Category Archives: Food.

Women, Infants, Children

us, just trying to survive.

us, just trying to survive.

 

It’s been a rough few weeks on the internet. I have wanted to write about violence, #yesallwomen, abusers, rape apologetics, and #howoldwereyou; instead I wrote an essay about WIC.

 

Of course, it really isn’t about WIC (or Whole Foods for that matter). It’s really about a much bigger issue that creeps into my bones: how much I would like to forget about the most vulnerable. In my life, there have been a few times I have been confronted with this, and in the end it is better to face it than explain or medicate or wish it away. The world has always had a hierarchy that was very much at odds with the kingdom of God, and it still continues to do so. Every day I see the fruit of this, teaching English to women who were never allowed to step foot inside a classroom before–due to outright discrimination or due to the constraints of crushing poverty.

I suppose this piece comes out of a renewed sense of wondering how our family is going to grow and the frailties inherent in all of our options. I am also thinking about the meals my daughter eats at the park, all the children who come to get fed. I am thinking about my own #howoldwereyou story, which I would much rather forget. I am thinking about a God who is so relentlessly for the vulnerable that I feel nearly swallowed up in his love.

So it’s not really about WIC. But it is about the good news, for people who tend to not experience very much good in our current world.

 

 

Here’s the beginning of the piece:

 

Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. – Jeremiah 22:3

The other day, I walked into a Whole Foods to pick up a few items, my WIC vouchers in hand. I have the luxury of thinking carefully about my food purchases. My husband and I do not want to support the torture of animals, and we do want to put money back into the hands of our local economy. We try to eat more in-season, locally, organic, fair-trade. We still, however, sit somewhat close to the poverty line, and we have had to make a few sacrifices. Less meat, more beans. Rice and pasta to tide us over. Eating what is on sale, doing without non-essentials like alcohol or snack foods.

The WIC vouchers help too (especially in more expensive stores like Whole Foods). I wandered the aisles, looking at the beautifully stocked shelves, until I found a clerk at the back of the store. “Do you participate in the WIC program?” I asked. He had never heard of it before, but his female co-worker was sure that the store did. I didn’t see any of the tell-tale blue stickers placed under the proper cereal boxes or bags of dried beans, but I took her at her word. As I queued up to pay and saw the look of confusion on the cashier’s face (male, hipster glasses) when I handed over my voucher, my stomach started to sink. As the line piled up behind me I tried to explain what the WIC program was.

The boy was interested, but he had never heard of it. He called his manager and confirmed what I already knew. Whole Foods did not participate in the program. I left my small bag of groceries at the register and walked out the door, trying to keep my smile bright. I went home and e-mailed the customer service team, who responded to me within several days. “Unfortunately,” they wrote, “we cannot participate in the WIC program” due to conflicts with “quality” in regards to specific products such as infant formula. It was short, conciliatory, dismissive. It was clear that they did not need my business, nor the business of anyone who found themselves in need of a little assistance when feeding their children.

The e-mail brought me back into those harrowing first months of my daughter’s life: due to a vicious medical emergency, she was born nearly 2 months early and I was left without the ability to breastfeed her. I was sad and shaken up by my traumatic birth experience, grieving the loss of my ability to feed my own child. I remembered the price of formula, the staggering realization that it would cost us upwards of $150 a month. Due to both my medical emergency and the financial strain of losing work hours, WIC was a godsend in the area of feeding the baby. I had never felt more vulnerable in my life, both physically and financially.

In a flash, as I deleted the e-mail from Whole Foods, I was reminded of my vulnerabilities all over again. And I did not like it.

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Go on over to Christ and Pop Culture to read the rest.

 

 

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beautiful, difficult, radical thanks

i woke up this morning to a quote by Craig Greenfield: “we cannot separate the beauty and goodness of radical hospitality with its difficulty”.

i am feeling this today. i am grateful and excited for a day of cooking and eating with dozens of neighbors–introducing people who have never had the traditional meal to turkey and mashed potatoes, and my all-important sugar pie. our apartment is strung with twinkle lights, we are listening to sufjan christmas, and we have decided that one of our new traditions is to eat cinnamon rolls and play with legos in the morning. it’s a beautiful life.

and also: i am missing my sisters and my mom and my dad something fierce. i will try not to think about it, all the rest of this day, this month, this holiday season. i have a bit of the ache that so many carry with them all the time. i look at old pictures and i cry; not just out of sadness, but out of all the goodness that makes me miss it so much. my mother, my sisters, my dad: they are the ones who first modeled radical hospitality to me, made me the person i am now. they showed me that family goes beyond blood, that there is always room at the table for more, that traditions are beautiful but so is turning everything upside-down for a king and a kingdom which can hold us all.

our mission organization has written out some beautiful commitments that we meditate on throughout the year. we just recently finished up thinking and praying about our commitment to celebration. here are some of the thoughts that we will be carrying with us through out this day, this week, this season, this long wait until everything is made new.

I will celebrate the light of Christ

in a world of darkness

the life of Christ

in a culture of death

the liberty of Christ

in a kingdom of captivity

and the hope of Christ

in an age of despair

I will rejoice always and in everything give thanks.

amen. happy thanksgiving.

thankful that i miss my sisters so very much.

thankful that i miss my sisters so very much. also, hipsters would kill for these sweatshirts.

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Preservation As Gratitude — Guest Post by Lindsay Strannigan

I am beyond thrilled to have my amazing older sister here to guest post today. I have always looked up to Lindsay with a combination of terror/awe. She is fierce, beautiful, funny, accomplished, AND smart. It’s a little overwhelming. A few years ago Lindsay started a food blog which (naturally) became very popular called rosemarried. She has inspired me on a journey towards local and seasonal food, and now I just might have to start down the road of preserving. 

I’ve been to a couple of the food swaps my sister has organized and it is absolutely bonkers. Everyone from hipsters to homeschooling Grandmas come and swap food items they have created. You come with 10 jars of jelly and leave with an assortment of delicious, hand-made food. I love how people like my sister are using their creativity to step outside of the food systems that so often crushes those at the bottom of the economic system. 

So often, conversations about food can carry underlying assumptions of privilege. This doesn’t have to be the case, however. We can talk about creating and eating good food, all with our global neighbors in mind. 

 

 

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Preservation as Gratitude

Guest post by Lindsay Strannigan

 

Food preservation – canning, pickling, fermenting, etc –  isn’t a new phenomenon, by any stretch of the imagination. Throughout generations, humans have practiced this delicate art. Until recently, however, preserving was often born out of necessity. People preserved food because they had to, due to a variety of reasons: lack of refrigeration, electricity, funds, or fear of famine, storms, and drought.

I am painfully aware of the fact that I do not preserve for such reasons. I do not have these particular worries, and yet, I find myself compelled to can and preserve. There’s something magical in the ritual, in the quiet and tedious process that is preserving. I love that you have to do it the same way every time. There are no shortcuts. You can’t cheat the system. It is what it is, and you have to accept that. When I hover over that giant pot of boiling water – hoping and praying that my jars will seal properly – I take comfort in the knowledge that thousands before me have done the same.

All romanticism aside for a moment, however, and I am still faced with the fact that my reality does not necessitate canning. I do not need to do this in order to survive.

So why do I do it? Why do any of us preserve and can? What is the appeal of canning?

First, let me state the obvious: Canning is hot right now. The internet (I’m lookin’ at you, Pinterest) is brimming with DIY-ers and aspiring home preservers. Food swaps are spreading across the country and bookstores are brimming with an ever-growing selection of canning resources and cookbooks. It’s easy to dismiss this as a fad, as nothing more than a nod to vintage kitsch. I would argue, however, that this goes much, much deeper than kitsch. This isn’t just nostalgia, this is a concerted attempt to reclaim a culture of food and community.

When it comes to food, we are all hopelessly lost. We live in a broken world and food is just one of a myriad of hurdles we are forced to navigate on a daily basis. Every day we are confronted with mixed messages; advertisers bombard us with their messages of health and vitality, beauty and happiness. The truth is, however, that most of us aren’t happy. We are overweight, undernourished, overworked, and underpaid.

In many ways, we aren’t all that different than canners of generations past. We may not fear storms or drought, but we definitely live in uncertain and desperate times. Life is hard and the promise of the American dream has lost it’s golden luster. In times such as these, the art of preserving makes a lot of sense. It’s simple, economical, and empowering. It is a way to regain a small amount of control in a very uncertain world.

There’s something to be said about returning to the roots of food, to the way things used to be. It just makes sense. Canning, pickling, drying, and fermenting are age-old techniques, designed to prevent food spoilage and make the harvest last all year-long. This is a rich and beautiful tradition, and I firmly believe that there is freedom and joy to be found in the process. When we preserve foods, we are forced to think about our relationship with food. We learn about the changing of seasons, sustainability, and the importance of cultural traditions. Food preservation teaches us to be thoughtful about our purchasing. It teaches us how to spend less and waste less.

Mostly, though, I think that preserving is an act of gratitude. As I’ve learned how to can and pickle and ferment, I can’t help but feel grateful. I am so thankful for a God who provides, a God who created seasons, colors, flavors, and everything good and beautiful. He gives so freely, and I feel compelled to treat these gifts with respect and humility. For me, food has always been one of the most tangible and enjoyable ways in which I experience the love and grace of God. Whether it be sharing a meal with family and friends, or canning 100 pounds of tomatoes in the heat of the summer, I feel connected to the Creator.

I would like to step back for a moment, however, and acknowledge that I am speaking from my own personal experience. I live in a place where I have limitless access to a gorgeous array of fresh fruits and vegetables. (I live in Portland, OR, for crying out loud. This is the birthplace of local, sustainable, organic, etc.) I am aware that many people in the United States simply do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Even in areas where fruits and vegetables are plentiful, there are many people who simply cannot afford to purchase seasonal produce.

I understand that there are a myriad of reasons why my case for food preservation may not apply to most of the American public. You may not own a canning pot or mason jars. You may not have the time or energy to learn the process. You may have zero interest in canning, pickling, or fermenting. That’s totally fine. This isn’t for everyone. However, I do think that the principles of food preservation apply to all of us. We ought to treat food as a gift; as something to be celebrated, shared, and saved. We should treat our resources with care and respect. We should strive to be less wasteful. These are principles that all of us can practice, whether or not we choose to make jams or pickles.

However, if you do choose to pickle, preserve, can, and ferment — I highly encourage you to share this knowledge with your family, friends, and anyone else who is willing to listen. These are invaluable and empowering life skills, which will only serve to benefit and enrich future generations. In addition to sharing your knowledge, I would encourage you to share the actual fruits of your labor. (Those 15 jars of blackberry jam that you canned last week? You don’t need all 15 jars.) Do not be tempted to hoard your preserves, rather, give them away. Food is a gift that is meant to be shared, so preserve often and give generously.

 

Links:

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My favorite canning website is PunkDomestics.com — it’s a wealth of amazing recipes.Here’s a few pickling/preserving recipes from my blog:

 

 

2012_2_7-Lindsaykitchen-25Lindsay is a freelance food writer, event coordinator, and social media consultant. She shares recipes, photos, and food-related stories on her blog, Rosemarried. In addition, she co-hosts the PDX Food Swap and serves on the board of the Montavilla Farmer’s Market. She lives in Portland, OR, with her husband (Nicholas), orange cat (Penelope), and dwarf rabbit (Lil Omar). You can find her on twitter here.

 

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Authentic Mobility: Guest Post by Rachel Pieh Jones

*****Quick plug: I wrote something on the Trayvon Martin case for Out of Ur. You can find that article here.******

 

 

Rachel Pieh Jones has shared her astounding thoughts in this space before, and I was thrilled when she agreed to tackle this subject. Her post resonated so much with me, because I too find myself in so many seemingly contradictory spaces–and I am learning to love them all. Rachel continually inspires me with her commitment to celebrating her life (while not white-washing it either). I call her the “Katherine Boo” of Djibouti, since this is one lady who has definitely earned her facts. If you are anything like me (and even if you aren’t) I am positive you will find this piece to be both relatable and encouraging. 

 

 

Authentic Mobility: Guest Post by Rachel Pieh Jones

I haven’t thought much about downward mobility but I have thought a lot about moving toward need.

Not just moving toward need but moving toward need and bringing comfort, attention, and affection. Bringing Jesus, dignity, and relationship. And not just bringing these things to deliver, but bearing them in my skin and in my soul and receiving them back.

I don’t view need in purely economic terms, but also in community and spiritual terms. A wealthy, childless widow. A toddler begging on the street corner. A man searching for peace in Islam, then Buddhism, then pot. My own vulnerability and loneliness.

I spent last Wednesday with two other expatriates in a Djiboutian village. We visited fifteen members of the Girls Run 2 club I helped to start in 2008. Eighteen of us, plus more than a dozen neighborhood children, sat in an unlit cement room, and talked about running and school and family responsibilities.

Some of the girls have electricity, none have running water. Some have at least one permanent structure to call part of their home, some have walls made of sticks and flattened powdered milk cans and t-shirts. All of them are required by club rules to be in school. Most of them come from large families where the emphasis is on survival and hard labor – hauling water, scrubbing clothes, herding sheep, walking four miles to school, there is little time for affection or personal attention.

After all the girls arrived, after we kissed hands and cheeks, and after I had asked each of them about their running events and best times, about their dreams for their future, their favorite subjects in school, and what their mothers thought about them running, we walked to the car.

The Land Cruiser was heavy with thirty twenty-pound boxes of rice, with additional nutrients, from Feed My Starving Children. Each member of the club received one box and the extra were left at the stadium for when they needed more.

Then I drove the two hours home to Djibouti City and read an email about my upcoming family reunion this Christmas in Disney World.

And I cried.

I cried for the confusion and the contradiction in it. I cried for the joy I felt sitting in the dark room with the running team and for the joy I felt thinking about Christmas with my entire family, including a newly adopted niece I have never met. I wept for the joy in the conversation with the other expats in the car on the drive, about prayer and comfort and brokenness and Jesus.

I need God to show me how to live in this life of authentic engagement with girls in the depths of poverty, girls with strength and dignity, girls who crave and thrive on physical touch and individual attention, and at the same time how to live in a life of Land Cruisers and Disney World with my beloved family.

I think the way to live this life is to live like Jesus, to be always on the move toward need. My own and others’.

The girls in that village needed food. But they also needed to talk about school and their training. They needed to be told they are precious. They needed to hold my hand while they talked about mentally unstable fathers and dead babies. I needed to hear them laugh and I needed to watch them care for their siblings and their parents and each other. I needed to hear them defend their fellow runner who has never been to school before and can’t write her own name yet. I needed to know their names and their unique stories, unique personalities. And so we moved toward one another, meeting in our need-places.

My family needs to be together. We have said goodbye and been separated so many times over the years. My parents need to draw their four children from the four corners of the earth to celebrate who we are and to delight in each other for a week. I need to hold my new niece and hear my nephew explain Lacrosse to this clueless aunt. I need to hear how God is moving in my brother. I need to watch my children tackle their grandparents. And so we move toward one another, meeting in our need-places.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to go to Disney World with my family. I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to sit in the cement room with the team. And I would be lying if I hid one side of this life from the other, that feels disingenuous. But this, this moving toward need with the confused-crying and the releasing-joy of it, feels like authenticity.

It feels like authentic mobility. Not necessarily downward or upward, possibly both. I move both ways in my Djibouti life and while it feels like a split down my middle some days, on most days it feels true and honest.


Sometimes moving toward need means bringing rice to hungry families and accepting a chilled Coke from them. Sometimes it means going to Disney World and accepting the gift of family. Sometimes it means bringing my own brokenness into the conversation and accepting the step of someone moving toward me, bearing Jesus in the soul and in the skin.

 

 

 

downward1Doesn’t she just look like the coolest/nicest War Photographer ever? Rachel can be found here: Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more in the Downward Mobility series, click here.

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Image Bearers: Guest Post by Meg Hers

One of the things about writing about Downward Mobility is that people have all sorts of opinions about it. I have found myself getting push back from both sides (too self-righteous! you aren’t doing near enough!) and to be honest sometimes I just thought about scrapping the project. But then people like Meg Hers come out of the woodwork, and it changes me.

Meg is an artist living in one of the most marginalized neighborhoods in Canada. She inspires me with her passions, talents, and joie de vivre (plus, I identify with her story of grocery store shopping so much I can’t stand it). She makes me feel less alone, points me back to the prayers I always needed to be praying in the first place. Lord have mercy on me indeed.

 

 

 

I’m new to this whole downward mobility game. One year ago I finished a degree in art theory in Canada’s biggest city and was perfectly set up to work my way up the ladder in the art world. I was fluent in artspeak, the tongue of the high art world, and connected to all the right people. Instead I heard the Spirit whisper in my heart, start tugging in all the wrong directions, and I turned around and moved to one of the poorest and most economically depressed cities in the country. Hamilton, Ontario, is considered the armpit of the province, and is rife with unemployment, and a plethora of mental health and social service agencies to assist its struggling population.  I was offered what is now my dream job, working in a drop-in art studio with homeless and at-risk teenagers. I moved into the poorest neighbourhood in the city with some like-minded folks, chose a bike and a bus pass over a car, and set out on my adventure.

What I’ve realized over the past year is that although I’ve changed my postal code and chosen into a simpler way of life, that doesn’t erase the fact that I grew up quite comfortably in the suburbs. I can spend most of my waking hours at the shelter, in the group homes and transitional housing buildings, but I will never fully understand what it’s like to have grown up under the poverty line. My heart’s desire might be to fully internalize the realities of my neighbours or the youth that I work with, but it remains that I’ve never been abused, or silenced, or pushed to the fringes, and so I am left with this gaping hole of understanding.

The complexity of navigating solidarity with my neighbours always seems to crystallize when I open my fridge. I’m no gourmet, but I appreciate my organic produce, my funky health foods, and eating fresh and healthy meals. Yet I’m not willing to naively convince myself that the fridges of my neighbours are full of the same kinds of goods. In fact, I know that they aren’t, because the legacy of childhood obesity in the city is proclaimed in the papers, and lumbers daily down my street. I know that when you’re struggling to survive at all, like so many families in my neighbourhood, food and healthy meal planning is generally the last thing on your mind. I struggle daily with not knowing how to extend my solidarity with the marginalized to this refrigerated sphere.

So I get panicky and anxious on a pretty routine basis when I visit the grocery store in our neighbourhood. This particular store has a reputation in the city, and those who don’t have to shop there won’t, unless it’s to see the man who brings his pet birds in with him, and is always eventually chased out. It smells really, incredibly bad in the egg section. The store branding involves huge swaths of neon yellow cracked paneling that seems to press against the back of your eyeballs after twenty minutes of wandering the aisles. Even the guy ahead of me in line the other day said that he’d rather have done an extra two years in the ‘pen than shop there.

Yet I won’t stop going, because this weakness that these visits produce in my heart is bringing me back to a space of needing God, and realizing that the world is a broken and hopeless place without Him. I’ve started standing in the longest check-out line (and trust me, they get long), because it lets me watch those coming in the front doors. They’re my neighbors, the youth I work with, and their families, and they’ve endured more than I can imagine. The poverty they have experienced is written all over their faces, speaking through their body language, and is concretized in the items they put on the conveyor belt ahead of mine.

Yet what I find myself chanting under my breath when I’m confronted with the broken people walking in through that front door is the reminder: ‘humanity, humanity’. This grocery store is the place where I am most vehemently reminded that we are all image-bearers, not just the shiny, happy Christians who we tend to imagine ourselves hanging out with in heaven.

There are bad days, of course, when grace-filled attitudes take too much effort and all I want is for someone to drive me to Whole Foods so I can buy imported cheese and overpriced granola bars. They are the days when the legacy of poverty in this city makes my chest tight and I get overwhelmed by how dirty the baby in the cart ahead of me is, and by the fact that most of the kids in the store are wearing pajamas instead of clothes. On those days I find myself whispering ‘maranatha, maranatha’ instead. On those days I want Him to come soon, to soothe my anxiety and solve these problems.

On those days I retreat to prayer.

 

Come Lord soon, come and be our refuge.

Come love the unloved, and feed the hungry.  

Come and give my youth who are standing outside the front doors begging the 25 cents that I can’t, because of the contract that I signed with the social service agency I work for.

Help me to know how to reconcile the way that I chat with them before going in to buy my dinner, walk past them with a timid smile on the way out and then claim to be desiring solidarity with those on the fringes.

Lord, have mercy on me.

 

 

Author picMeg Hers is an artist, dreamer and youth worker living in the post-industrial steel city of Hamilton, Ontario. She lives in intentional community in the East End of the city, and is the studio co-ordinator at RE-create Outreach Art Studio. RE-create is a drop-in art studio space where at-risk, street-involved and homeless youth can come and express themselves. She loves her neighbourhood, riding her bike and trying to figure out how to grow her own food in the community garden down the street. She blogs about wonder and daily life at thehers.blogspot.ca, good art at perfumeanddebtors.wordpress.com, and is on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on the Downward Mobility series, click here. For all the posts in the series, click here.

 

 

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thinking about robbers

We used to live in low-income apartments affectionately known as “Little Somalia”, due to the 17+ Somali Bantu families that lived there. I loved it there, but was also always in a constantly busy season of life: grad school, working two jobs, premature baby land, and everything in between. So I knew all the refugees and non-native speakers in the building(s), due to the English classes in the community room, but had a hard time meeting anyone else.

There was a family that moved into our same apartment complex, who we eventually became good friends with. Their clothes, eating habits, and parenting styles were all revelations to me: they were people who were interested in life, with a gentle, hippie aesthetic.

Their apartment was the kind of place where something was always cooking, something was always being created (cheese, or kombucha, or pizza dough). The radio was often on, and their small apartment was cozy with books, toys, and plants growing in pots all over. They loved people, were interested in them, and they seemed to view life as a grand experiment in caring for others.

One time my neighbor, Leah, told me excitedly about a new way they had found to cook beans. “You just take a pot of water, put some beans in it, and just heat it up to a boil on the stove. Then, put a lid on the pot and wrap it with towels. Put that in a suitcase, and close it for the next 10 hours. When you open it again, the beans will be cooked! All without using hardly any energy!” As she described this method to me, she just looked so happy. And I thought: I want to be like her. Their curiosity was contagious. I started thinking that I could maybe venture out into some new territory of my own.

Some days it was hard enough just to get through life, much less think through the implications of the clothes I was wearing, the food I was eating, all the minutia of purchases that we must fight against every day as people in the land of credit. People were so great and so broken, and that was basically taking up most of my time. How could I even begin to turn my eyes to the systems that were over all of us?

 

 

In my current organization, we talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan. How there is always a need for someone to get down and help: find food, shelter, water, medical care, a roof over their heads. And this type of ministry is so good and needed, especially with the most vulnerable. But there comes a point, after you have helped your 6th, 7th, and 8th person, where you start asking questions about the systems that create such bruised and battered souls. You start thinking about the robbers.

 

 

Thinking about the current systems of food and material goods in the U.S. (and beyond) is not fun. It does not have the benefit of us meeting face to face with someone, and we have to think large. But the more I research, the worse it gets. The more like cannibals we all seem, feasting off the sweat, tears, and even blood of people far away from our eyes. Even as we learn about the levels of atrocities that people experience so we can consume more, we are slow to change our living habits. For myself, I know it is directly tied to a feeling of helplessness. How can I ever know enough, make a difference, live in a way that is good and holy? It all seems like too much, so I am tempted to stop before I even start.

One thing that has helped me on my own journey towards ethical living has been a renewed focus on simplicity. And the rewards of this type of lifestyle are great–less clutter, a sense of satisfaction at making do with what you have, vast of amounts of creativity being unleashed–but there is always room for improvement in this area of my life. Sometimes I get tired. Sometimes I want to buy something new. Sometimes I justify. I have been known, on more than one occasion, to eat beans and rice and scrimp and save in order to buy the happy free-range chicken at the co-op, only to have a major emotional meltdown the following day and order something off the “value” menu at Wendy’s. Real talk. It happens.

I know we are all tired of doomsday prophets preaching to us about global warming, sex trafficking, child laborers, human rights abuses, etc. Even the good samaritans get tired of the dire warnings, after a while. So what makes a lifestyle choice stick? After watching and observing and hanging out with a bunch of cool people who are working through all of these sorts of questions, I have come to this conclusion: I think it must be joy.

You will be hearing more from Leah later on this week, and her family continues to move farther along the continuum of exploring how creative life in the kingdom can be. I don’t think she realizes how much her family modeled to us the joys of living well with less. We all need people like this in our lives, don’t we? People who point us towards the great satisfaction that comes in loving our neighbors next door, and those around the world as well. I am excited to share some of these stories with you, as they have helped me tremendously in my life.

One final note: a question has been brought up–is everyone supposed to pursue downward mobility? Don’t we have hope for the poor, that they could move up on the continuum? This is a very real question that needs a good and nuanced answer. But the short of it is this: the world cannot sustain every single person living like we in the west do. It just can’t. So we have some real choices to make, don’t we? We can’t simply pretend to look away at the inequalities. We can advocate and purchase mindfully, we can pursue justice for the poor in order to see them fed and clothed and sheltered. And we can also confront the robbers in our lives, the systems that whisper the great lie that happiness can be bought, that comfort is our main goal, that the suffering of the people underwriting our lifestyle doesn’t matter. It’s time to look the robbers square in the eye and say: we aren’t buying it anymore.

What have been your resources for discovering the realities of our economic/food systems? Just the other day I read a devastating essay on the conditions of people who more likely than not grew the tomato that is sitting in your fridge.  What has awakened you to the robbers in our own society? What have resources for pursuing simplicity with joy? Let’s share some resources here. We are all on this journey together, aren’t we?

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

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Low, low prices

I went with my friend the other day to Costco, stepped into the air-conditioned warehouse and immediately sighed with relief. Everything was so familiar: the plethora of bulk goods, the queues of old people lining up for samples, the lack of odors and the extra-wide aisles. It had been months since I had been in a Costco, since I had given up my membership when we moved across the country. But even though I was in a new year and in a new state, everything about this place was the same. It didn’t change, and this filled me with such a sense of security and nostalgia that I could have almost cried.

I wandered around the aisles with my friend, idly checking prices and snapping up each free sample of a frozen pizza bagel or Habanero pepper jelly on artisanal crackers. I looked at the table full of best-seller books, the racks of sensible summer jackets and one-piece bathing suits, the patio furniture and fresh Alaskan crab. I had no need to buy any of it, of course, but it was a pleasure just to look. In Portland, I received a membership through my dad, but hardly ever used it. Bulk goods are wasted on the young, apparently, although I was addicted to the $1.50 polish dogs.

My friend made her few purchases, and we drove the 15 miles back to our apartment complex. It was only later that a thought started to nag at me. Why was wandering around Costco so pleasurable for me? What sort of nostalgia did it create? Why did it feel so restful, like a respite from my rather intense, wonderful life? It felt like a world to itself in there, the cool gray cement absorbing the anxieties of the day as the pleasant middle class bought enough to feed their own small armies for the month. There was a pervading sense of life being on the up and up, like there would always be room for impulse buys like craft beers, prefabricated tree houses, and hummus party platters.

None of this is inherently wrong, of course. But for me, it is increasingly becoming not the norm. At the grocery store within walking distance from my apartment, I routinely have panic attacks. Fights are a commonplace occurrence. Long lines are a given. Somebody is always out of food stamps, has to decide right then and there whether to take home the chips or the apples, then counts out their pennies to the cashier painstakingly slow. It is chaotic, it is necessary, it is not very fun.

And so, for a brief moment, I longingly thought of signing up for a membership at Costco. Even though it was far, even though I drive a car perhaps twice a week, even as I knew there was very little I was tempted to purchase there–I still wanted in. The cheap part of me struggled, however–the prices were reasonable, but not seemingly good enough to warrant why I should have to pay money to shop there. And then I realized: that is the whole point. Memberships exclude. That is why they were created–to give special privileges to only a few. Costco is an inherently exclusionary place, but I had never been able to see it before. Costco was created for people with disposable incomes, with cars, with the ability to cart and store large amounts of product. In my neighborhood, this is not the reality for most.

I am sobered by how much I am drawn to these warehouses of surplus and order, of the American dream being sold for a song. But the costs of exclusionary living, no matter how mundane they might appear, are very high. The danger of upward mobility is always about who is excluded, and how cleverly we disguise the inequalities our systems of commerce create. It is designed to justify me only wanting to be around people who shop like me, look like me, eat like me, and live like me. They have created a box around me, and I don’t want to leave.

I am learning to ask myself different questions. To consider why I feel comfortable in some places, and not so much in others. To choose to ask myself: are my choices good for my neighbors? Does everyone have the same level of access that I do? Does this help my community in any real way? If the answers are a resounding no, then I am learning to be creative and look for other options. But the truth is that this doesn’t come naturally.

 

The world is hard, outside of the store. Sometimes, I just want to stay inside forever.

 

 

 

I am going to be writing about downward mobility for a good long while on this blog. I am interested in stories of trailer parks, lonely hearts, obedient teenagers and quiet lives. Click here for the introductory post, and then think about submitting your own story. 

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a thanksgiving of firsts

i got hit by a wave of sadness yesterday, out of nowhere, alone at the park with the toddler.

and i realized: this is the first thanksgiving i have ever been away from my family.

for some reason, in all my travels, i always made it back for this holiday (but i did miss a christmas or two). and my family has always done thanksgiving up big, my childhood filled with memories at my grandparents house in the woods, so many cousins to play with. in recent years the hub has been portland, any and all travelers, wanderers, or the family-less welcome to a seat at my parent’s table. my sister, the famous food blogger, has in recent years upped the ante of our meals, and they are now culinary masterpieces. we play games, watch tv, lounge and laugh at the babies. and we talk, all day long, about what we are thankful for; but the strangest part is that we don’t even have to use words. the day after thanksgiving i always did a second meal for all my refugee neighbors (sometimes it was disastrous, sometimes it was peaceful–but it was always fun).

so this year is the first time i ever went to a store and bought all the fixin’s for a meal, myself.

this is the first year i am not rushing around trying to plan anything. this is the first year of cooking food by faith, of not-knowing who will come and eat.

this is the first year with a mobile child (my blue velvet cake has prodigious finger poke holes in it, there are chocolate fingerprints on the couch).

this is the first year of feeling, deep down in our bones, that our choices will not always be easy. and this makes us grateful for the grace to obey.

in the midst of the tears (yes, there will be tears), i am very thankful. to even be in a position like this is crazy-cakes. i feel as confused and expectant as a pre-pentecost disciple, wondering what in the blazes is going on, just along for this crazy ride. with jesus, you never know what is going to happen. and, of course, there is a solidarity in lonely meals, in being far from loved ones, of having to forge your own customs in a strange place. i am grateful for the privilege of experiencing life here, of getting a small glimpse into the other side of holidays, the dark and lonely places.

so for us, like many, today is full of both sadness and thanksgiving. maybe it is for you too.

may you be present in all of it, wherever christ may send you.

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mutuality

mutuality is a big buzzword in our new circles out here, and it’s a word i thought i knew, which seemed as familiar to me as an older relative, harmless, well-intentioned, sitting in the corner eating a piece of pie.

but we are learning that this word has power beyond what we know, how this one concept can change everything in relationships, in a life of service, in crossing barriers of culture and socio-economic status.

most christian programs are based on the opposite of mutuality; one person is in need, the other person helps. this is the way it is. i am the volunteer, the mentor, the homework club founder, tutor, basketball camp organizer, art class referee; i am the teacher, the helper, the servant. and others–they were always served.

these connotations are negative in any light, if we would so choose to look at them carefully. but compound that with any hopes for expanding the kingdom of god, and we find ourselves in a race for converts, with my own spirituality on the line. it can get sticky, very fast.

so we are learning here about mutuality. how it is the slowest of slow-cooked meals (starting with planting seeds and all). it drives me batty, to be honest. i would love to march down these graffiti streets like a 60-year old nun, head held high, doing the work of the Lord. heavens, i would like to use the degree i paid thousands of dollars for, to teach people how to read and write and help make life more bearable here. i would love to see a need and pounce on it, fix it, serve somebody. because this has always been who i am. please, please don’t ask me to give it up.

but i have been asked, and my fingers have been uncurling slowly. just being a neighbor is one of the hardest, most boring things in the world. nothing to rely on but . . . where we live. um, toddlers. the weather. being away from family. the cold. is it going to snow. no, i don’t have any plans for thanksgiving. um, i don’t think that is actually a computer, that just looks like a monitor from the 80s. oh, more candy for the toddlers? thanks so much. the guy with the truck full of free food is here again? score! yup, yup, just going on a walk to the library. again. oh, don’t mind her screaming–she’s just two.

and yesterday we hung out with some newly made friends from bhutan, and they cooked us food and invited over all their neighbors “so we could have more friends.” the baby girl ran around with the cutest little boy, throwing stuffed animals, guzzling juice, eating her spicy snacks with glee. we all laughed and talked about everything, and some people said they might come over for thanksgiving (but they made it clear they don’t like american food). as we left both the husband and i looked at each other, stuffed on food and companionship, and realized that this wasn’t a mutual relationship.

we are the ones being served, here.

this is a good and hard week for us. missing family, friends, nostalgic for old times. but our doors have been blown wide open, our days a great blank canvas and we aren’t busy painting anything. we are just watching the colors as they appear, beautiful and mysterious. and for the first time, i am starting to grasp how little i have to do with all of it.

 

 

ps. i have had this post in my head for awhile, but i was inspired to write after reading this today. that girl can preach!

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