Stina and I are real-life friends (our babies are besties, too). We met at the little Mennonite church she talks about in this here essay, and I am so glad we did. Stina and I were recently talking about this Downward Mobility series, and I expressed my disappointment that there weren’t more posts about the struggle of it all. Oh, I can write about that, she said. And boy, can this girl write.
I’m grateful for her honesty, which is so hard to share in public. So often we just want to hear the stories of the out-and-out-successes. But I am drawn to the stories of hunger, of struggle, of inner conflict and even failure. Because there is a lot of “failure” in the upside-down kingdom, at least by empire standards. I am learning to make friends with it, however, one little day at a time.
I’m a Downward Mobility Dropout
by Stina KC
When my daughter was born, we lived in the most diverse neighborhood in America. She learned to walk in the hallways of an apartment building filled with cooking smells from our East African neighbors. During that bleary first year of motherhood, I would pace the noisy streets outside our apartment building with my baby strapped to my chest, praying that the drone of cars and traffic would lull her to sleep. I would shield her little face from cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes as I walked by strangers on the street. People were often drunk at the bus stop one block away and prostitutes hung out at the corner when the daylight faded. I would keep walking, moving quickly to avoid contact with my neighbors.
My husband and I first moved to this neighborhood when we were recent Christian college graduates, young and idealistic about Jesus, Shane Claiborne’s “Ordinary Radicals,” and downward mobility. We didn’t make much with our AmeriCorps stipends and social service salaries, but we didn’t care. We shared duplexes with friends, saving money on rent to buy fixed gear bicycles and shop organic at the co-op. We belonged to a house church with other young misfits, going dumpster diving and holding clothing swaps. But even though we lived in the most diverse neighborhood in America, we didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t like us.
After our house church crumbled and our faith began its slow cynical drift, we started attending a small Mennonite church a few blocks away. On that first Sunday morning, a gray-haired man with kind eyes thanked us for coming and gave us a fair trade soup mix, a special gift for visitors. I knew we were home when, in our first hymn, we sang about becoming “midwives of justice.” During the sharing of prayers and concerns, a man asked for prayer for immigration reform. Another shared the news of South Sudan. I relaxed in my pew.
I listened to my voicemail message one evening in late October after putting my daughter to bed. Something about the lead test results. I should call this number, it’s urgent. I sat down at the kitchen table, hitting redial.
Someone answered: “Your daughter’s lead test came back elevated. Do you know how serious this could be for her development?” I didn’t know anything about lead. I googled it and a shot of fear like ice water raced through my body. Behavioral issues. Long term learning disabilities. Brain damage
As the man on the phone rattled off some tips for limiting exposure, I wrote manic notes on a discarded envelope. “What’s your address?” he asked. He looked it up on the city’s database. “Oh, yeah. You’re in a high impact area. You live at 2825 Park? I see cases of elevated lead at 2828 and 2830 and, wow, it’s all over the place. The blocks around you, too.”
The county sent over a woman with a smoker’s cough to test our floors and windows for lead dust. (“I love the fixtures in here,” she said. “We get to see so many old homes.”) We got the results a week later. Our bedroom window well, the same spot where our daughter loved to slap her hands while watching city buses and bike commuters, had lead levels of 38,700. Safe levels are below 400.
I thought about our neighbors on the third floor, the Ethiopian Pentecostals with two small children who hosted prayer meetings on Tuesday evenings, shoes in a pile outside their apartment door. I thought about the Mexican family who lived across the street in the house with the broken steps and abandoned toys in their yard. I wondered about the kids who get picked up at the bus stop on 28th and Columbus. Have they been tested? Do their parents know?
At first, my moral outrage fueled conversations about petitions and tenant rights and lawsuits. We could stay and fight. But then I started leaving the apartment for most of the day, camping out at my parents’ house so my daughter wouldn’t be tempted to play at the windows. Soon, we were apartment searching and then signing a lease and suddenly it wasn’t my problem anymore.
We moved two and half months later, in the middle of January. Our Mennonite church friends helped carry our craigslisted couch down icy steps and load it into a Ford pick-up. Three hours later we stood in our new apartment across town, surrounded by boxes and Rubbermaid totes from Target.
The next morning I took my daughter outside, her snowsuit zipped up to her chin. As I watched her toddle along the sidewalks, I thought about my old neighbors and their kids and the lead dust they were breathing. I never really knew them, only a handful of names in my memory, and we were gone now.
This story is painful to recount. I have felt guilty for leaving, for not fighting my landlord like the “midwives of justice” that my church sings about. I know it isn’t God’s will for my daughter to breathe in lead dust. I also know it isn’t God’s will for any child to breathe in lead dust, to live in poverty, to attend crappy schools.
Jesus’ call to downward mobility felt so obvious when I was in my early 20s. But over the years, I never put in the daily work of building mutual relationships with my neighbors and so, when the crisis came, it was easy to leave them behind. Now I panic that I am becoming one of those wishy-washy Christians I always belittled, their faiths flimsy and fearful. I worry that my faith is drifting, that if it isn’t radical and downwardly mobile it’s just ash in the wind.
Still, I return every Sunday to my old neighborhood for church. I smile at the corner stores and familiar graffiti murals from my car window. I keep showing up, singing the hymns, making small talk over coffee cake. I keep leaning into the body of Christ, this holy community of which I am one imperfect part. And I pray small short prayers, asking God for more faith, another opportunity. Asking God for courage and obedience and grace.
Stina is living up the last year of her 20s by doing things that scare her, like writing for strangers on the internet. She is an angsty Anglican/Anabaptist hybrid who likes to use words like “intentionality” and “marginalized” in everyday conversations. Stina lives in the American heartland with her husband and daughter.
For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.