On Food Stamps, Local Schools, and All my White Friends: Guest Post by Alissa

Alissa is another person I met through this series, when she bravely contacted me out of the blue. I can’t express to you how encouraging it is to even find people wrestling with similar sorts of questions. I will address this sooner than later, but it has become increasingly clear that the Downward Mobility series is for those that are already feeling the call, the nudge, or are somewhere in the messy throes of trying to live simply and with our marginalized neighbors in mind. Alissa is one of those people. And she encourages me with her honesty, her love, and her willingness to risk. This subject has no easy answers. Anyone who has even for a moment tried to identify with people from different backgrounds will recognize what Alissa talks about when she says she sometimes feels like a fraud. There are no easy answers here, but I am glad we are all questioning together. 

 

 

On food stamps, local schools, and all my white friends

Guest post by Alissa BC

 

A couple weeks ago, I went in with my one-year old to our local Department of Human Services. Visits like this are not entirely out of the ordinary for us. In the four years I’ve been married we’ve been on and off of both food stamps and WIC at different points, services which require at least a couple visits a year to various government buildings. This particular day, I was in to renew my son’s TennCare, which is our state’s Medicaid program, the only income-based service for which we still qualify. While we were waiting in line, I turned around to notice a mother and newborn baby in line behind us. I asked about the baby and tried to make polite conversation, but I could tell she wasn’t really interested, so I turned back around. That’s when it suddenly struck me, that this woman, or any of the people surrounding me, could live on my street, could live a few houses over, and I have no idea who they are.   

We moved into our current neighborhood nearly four years ago, fresh from our honeymoon. We had each spent the previous year or so as full-time community volunteers in two very different rural communities. I had been on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and my husband had been in the small coal-mining town of Logan, West Virginia, communities found in two of the poorest counties in the country. After our experiences there, we were committed to living the same type of lifestyle- knowing our neighbors and being involved in the community- in our new home. 

We chose our particular neighborhood for its racial and socio-economical diversity and chose a nearby church for its emphasis on community development. We were quite poor ourselves in those early years, working minimum wage jobs and finishing up school, and more than a little dependent on food stamps. Meanwhile, we attended community events, frequented the same grocery stores as our neighbors, and became extremely involved in the local work of our church. A couple years later, my husband began teaching at our zoned high school, where a large majority of the students are considered low-income. After our son was born, we took him to appointments at the nearby pediatric clinic run by our pastor’s wife. 

The point I’m trying to make with all this is that our lives are arranged in such a way that makes interacting with the poor on a daily basis highly probable. And yet, despite the fact that I may wave hello on our daily walks, or give a hug during church, or let a group of teenagers pass my baby around, none of these people can be found among my closest friends. Sure, I know the poor. They sit across from me at the potluck, or ask to mow my lawn, or even watch my kid in the nursery. But when we throw a small birthday party, or get together for dinner with our closest friends, the people I see are nearly all middle-class, at least culturally, and they are mostly white. 

And I think that’s strange. I think it’s strange that after nearly four years of somewhat-intentional living in a low-income neighborhood, long enough for us to have built a family out of thin air, we still find ourselves worlds apart from the people we are meant to love. I think it’s strange that despite all the downward mobility we can muster, the people we call with news and pour our hearts out to are, by and large, people who look and talk like us. And I think it’s strange that it’s the struggles of those people that move me far more than those of the people I supposedly came here to love, because for some reason the former are close like family, but between me and the latter there exists this mysterious insurmountable chasm that keeps us from knowing each other’s hearts truly and deeply.  

I could propose a few reasons for why this is, but I don’t really have the answers, and I actually think that is okay. I think it’s okay to keep reaching out to complete strangers and hoping for connection, even though I feel like a fraud, even though I am a fraud. I think it’s okay to keep showing up to the potluck anyway and to sit in the tension of being with people who are different than me. I think it’s okay to acknowledge that I am pretty much not getting it right when it comes to loving my neighbors, and that something must be deeply broken, in our world and in me, that I alone do not have the power to fix. 

 

 

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlissa BC is a wife, mother, and aspiring writer. She spends nap times obsessing over words and the rest of the day biking around town with her toddler or waiting for the next person to show up at her door. She writes about family, community, faith, doubt, the South, and simple living at makinghomesimple.blogspot.com and occasionally dips her toes into the cold waters of twitter and facebook. She lives real life among the beautiful people of Chattanooga, TN.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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11 thoughts on “On Food Stamps, Local Schools, and All my White Friends: Guest Post by Alissa

  1. Wow I really resonated with Alissa! Though our situations are a little different my feelings about friends and neighbors are so similar. We moved our family to live and work among the people of Haiti and while we are completely surrounded by beautiful Haitian people, many of whom I am coming to love, it is the other “blans” I have the most meaningful connection with. I too have wondered when I will experience more meaningful friendships in my community and what I need to do to make that happen. Thank you for being comfortable with some ambiguity and trusting God to lay the groundwork.
    blessings friend,
    Christina

  2. I grew up in Colombia with missionary parents. My brother and I played with neighbor kids, both Colombian and expat. But now that I think about it, birthday parties and similar celebrations involved exclusively expats, at least for me. My older sisters were considerably more involved socially with their Colombian friends.

    And now the pendulum has swung the other way. I am married to a Colombian lady, and have no American friends here in Tampa except coworkers. When we go to Medellín, we visit family and friends, and I have no contact with the expat community.

    When I was in college, my sister and her husband lived in subsidized housing and attended an African-American church and received food stamps and WIC. But their home was very clearly white middle-class, and the friends they spent time with were as well. It made me realize that middle class is a culture, not an income stratum.

  3. “I think it’s strange that after nearly four years of somewhat-intentional living in a low-income neighborhood, long enough for us to have built a family out of thin air, we still find ourselves worlds apart from the people we are meant to love.” Alissa this is so honest and awesome. I think — especially as a suburban person who HASN’T made the same choices you and your family have made — I get really tempted by the idea that I have to move to a low-income neighborhood in order to magically be a better person, magically find my purpose, and magically change others’ lives. It is refreshing and helpful to hear you admit that it’s not so simple — it really IS about a change of heart and action as much as it is about a change of place. And even then, it really actually is about even more than that.

    One thing I have been wondering is if it is OKAY to just stay in similar-minded, similar-looking communities. I mean, I don’t think I’d necessarily feel like I had to be buddy-buddies with all these other different people groups as long as I knew that we were all safe, healthy, happy, and not hurting each other. The ONLY REASON I feel like I should be making “culture jumps” in my life is because I am aware of the injustices between different levels of income and race, etc. If I didn’t know about those injustices, I think I would feel fine just loving and working with the family and friends and community I already have.

    I guess I am ultimately asking this: is the Kingdom of Heaven a big mixed crowd full of people of every nation? or is the Kingdom of Heaven all of us in our separate areas, all worshipping God equally (i.e. “white churches” and “black churches” and “hispanic churches” etc)? Are these two things actually the same?

    I think what freaks me out most is there isn’t a right answer. We CAN be separate, divided into different communities — we HAVE to be in some sense, because of our finitude and the limits of time/space/place. What seems important is that we are open to welcoming neighbors always and no matter what, and refusing to ever do evil to them. “Downward mobility” seems important anyways because it the sort of movement that shakes us up, turns us upside down, makes us ask, and think, and realize our need for God and others (whoever those others may be).

    Is “worlds apart” okay, because it’s actually not true — you really are sharing a world like this, still?

    Long comment, sorry, but great stuff Alissa, thanks for getting me thinking.

    • alissabc says:

      Thanks, Melissa. You bring up so many good questions. One thing I’ve really been dwelling on since writing this is something DL mentioned to me, that sometimes to develop deep relationships with people unlike us, we have to somehow limit our relationships with those most like us. That way our need for community will drive us to develop relationships that we otherwise wouldn’t make a priority, because they’re not easy. I definitely saw how this can work when I was living on a reservation, where people who looked and talked like me were few and far between, so I was able to be more fully immersed in my relationships there. I am already a person who tends toward fewer, deeper friendships, though, so I don’t know that I will ever be at the point where I am willing to disengage from some of those in hopes of reconciliation with others, but it is definitely something to seriously consider as I continue to wrestle with this. I think this is one of those things that looks different for everyone, based on their season. Good to hear your thoughts!

  4. Rachel says:

    Thank you for this post. It gave me pause and words to help me process this aspect our last 5 years. We have been living among a predominantly Muslim, lower to middle income community in the developing world. I too have found that my most authentic relationships are not in the community where I live, they are with other friends more like me in culture, faith, and history of wealth. Language and culture are big barriers to relationships in our community, however the biggest is my lack of vulnerability. I have been warmly received, helped and asked for help in my neighborhood. I have been a willing participant in weddings and important community events, but I rarely let my guard down. When I was struggling, I shut my door and buried myself in the internet or called a friend. I chose to close off a part of myself because it was too uncomfortable and I wasn’t sure if I’d be understood or wanted. It is one thing for me to sacrifice comfort physically and another thing to be willing to sacrifice my emotional comfort. But that’s where Christ meets us in the presence of others is when we are vulnerable and broken. I want to live that out-God help me!

    • alissabc says:

      Thanks, Rachel. I love what you said about sacrificing physical v. emotional comfort. It really is a whole different level of downward mobility. It’s crazy to see how similar our experiences can be even in such different contexts.

  5. This is such a struggle…one that I feel keenly! Even if our hearts are drawn to people of many backgrounds, we still feel safest with people from backgrounds like ours. I think this explains well why our churches aren’t more diverse than they are – we want to feel safe at church, so we cluster with people like ourselves. I go back and forth if this is good or bad. Any thoughts?

  6. dianeemiller says:

    This is such a great post. I have wrestled with this a lot over the past 10 years. It seems if you have school age kids, you do blend more because you work together in community for the betterment of all the neighborhood children. So, you also hang at everyone’s house for birthdays, fiestas, or whatever your local culture might celebrate with the children.

    However, much of the time it does seem like deep relationship only happens in homogenous community… our like-minded heritage seems to create some type of soothing comfort, similar to being deeply known.

thoughts?

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