Category Archives: Community Living

If You Knew Me, You Would Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we would all be richer for it.

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

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

 

 

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One Very Small Thing, A Thousand Very Small Things

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

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

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

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

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

And, of course, the peacemakers.

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

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

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

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

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

Nor should we.

 

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You can read my One Small Change Piece here.

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

Heather King’s excellent blog.

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

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

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Re-Neighboring and Staying — Guest Post by Deanna Martinez

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

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

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

 

 

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

Guest post by Deanna Martinez

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

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the ministry of funfetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Downward Mobility — Guest Post by Jenny Flannagan

Jenny Flannagan is super cool. Into drama, music, and the arts, she writes about the realities of her neighborhood with crushing clarity, empathy and a much-needed sense of humor. Seriously, the girl is funny. I had my eye on her writing for this series from the get-go and am so pleased to have this essay here today. I identify with so many aspects of her story, but none more than the apparent joy she gets from all the pleasures of her abundant life. It just doesn’t look abundant in the way that the world would have for us.

Make sure you check out her blog (Jenny from the Block) and find her on Twitter.

 

 

Downward Mobility — Guest Post by Jenny Flannagan

 

 

A few years a man who was compiling a book entitled Success wrote and asked me to contribute a statement on how I got to be a success.  I replied indignantly that I was not able to consider myself a success in any terms that had a meaning to me.  I swore I had spent my life strenuously avoiding success.

So wrote monk and mystic Thomas Merton in 1979 in his typically provocative and paradoxical manner.  His words feel important and at the same time bewilder me.  They’re not what I grew up with.

More words, quoted recently by Shawn Smucker in his guest post:

My whole life I have been surrounded by well-meaning encouragement to go ‘higher up,’ and the most-used argument was : ‘You can do so much good there, for so many people.’ But these voices calling me to upward mobility are completely absent from the Gospel. 

Henri Nouwen, Here and Now

These words give shape to the fears and anxieties that assail me when I hear the term downward mobility, a phrase we have used in the past few years to describe how we are trying to live.

The truth is, I’m not sure quite what it means and if I qualify or if we’re just kidding ourselves.  When I really think about it, I get confused as to whether it’s even a goal we should be pursuing.

It makes sense when I think how we’re not trying to earn as much money as we could, that we’ve chosen part-time work and rejected career ladders and embraced a lifestyle with less money to have more time in our neighbourhood and for our family.  It explains why we’ve chosen to stay in the inner-city and live on a government housing block alongside people from different immigrant communities as well as long-term locals, many of them on low incomes or benefits.  It’s a fitting commentary on our attempts to live light and cheap and thrifty and open-handed.

It feels hollow and pretentious when I head out with my suitcase on another international adventure for my job, past my neighbours, some of whom have never left the country and who have lived their whole lives within a mile radius or others who can rarely afford to visit their homeland.  It feels like a lie when I consider the choices we have because of our family’s support and our savings and our education; the invitations we get to share our stories at conferences and write books and make albums.  Occasionally people tell us “we could never do what you do,” and I think of my comfortable bed and colourful home, our friendly neighbours and amazingly central location, and wonder what on earth they have in their head.

We aren’t part of a missional order or an organisation.  We have taken no vows. We don’t have a project.  No-one supports us with donations or ministry gifts*.  We just live here and try to be good neighbours and listen out for what God is saying and doing so we can be part of it.  And pray to see the stuff we read about elsewhere happen here.  And plug away.

We don’t have a team.  We have church, and a few friends who are trying to do similar things, but no-one in the same neighbourhood or building.  Most of our friends are making really different choices, the ‘responsible’ choices that give them bigger houses and gardens for their kids to play in, and on my worst days my heart is full of pharisaical judgement for them, my thinly disguised resentment of their successful upward mobility.

Often I feel lonely and wonder what we’re trying to do exactly.

Even working out what downward mobility looks like in the UK is a stretch.  The inner-cities have become the preserve mainly of the extremely rich and the poorest communities (whose housing is subsidised), with few others able to stay.  It’s at its most extreme, of course, in London.  The private market is so obscenely expensive that anyone on an average or even fairly good income usually has to leave the moment they need some space or have a family.  But we have a system of social housing that means that subsidised accommodation is available across our cities for those who meet particular criteria like homelessness, sickness, unemployment – and other kinds of intense social needs. If you don’t qualify for this kind of housing but want to stay on the stigmatised council estates, the supposed hotbeds of crime and your only chance of life in a mixed income environment, it won’t be cheap.  You will have to pay a lot of money to rent them privately or buy them.  The most expensive places I’ve ever lived are inner-city council flats.

So somehow you need to find enough money to live amongst people with a lot less money, making a real sense of solidarity increasingly inaccessible.  And, like them, you end up living across the street from the crazily-wealthy whose lifestyles are insanely out-of-your-reach.

Downward mobility feels complicated and compromised and confusing.  As an end in itself it seems a bit pointless. Unless, unless it makes other things possible.

And I think that’s what I believe.  I keep coming back to this conviction that God doesn’t call to us to more frugal life, but a more abundant one.  Only it looks totally different to what the world would make us assume.  Abundant living is free from aggressive and destructive (and even complacent) consumption, which numbs us and distracts us from really experiencing life.  It is rich in relationships and vulnerability and community, it isn’t sheltered from chaos and pain, it is sometimes agonising but always creative and steeped in hope and faith.

It was certainly never the life I planned. Oh no, I was going to be wildly successful but then generously give away most of my winnings.  Invisibility, obscurity, doubt, identity crises, these were never my ambition.  Success was inevitable.

But then if downward mobility means anything at all to me, it has started to mean a death to success in more and more of the ways I counted it.  I have old friends from college taking Hollywood by storm, sitting in Parliament and writing acclaimed novels.  That’s not my life.

We’re here because we believe it does make a difference when people stick around in the inner-city and build lasting friendships and raise their kids here and love their neighbours and work for reconciliation and hope.  Even if the fruit of it is hardly visible in this generation, we have faith that we’re part of a bigger, better story that has a good ending, and we want desperately to be part of that story in this neighbourhood.

But we’re not just playing an endgame.  We live this way because we believe it is a better life (on our good days we believe that).

It is, however, a daily affront to all the assumptions I made for so many years about how successful I would be, an affront to my pride and my competitiveness and my belief in what a difference I can make.

I don’t know if our income or square footage or CVs will look ‘downwardly mobile’ in the decades to come (and maybe that would just become a counter-intuitive, an alternative success indicator for me), but I hope that my heart will find the long-haul courage to choose something real rather than just something everyone else is trying to sell me, to look down more up, and most of all to listen for the life Jesus is inviting me to live rather than everyone else.

 

 

 

 

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Jenny Flannagan is a writer, actress and film-maker.  She has worked for Tearfund for the past 9 years, spending the past 6 of them travelling a lot, finding ways to capture and share stories of Christians serving their communities in diverse and amazing ways all around the world.  But now she is pregnant and can’t get on any more planes. She is also a founding member of the theatre company The Ruby Dolls, described by Time Out as “an elegant, inventive and absorbing fusion of theatre, music, storytelling, dance and puppetry“.  She lives on a council estate in South London with her husband Andy, where they are trying to be downwardly mobile.  They are part of The Well Community Church and lead a fledgling missional community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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Seeds of Incarnation– Guest Post by Daniel Karistai

 

I’m excited Daniel is here to write for us today because he brings some necessary push back to the series–he, for one, doesn’t think the term “downward mobility” is near enough. I am grateful for his perspective (although I don’t agree with all his presuppositions or conclusions–which is great!) and this is exactly what I need to expand my horizons and continue on the path of asking: what next, Jesus? Daniel is that rare combination of being both a thinker AND a do-er, and I am glad to have him here today. 

 

 

The Christ of the Breadlines by Fritz Eichenberg. Image found here: http://sacredartpilgrim.com/collection/view/19

The Christ of the Breadlines by Fritz Eichenberg. Image found here: http://sacredartpilgrim.com/collection/view/19

Seeds of Incarnation; Guest post by Daniel Karistai

 

 

 

Becoming a part of a city

My wife and I have lived in New Orleans for nearly three years and I consider this city to be my home. This is a big deal for me because I have moved around a lot in both my childhood and young adult years. It wasn’t until my wife and I moved to NOLA that I saw the very real possibility of staying in the same place, establishing roots in a community, raising our children and eventually be buried above ground with my own second line and everything (those who live in New Orleans are typically buried above ground in a family mausoleum and a “second line” is a type of funeral procession that is unique to this city. For more information GOOGLE “St. Louis Cemetery” and also “Second Line Jazz Funeral” and you’ll learn all about it). For someone like me where mobility has been more or less a lifestyle this experience of coming home for the first time has been both profound and unique. The other side of that coin is that Amanda and I know we are outsiders, we don’t pretend to be anything else and this knowledge is often reinforced by the disposition of new people we meet. It’s an interesting tension because while we are embraced with a hybrid of a laissez faire celebration of life and the warm embrace of Southern Hospitality there is also a distance kept between us and them. We are not met with cynicism or skepticism when we’ve talked about our love for this city and hopes for the future. It’s just a simple look on their faces or a tone of voice that says “time will tell”.

There isn’t enough space in this post to talk in depth about the ways the New Orleans’ population has always been in flux. From being owned by Empires to becoming one of the greatest cities of tourism in the world there are a lot of faces that do not stay long enough to become known. The other side of this distance we encounter in our neighbors is the fact that the zeitgeist of this city was galvanized by Katrina. For those of us who came after the Storm there is a core component to this culture’s collective story that we just don’t know because we weren’t there. That’s okay, though, all is not lost in the process of becoming a true New Orleanian because we’ve also never experienced the attitude of “You’ll never be one of us because you didn’t go through Katrina”. Instead, there is this question which sort of floats over all other conversation that no one dares to ask because the rejection would be heartbreaking: will you stay when times get tough?  Will you send your kids to the same schools are ours? Will you suffer alongside us with the same love for this neighborhood and city that you have when you’re celebrating with us? The rub in trying to answer these unasked questions is that only time will tell.

 

Downward Mobility and the Incarnational Life

I share this tension that I live in to create a framework for understanding what I see as a parallel difference between downward mobility and living incarnationally. In a word, downward mobility is transformed into an incarnational lifestyle when the choice to opt-out of the suffering that comes with downward mobility is surrendered.

First, let’s define “downward mobility”. The definition D.L. offers at the beginning of this series is a good, straightforward one: the movement of an individual, social group, or class to a lower status. I really like this concept. I think more people need to become downwardly mobile for all sorts of reasons – many of which are discussed in the other posts of this series. Personally, as we have embarked on our own journey toward a more simple, less consumer driven lifestyle we have experienced an incredible sense of freedom to be whom God is creating us to be. On the other hand, I am also one of those people whom this series had previously mentioned that doesn’t believe downward mobility is enough. I believe it is a crucial aspect of the incarnational life but I’m noticing more and more confusion between these two concepts that I want to press into. Downward mobility is a cultural critique of western capitalism, the American Dream or Modernity itself. The Incarnational Life inhabits the vacuums created by the upwardly mobile (For more insight on this particular point check out Sister Margaret M. McKenna’s chapter “Relocation to the Abandoned Places of Empire” in School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism by the Rutba House). Downward mobility is an architect’s blue prints and the Incarnational Life is the cathedral that those plans will eventually become. Please allow me to outline three reasons why I understand downward mobility in this fashion:

  1. Downward Mobility doesn’t have the capacity to levy the kind of critique it tries to. Social mobility as we know it finds it genesis in the creation of the bourgeois social class during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. This is an inherently Enlightenment construct with the sovereignty of the individual at the heart of it all. The socio-economic status of a person is the direct result of his or her life choices. I don’t want to capitulate too much into my next reason here but for now the underpinning logic of downward mobility is a choice that is no more different than moving up in the world. When we use “downward mobility” as a locus of meaning for engaging our neighborhoods and cities we are playing according our culture’s own terms. Rather than levying a critique of our culture downward mobility seems to only shift which direction we ought to go on this linear scale. Ultimately, downward mobility reinforces one’s status in a social class construct rather demonstrating the absurdity of it all.

  2. Downward Mobility is still a position of transcendence. For every choice you and I make that is intentionally downwardly mobile there will come seasons when the authenticity of those choices will be tested. In those crucible moments we are empowered with a choice that not everyone has – to get out or suffer through it. This choice makes the downwardly mobile transcendent from those who don’t have a choice. When those who are practicing downward mobility surrender that choice they cross over the threshold into living incarnationally. I’m going to return to this in a minute.

  3. Sometimes Upward Mobility is a good thing. There is an NPO in New Orleans called Café Reconcile (cafereconcile.org). This organization’s mission is to equip at risk youths with job skills they would need to be successful in the restaurant and hospitality industry – for this city that can be a rather lucrative career. More than just giving people a job they offer a holistic case management service that has helped hundreds of people get off the streets, recover from any number of addictions and out of domestically violent environments. Is this not upward mobility? Is this also not something good? It’s easy to fall into it, but we must resist the temptation to categorically denounce upward mobility in our advocacy for experimenting with its counterpart.

Downward Mobility has a great amount of potential and can take us far in emulating God’s own method of engagement with his creation through the humanity of Jesus. In of itself, however, downward mobility does not have the ability to bridge the gap between living a transcendent, privileged life and an incarnational one because the individual remains sovereign. Returning to reason number two, what would the gospel story be like if at Gethsemane Jesus called down a legion of angels to take him away from the immense suffering on the horizon? No, the story of the Incarnation is not complete without the cross…and neither is ours. The Incarnational Life requires of us to not only drink from the cup of His new covenant but also the cup of suffering for the purpose of accomplishing what work God has called us to. Acts of downward mobility are seeds of the incarnational life. They invite us into an entirely different genre of life; one of surprise and wonder. When we cross that threshold we enter into a world of parables where we see with our own eyes what the Kingdom of God is like.  This transformation from downward mobility to incarnation requires a steadfast commitment to the hope we have in Christ’s resurrection, a willingness to suffer alongside those we journey with and the prophetic witness of simplicity within our cultures of desire and hyper-consumption. As for our neighbors, if we remain committed to the incarnational life time will certainly tell a magnificent story of solidarity, suffering, redemption and even ascension into the resurrected life.

 

 

380606_520990839713_37763735_nDaniel and his wife Amanda live in New Orleans and are members of an organization called Communitas (www.communitas-ic.org).  When he’s not at work, hanging out with his wife, dog and/or community you can usually find him at the neighborhood coffee shop drinking coffee and working on his thesis.  From time to time he posts on his own blog at www.urbanmonastic.org.  You can follow him on twitter (urbanmonknola) or befriend him on Facebook (http://facebook.com/drkaristai).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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Choosing a Different Dream: Guest Post by Diane Miller

I love that this series on Downward Mobility introduced me to Diane Miller. One can argue about terms and theoreticals and even theology all the live long day, but what really interests me (and, I suspect, everyone else) are stories of transformation. Diane is one of those people (and she is so very very nice!). I, like Diane, believe there are a whole lot of us out there who are being transformed with better dreams, visions that come from Christ himself. Diane gives a call that I would love to see responded to: are there others out there like her? It’s time to share your story in this space, time to be mutually encouraged, time for a fresh wave of vision for the peace of God to come in all our neighborhoods. Amen!

Choosing a Different Dream: Guest Post by Diane Miller

Most of us in the U.S. have bought into some version of the American dream. We get an education, a job and then we buy dream stuff–a widescreen something or other, a car, furniture, and then maybe a condo or house.  Along with that, we also seem to choose a destination-based community lifestyle, as we start traveling to our job, school, church, or activities.  We head out from our home in the morning and come back after our 9, 12 or 15-hour day of work, school and/or fun stuff.  No longer is most of daily American life spent in our home neighborhoods. Our lifestyles are now formed by the pursuit of our American opportunities and we spend more hours “going & doing” each day than we do living in our homes (sleeping doesn’t count!). I bought into this modern-day prosperity lifestyle for a few decades; however, I am now done with it! My dream routine left me with no sense of belonging in any one community and the “going & doing” became too downright exhausting!!

Our family has decided to intentionally live different. We’ve chosen a culturally and socio-economically blended neighborhood to call home and we are determined to base most of our life here. We’re not “going & doing” as much. We own one car and live on one income, which affords me, the mom, time to do all sorts of community activism and volunteer work. Our daughter attends a neighborhood public school, has become fully bilingual and is on track to head to her college choice.

We know that we have had privilege and entitlements being white, growing up in a quickly fading white dominant culture. We are highly educated and have more than our basic needs provided for by my husband’s corporate-type job. We could have chosen a “stacked wealth” area that appears more affluent, beautiful, comfortable and safe to live in.  However, we’ve resolved that those qualities no longer fit with our family mission of living with less and loving more.  So, we’re living and breathing deep into our chosen beloved ‘hood while building meaningful friendships with our neighbors–as many as possible!

Most days we find peace, freedom and joyful adventure in this life. Our neighborhood mix gives us opportunity to get to know folks who are immigrants from all over the world. The only thing homogeneous in our community is that we are all very different. Is that comfortable?  Well, not always. We have tolerated vandalism, tagging, alley arson fires, gang bangers hanging around and an occasional shooting. But, is it a place to see our God’s goodness, live an abundant life adventure and stand against the systemic injustices that follow gentrification in our nation’s cities? Yes, pretty much everyday! It is our family model for living and loving well with what we have been given. Besides, how did comfort, dream stuff and constant “going & doing” become more valuable than Christian love and servitude to others not like us in a neighborhood community?

We’ve been on this journey for a while and, being real, we’re still battling our old “dream” tendencies – so, we’re human! We also believe many others are making similar lifestyle choices and hope to connect with y’all and share stories, inspiring a different type of urbanization movement.  Are you folks out there? what are you doing?

Our dream is that all neighborhoods flourish with no stacked poverty or stacked wealth. . . communities where people live, belong and celebrate the good of all the different residents on their blocks. Neighborhoods where children are well known and have a sense of belonging, peace and hope. Where everyone has the freedom to sit on their front porch and dream big dreams! We see this neighborhood community as a beautiful witness to our God and all the great diversity of His creation–shalom as our new life-giving American Dream!

“When God called Abraham to bless him, and to bless all the nations through him, he employed the notion of “Shalom”. This Hebrew word, in time, came to mean everything good you would want for yourself and wishing that same quality of life for your neighbors and friends…” (Dr. John Perkins, Beyond Charity

on the porch_BWDiane is a former corporate America 70’s gal, who roared through the business world for 30 years. It took a move from her beloved, fast-paced urban lifestyle into California suburbia to shake her world. There, she was asked to be an outreach director at a large church. Her upwardly mobile, affluent Christian lifestyle became totally wrecked as her family started & continues on a journey of living different.

She is now a wife, mom & neighbor in the diverse Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. She labels herself as a CCD Mama. That means a gal (not necessarily married or a mom!) who commits to live & love with God’s heart for seeking justice & empowering others in Christian community development. You can find her website at Connectingood, or find her on Twitter here.

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

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The Rocky Road: Guest Post by Christiana

Christiana is a gem–sweet AND brilliant, she inspires me with her commitments to simplicity and joy (also, she sends me poetry magazines and homemade jam, so you know she is the best). I am so glad she chose to share with us some insight into her community, as we all have been called to the bruised and battered ones in some way or another. Be sure to check out her amazing sight for all things DIY and handmade (renew and sustain) and her lovely personal blog

The Rocky Road

by Christiana

We’ve lived in rural intentional Christian community for four years, which is long enough to have learned that while life in community can be filled with joy and celebration, it can also be a messy business. Imagine hippies, anarchists, back-to-landers, radicals, pacifists, new monastics, environmentalists, melancholics, and idealists coming together to agree on a common rule of life.

Sometimes the depth of our brokenness shows up in hurt feelings, disunity, disconnection, victimization, and blame.

Many of my brothers and sisters in Christ have been abused, lonely, and neglected. A good number of folks are attracted to intentional communities like this one because it offers them a family that will love and support them. Much of the time, they’ve been through the ringer. Their family of origin was the opposite of loving; they’ve been dragged through hell but still find a way to worship a loving God in charge of the world.

While I’ve experienced a good deal of loneliness in my life, before I came to community these kind of deep wounds were out of my experience. And I’ll admit that it scared me a lot. I was used to the pressed starchiness of church, where we could pretend we were clean and wholesome, unspoiled by the wrinkles of pain and sin.

Here we worship in old T-shirts, homemade dresses, broom skirts, and ill-fitting thrift store pants.My brothers and sisters are dripping with authenticity. They weep openly in church. They share and sometimes over share. But they don’t hide their pain.

I struggle with a violence inside me that says to find the road to happiness, to find my bliss, to follow my dreams, to take the easy path. But a lovelier voice whispers that the path I need to take is the one strewn about with the pain of my brothers and sisters, with uneasy answers, with uncomfortable and awkward relationships, with inconvenience, with difficult people and choices, with neighbors I don’t like and enemies I don’t want to love, with the vulnerability and humility my brothers and sisters have learned through years of sorrow.

To many, this kind of path would seem to go in the wrong direction, deep into the backwoods, off the golden road that leads to health, wealth, happiness, convenience, and success.

To many, it is a foolish, naïve, quaint or even destructive way to follow.

But this is the path of love. And the truth is, anyone who follows this difficult road is radical whether they have eschewed modern technology, live in the suburbs, refuse to vote, own a home, live simply, have no home, buy organic, or use food stamps.

If we are to live as Jesus would have us live, we are probably in for a rocky road, one that may well take us into places that will stretch us, challenge us or even seem desolate. But the good news is that grace, joy, peace and a profound relationship with Christ abound upon this path. And that is more fulfilling than any label, possession or security we could ever find or create for ourselves.

Mark 8: 34-37 (The Message)*

“Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?”

1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (The Message)

“Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ.”

 

* Sometimes I’ve read or heard a passage from the Bible so often it’s memorized, but some of it’s meaning has been lost. I’ve found The Message to be helpful for blowing away the cobwebs in my spirit and making the Bible new again.

 

 

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Christiana writes at both http://renewandsustain.wordpress.com/ and http://thebeautyofthishour.wordpress.com/.

 

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

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Kids on the Block

Craig Greenfield knows a thing or two about kids and downward mobility. He recently shared this video with me via twitter and it made me sob my ever-loving guts out. We find ourselves in a similar situation to Craig and his family–surrounded by a shocking amount of single people, most of them mired in both economic and relational poverty. Watching this video was a transforming experience–within a moment, I saw how I had been missing all the blessings that were right in front of my eyes.  Two days after I saw this video, a neighbor asked my husband if he could come over for dinner. “You guys are the only family I know,” he said, and he offered to bring over some shrimp. God’s party is so good, I can’t even handle it.

Do me a solid and stop what you are doing for the next 20 minutes. Watch this video, and be amazed at the beauty of mutuality and vulnerability, of the spaces made available for everyone to come to the table. And then read Craig’s words, born out of both experience and passion, but which are written out of a true spirit of joy. He writes like he forgot how to grow up, which makes his view of Jesus that much clearer.

Kids on the Block from Veritas Media Productions on Vimeo.

 

Taking a child, Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

My daughter is a princess and my son is a prince. They dare to walk where the wild things are. Where police and upright citizens and people with nice shoes fear to tread.

Prince Jay, nine years old, carries a scepter – the fallen limb of a tree that still sprouts green. Princess Micky, seven and a half, is a big girl now. She wears a crown made of purple cardboard, stapled into a circle and thrust upon her knotty hair.

The Prince and Princess parade down the street, each in proud possession of one of daddy’s hands. They are almost oblivious to their subjects, the street vendors and addicts of East Hastings Street. The children hold court with tales of tomorrow’s spelling test and their class photo shoot.

Their subjects huddle in doorways and hunch in shop-fronts. They search in vain for a healthy vein. They crouch in corners and solicit the scorners. Crack, Rock, Up, Down, T3s and Oxy – whatever you need. Whatever you want.

But something happens as royalty sweeps into view. A scarred woman looks up and smiles. The forgotten princess within her reaches out to the princess passing by.

A harried man turns his head. He straightens up, suddenly more regal, an important announcement to make. The call is made, “Kids on the Block!” It echoes down the street, and town criers take up the call, “Kids on the Block!”

Needles are hidden and crack pipes are palmed. Deals are forgotten, suppressed till the Prince and Princess pass. A scuffle breaks out and then disperses. For the moment, swearing is banned. Those who dare to transgress the unwritten law of the jungle are scolded: “Shut the fuck up man. Can’t you see there’s KIDS on the block?”

Surely the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. The Prince and Princess of East Hastings Street.

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My children have lived all their life in slums and inner cities – from Asian mega cities to the notorious Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, BC. Occasionally people pluck up the courage to verbalize their unspoken thoughts: “Is it a good idea to bring up your kids in some of the world’s worst neighborhoods?”

Some folks suggest that we must be putting our ministry before the welfare of our children. It’s an issue Nay and I have thought long and hard about, examining our motives and grappling with scripture. Of course we love our kids and we want the very best for them. But ultimately, we want them to grow up in a family where God comes first – before comfort, before affluence and even if necessary, before safety.

There was a time in the past when certain missionaries did go too far in exposing their families to danger and suffering. But now I believe we have swung back to the other extreme where for some of us, our children have become idols.

The Israelites faced this same question of allegiance and they used the safety of their children as an excuse not to obey God and enter the Promised land (Numbers 14:3). The result was 40 years in the wrong place (a safer place perhaps, but nevertheless the wrong place) and it was their children who ultimately entered the promised land anyway. But sadly without their parents.

We have learnt that as we trust God with our family we will begin to see him at work, not only in our neighborhoods, but in our own lives and the lives of our children. So here are just three of the many ways we have seen our kids blessed from living in impoverished neighborhoods:

  1. They are learning that God loves the people at the bottom of the heap.

I remember the day I met Leanne* shivering and homeless outside our church and she ended up staying with us for a while. I had to smile when, not long after she walked through our door, the kids climbed onto her lap and thrust a book into her weary face, “Can you read us a book Leanne?” You could almost see the healing taking place right before our eyes as Leanne was treated like a normal person for the first time in ages. My children treat everyone who comes into our home with the same mixture of childish impertinence and feistiness, whether they are dirty and homeless or cultured and well off (James 2:2-5).

A friend who struggled with mental illness once told me, “Never forget: everybody matters. Everybody matters, not just some people.” And I have tried to pass this beautiful piece of wisdom on to my kids, because it’s at the heart of what the Kingdom of God is all about. We try to show them by example that Jesus preached an upside-down kingdom where people others write off as worthless, have great value.

  1. They are learning the real effects of drugs and alcohol.

Why is that man lying on the ground shaking like that Daddy?” my son asked me one day. I told him the truth about the poisons that had ravaged that man’s body and mind. We don’t bother to hide most of the realities of this sad place from them. Instead we see them as a helpful life lesson.

So, rather than growing up watching the subtle endorsement of drug and alcohol abuse by celebrities on TV, my kids are learning about the real effects of drugs from our friends on the streets here, whose lives are being ravaged by drugs before our eyes. As a consequence, they harbor no illusions that drugs are fun or safe to use. Not quite the message you get growing up on a steady diet of celebrity “heroes” Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan and their jaunts in and out of prison and rehab.

  1. They are learning that the poor have something to offer.

One day a homeless woman rushed up to me as I pushed my daughter in her stroller. “These are for your daughter,” she grinned and thrust a pair of slightly used sandals into my hands. “Sank yoooou,” my then two-year old smiled up at her. My kids are growing up seeing that people marginalized by society have something beautiful to offer in God’s kingdom. They see everyone pitching in to make a community meal, they see our friend who has been on and off the street fixing our car or installing lights or working on a building project with us. They see them for who they are – not recipients of charity, but friends and family with gifts and passions and faults and struggles.

Jesus brought our attention time and time again to the poorest folks who gave so much. To Jesus they were not beneficiaries or clients. He went out of his way to make certain that we would take notice of the widow and her two mites, the prostituted woman with her bottle of perfume and the little boy with his fish sandwiches. These poor folks are stars in the gospels, examples of people of faith and generosity. Living here, we have plenty of opportunity to teach our kids those same lessons, rather than reinforce the idea that we, the rich, have everything together.

There are more blessings too numerous to mention, as well as new and different challenges. Our dream is that our kids will grow up to love and serve this Jesus who loved the poor and the marginalized.

We hope they will learn that life is not all about comfort and success as portrayed by the media. But rather about significance and love. They are surrounded by people who love and watch out for them, including other members of our missional community and neighbors who struggle with poverty and other challenges, but still find it within themselves to care for our kids.

And for any child, there could be no better place to grow up than in the midst of love.

_MG_6827 Craig Greenfield is the founder of Alongsiders International – a movement to reach the developing world’s most vulnerable children (www.facebook.com/alongsiders and www.alongsiders.org). He is the author of The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor and he was a part of establishing the Servants Vancouver intentional community in inner city Vancouver, BC. Craig and his family are currently in a Cambodian slum in Phnom Penh (where they previously lived for 6 years). You can find Craig on twitter here.

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

For the rest of the posts in the series, click here.

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you see flowers in these weeds

One of the aspects of downward mobility that hits hard is the kid issue. It comes slowly to me because this is my first child and we are figuring everything out together. She is going to be three this summer, and now suddenly she has legs that want to explore, a mind that is never quiet, hair that blows about in the breeze. But we live in a basement apartment, with not a blade of grass to call our own. On good days, when it is sunny and I have the energy and my daughter is in the mood, we walk to the parks that are closest to us and bask in the solidarity of just needing a break after that long, hard winter. On the good days, I am grateful for everything–the urban experiences, the color and verve, the lack of uniformity of any kind, the sheer amount of people walking and talking and screaming and loving and hating life. My daughter is living out the childhood I always thought so exotic, the ones I learned about on Sesame Street. She is an inner-city kid, with all the good and bad that comes along with that.

So we learn slowly, both about what is so good and what is rather hard about choosing smaller, crowded spaces. We have been learning lately about the very air we breathe, and how it affects not only my own daughter, but the babies of everyone who lives in a similar situation to us. We live surrounded by 3 (yes, 3) freeways, connected to the downtown and east and west sides by a series of bridges. This means my daughter is at risk for developing childhood asthma. Poverty is a huge indicator for a number of diseases, which I always knew but was a safe and distant fact. Now it is near to me, the visions of labored breathing, cloudy lungs, a confined life. Friends of ours, doctors who are choosing their own path of downward mobility, told us about the research and showed us the air filter they bought for their own apartment.

I know we are lucky that we even have the access to this kind of knowledge, research, and appropriate medical responses. But the larger issue for me is that this is just one of the thousands of questions that run through my mind. I always start in my small, concentric circles: what does this mean for my daughter? What if my choices give my child asthma?  Then, after a day or two, the circles start to widen: what does this mean for the other children in my neighborhood? How do those parents feel about the effects their environment has on their health? What about the children that live around the world in much more toxic environments? Then, the practicalities start, whirring incessantly  Should I buy an air filter? Where can I get one second-hand? Will it really work? Can my neighbors afford air filters? And on and on it goes, about any matter of subjects.

I suppose I think that at one time I didn’t have to ask so many questions, and a part of me misses that.  But through this process of learning and growing and looking down, down, down, I have been forced to confront one of the biggest lies we all believe: the illusion that we are in control of our lives. I have been shocked by how pursuing a life lived in simplicity and mutuality with my neighbors has made this apparent. I have given up a few physical things, yes: a yard, a porch, an apartment far away from pollution. But I have been asked to give up so much more of myself, of how I think things should be and go. And in return I am learning about the Father heart of God, how he sees all these questions and even more, and how his answer is always love.

 

So when we have hard days, when the guilt and fear lay it on rather thick, my daughter and I go to the thrift store and buy a magnifying glass. Because even in the miles of pavement, dandelions find their way through the cracks. And my daughter has a world to explore, to marvel at, and to be at home in. I am learning to do likewise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you to all who have submitted ideas for posts–I am still interested in hearing stories/tips/questions from people in a variety of situations and lifestyles in connection with the theme of downward mobility (see first post here). If you want to join the conversation please e-mail me at dlmmcsweeneys@gmail.com. 

 

Later this week, I will have an amazing guest post on kids and downward mobility. I you are anything like me, it will make you cry big fat tears at how wonderful the kingdom of God is, how there is a place for all of us. Especially the babies. 

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