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.