Oh my goodness. I opened up my e-mail last week to this stunner of a guest post sitting quietly in my in-box. These stories, from people in the very process of figuring it all out, speak to me so deeply. I identified SO much with what Annie writes here (being in America, my safety net is that much closer and more tantalizing and convenient). It is also a testament as to how not theoretical this conversation is. When you are friends with poverty, certain questions must be asked (and not always answered). I am very thankful Annie found this series, and that she added her own contribution here.
Moving downward, in spite of the safety net
Guest post by Annie
I have a friend who decided to sleep on the floor for a few months, right next to his bed. It was an act of self-denial. But even as he spent his nights on the hard, unforgiving floor of his room, the bed was within arm’s reach. He might never choose to sleep in it again, but it was still there.
This is perhaps the biggest struggle of it all for me.
This downward mobility stuff is hard. As much as I want to deny myself, it is nearly impossible to forget that there is a wide, comfortable safety net around me. There is always somewhere to fall back on. And I know that. Even in my subconscious, I know that. I try to turn off my peripheral vision and forget that it is there in order to reduce my dependence on it, but the reminders are constant.
On most days, my privilege ostentatiously dances in my face and frustrates my desire to really, truly live in solidarity with the people I am surrounded by. The voices that call this pursuit of downward mobility “ignorant idealism” ring louder and surer than my unsteady, but wishful, belief that this type of living is not only beautiful, but possible.
I see it everywhere.
A terrorist attack occurs in my city of residence and I am keenly aware that, if I wanted to, I could be on the next plane out with so many of the other young, single American girls serving here–so quickly and easily removed from a perceived threat to my own safety and wellbeing. Somehow my safety is more important than the ones I moved here to live in community with, with no questions asked.
I offer a cup of coffee to a friend while we are out running errands and can see it in her face that she is uncomfortable with anyone spending 250 shillings ($3) on something that will be gone in 10 gulps. Why would we pay $3 for something that we can make for 20 cents when we get home? That much money can feed a whole family–all day long. And more than just knowing that (like me), she knows it.
A young girl is stuck in an unsafe environment and the only good option seems so glaringly clear in my mind…move the child. And fast. But what my mind doesn’t account for is all of the unplanned costs that will accompany this decision. How will the family possibly afford this swift action? They are in many ways trapped and I realize that I have never in my life felt trapped in this way. How can I know even an ounce of this pain my friend endures?
An unexpected illness strikes and a family is left with very few options — attempt to treat the child and acquire bills that exceed the amount that passes through their hands in 5 years, or take their child home and pray. I get a sinus infection and already have a prescription sitting there waiting in my cabinet. And if anything serious were to happen, you better believe my insurance would be airlifting me to Dubai or back to America for the world-class medical treatment I deserve.
I’m aware of my privilege when the weekly grocery bill is the same amount that my friend who supports an entire family makes each month. Bread and rice are not luxury items in my world; they are things I am allowed to groan about having to eat, again.
I’m aware when my spoon pushes even a small pile of bread crusts or stale crackers into the trashcan, now even further from mouths that are hungry. The guilt-inducing images in my mind aren’t from those Christian Children Fund infomercials of the 90’s, they are images of friends and neighbors who I care for deeply.
I’m aware when I frustratedly declare one of my things “broken!” and throw it in my closet or the trash can and my friends quickly scoop it out and ask for the chance to try to fix it themselves or at least take it somewhere to be saved.
I’m aware when paying $1 for a motorbike taxi is the obvious choice over walking for an hour in the hot sun, for free.
I lay in my bed that is surrounded by dozens of sleeping children, listening to the dogs’ howling alarm that things are not right outside the orphanage compound tonight. My thoughts race in wondering if the thugs get into our home tonight will my laptop, DSLR, iphone, and ATM card be accepted in exchange for the children’s protection? The undeniable reality is that I have something to offer.
Friends sit in jail cells for things that just don’t seem right and my privileged friends and I are calling everyone we know, using our “connections” to fight for what we consider justice. He is out within days, while others sit and sit and sit because their families and friends have known since childhood that their fighting doesn’t mean much.
I don’t generally make a habit of praying before meals because it seems ritualistic and unnecessary. They pray before meals because they are genuinely thankful that God has remembered them and provided food, even when they personally know so many who are without.
I wait in the crowded line of the government hospital for the schizophrenia medications that keep my friend functioning well in society and others ask me “wow! You’re ‘mad’ too?” I strangely want to say “Yes! See, we are just alike! I feel your pain! I’m with you!” but instead I bow my head and say “no, they’re actually for a friend.”
Maybe these examples are extreme, but they just begin to describe how I sometimes I feel like I am just playing dress-up. I put on a costume and play the part of friend to the poor, friend to the sick, and friend to the orphan, but remain so far above them (much to my dismay) that it seems a laughable feat to really live in solidarity with them. If I lived in America, I would most likely be dependent on government assistance. But here!? Here I am rich. I am healthy. I have family who call me their own and always have my back. I have people who would fight for me, if I needed it.
I cut back and I struggle, yes — but I have never been hungry. I have never truly felt trapped in a horrible, threatening situation because of an empty bank account. I have never had to choose between treating a sick child and putting food on the table. And most of all, I have about 10 people in my speed dial who would do anything to bail me out of whatever unfavorable situation I find myself in. I also like to believe that if I was in real trouble, my home country would fight for me—fight for justice for one of their own who is being oppressed in a foreign land.
As much as I hate that I cannot truly empathize with situations my friends find themselves in day after day, I am able to feel a portion of their pain because they have become my family. I want their pain to be my own and Jesus is so kind to grant that. I am learning there is so much to be said for “weeping with those who weep” even (and especially) when your own personal, present circumstances don’t call for weeping. And in my experiences, they have been so gracious to receive my weeping instead of resenting it.
We dream about our futures together and I decline engagement in the “big house, perfect job, lots of money, healthy and happy family” reveries because I have learned that these things don’t satisfy. I have had those things and quite honestly, could still have those things. I don’t have them because I don’t want them, but my access to them is undeniable… and I hate this. There is something almost prideful about having the option of this lifestyle, but turning it down.
As much as I want this to be a struggle of the past–something that characterized my first few steps down the staircase, I am not sure that will ever be the case. As difficult as it is to live in this tension, I cannot help but believe Jesus is glorified by our, albeit fumbling, attempts to live in solidarity with the poor, orphaned, outcast, widows, homeless, sick, and lonely.
One of the things I love most about Jesus and the way He used His time on earth to teach us how to live is how mind-blowingly clear He is. I am simple minded and need straightforward directions; He graciously made it so that we do not have to make any assumptions or decode any messages to understand His heart for the poor. He is crazy about them. He honors them and cherishes them and calls them His friends; not for charity’s sake, but for love’s sake. I love the way Father Greg Boyle defines this solidarity: “kinship– not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not “a man for others”; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that.”
Above all else, I want to know them and I want to struggle alongside of them. I want them to know me and struggle alongside of me. I want to share what I have with them and I want them to share what they have with me. I want to cry with them and I want to dance with them. I want them to cry with me and I want them to dance with me. I want to pray for them but I also want and need them to pray for me. I want to get angry with them about injustice and I want to fight alongside of them—arm in arm, not one in front of the other. I want to learn from them, but more than that I desperately need to learn from them.
This is what I want. And this is what God is doing, slowly but surely, and not without pain and difficulty and awkwardness and lots of fumbles.
Annie lives and works in Kenya where she has the privilege of helping to manage a transitional care center for infants. The best part of her “job” is being a foster mama to the little ones while they are rehabilitated and long-term solutions are sought to enable each child to grow up in a family. One of her greatest, but noblest, struggles is keeping sarcasm and dry humor alive in a county that does not (yet) recognize it’s worth. She rambles often, and sometimes posts it on the world wide web at www.ramblations.blogspot.com
For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.