceptance. I walked into a coffee shop where everyone looked so exactly alike that it felt like a slap to me: the calculated outfits and language and coffee drinks totaling up one very exclusive experience, designed more to keep others out than to usher them in. I went to church and cried all during worship, aching at how wonderful it was to see a large group of people together and singing about freedom; I slipped away into myself during the sermon, thinking about all the people who would not be able to step inside these doors. Surrounded by family and friends, I couldn’t help but feel a bit homesick for the life I have created in the exotic Midwest, long for my neighborhood and my neighbors

Last week, in Portland, I was driving across town in a white minivan. I was by myself, driving to see very old friends, the ones who first showed me where the upside-down kingdom was. I know every street, have a story for almost each city block. I let myself go down the nostalgic trail of thoughts: I met my husband here. I had my baby here. I went to Bible college here. I met the friends who changed my life here. The other part of me–the one who grew up thinking that those who gave up everything to serve God–quickly pushed these thoughts away. I actively, aggressively chided myself into submission. Geography means nothing to me. My entire childhood was spent moving, every 2-3 years. What was important was family, the new church we were at, the next calling of God on our lives. But somehow I stayed in Portland for nearly 9 years, and the asphalt and the street signs and the brown grass in the summer has burrowed into my bones. I am homesick for a place. And it is completely divorced from any sense of mission within me. I just love it for what it is: my home.

A month or so ago here in the exotic midwest I went to visit a friend who moved into the suburbs. Her and her little family are on their way up, moving out of the cramped and crowded-to-overflowing house in the middle of the city. I am happy for her, even as I am sad at the natural distance that will come at her being 30 miles away. I saw her apartment complex, large and full of similarly placed families, everybody packed tight together, everybody trying to make it. The outside facade so clean, the hallways inside rather grimy. I instantly loved it. As I left, I let my hands trail along the walls, imagining what it would be like to move in there. It was then that I realized that I wanted to live in every apartment building in the city, in the country, in the world.

And even though I know this is not even possible in the slightest, there is a large part of me that wants to try.

The problem is: I have so many homes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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