Tag Archives: poverty

the ministry of watching sparrows fall to the ground

image found here: http://the-worship-project.tumblr.com/post/54327156660/his-eye-is-on-the-sparrow-civilla-d-martin

image found here





It has been a few weeks. Death has been stalking this neighborhood. Suicides, both passive-and-not, have haunted us. I have sat in the apartments of recent widows and had nothing to say but “I’m sorry”. I have listened to people as they told me about all of their possessions going up in a blaze, looked at the floor where they and their 8 children now sleep. I have had people clutch my arms, tell me their stories in snippets, beg for bus money. I have heard so much that I cannot share with anyone.

Lately I have taken to chastising myself– what right do you have to be sad? You are just a newcomer, an outsider. Don’t co-opt the grief of others and pretend like it is your own. So I have settled into a numb sort of dullness. Objectively identifying situations with my lips: yes, yes, this is all very sad. But I am floating far above it all, afraid of being an emotional, slobbering wreck; tired of the increased distance I feel between myself and people who are not living this same life; hesitant to plumb the depths of my feelings towards the person who got me into this mess. Who is, of course, God.

Some people feel called to do certain things called by God they say and I listen with envious ears. I imagine a gentle voice, a guiding light, when all I ever feel (like my good friend Jessica says) is a great big shove from the Almighty one. A grim sort of determination is the sheen around everything that I do. Of course, there is joy–I cannot get over the pleasures of living in diversity–but still I think that compulsion fits the bill for me better than calling.

This compulsion does have its benefits. I am good at what I do. I decided I wanted to work with the poorest of the poor, the people on the margins, and I found them. I wormed my way into a situation where I work with them, live with them, eat and shop and play at the park with them. I believe that Jesus meant it when he said the real blessings of his kingdom were to be found with the poor, the sad, the sick and the oppressed. I believe it, but lately it has seemed as if the blessings are such a long ways off. I went there, to the place of promise and the kingdom, and I found crushing poverty, illness and death and depression, systems so broken they seem beyond repair. Where are the blessings? I am starting to demand. I thought I was going out to both preach the good news and receive it as well. I thought I would be a witness to God’s dream for the world and I would get to experience it too. But instead of debating the finer points of Pauline doctrine or sharing the stories of Jesus I find myself sitting in stuffy apartments, listening to sad stories being translated to me. And all I can say is: I’m sorry.

Is this witnessing? Is this being a witness? I don’t get to use a whit of my degree in Theology. Instead, I am burrowing deeper and deeper into the forgotten parts of our world and I am trying to keep my spirit and my eyes open. Really, when it comes down to it, I am not the famous missionary or preacher or theologian I always yearned to be. Instead, my ministry is about watching the birds. His eye is on the sparrow. I know this because he has asked me to be the witness to it, to be his eyes and ears and hands on the earth.

And I am here to tell you, they are falling to the ground in droves.


A boy wanted me to help him write his life story. It was very tragic, and he was insistent. I vaguely agreed, and then forgot about it. He was found dead this last Wednesday, and the newspapers did not print his name. Anonymous. A body in a neighborhood where no one cares what happens.

Some friends came over the other night and we prayed. I was ready to ask questions of God. I was ready to be angry. I was ready to listen. I was ready for him to speak. I was desperate for hope. We read Scriptures to one another, and they washed me of my self-consciousness. For the first time in a long while, I was able to cry.

My friend Molly read from Zechariah 8, inserting the name of our believed neighborhood for Zion. At the end, the prophet writes this:


Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, even the inhabitants of many cities. The inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the Lord and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going. Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favour of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you. (20-23).



When I heard that, I could not stop sobbing. This is all I ever wanted to do. I never truly wanted to convert anybody–I have never been comfortable with the notion that I have all the right answers. But I have held on very tightly to the robe of Jesus, my priest and my prophet and my king. And he has taken me to places I would never have imagined for myself. He has wounded me and healed me and he has led me to the heart of the city, and to all the nations that reside within. And he has shown me that all the Father God wants is to be in relationship with me. He wants me to entreat after him, to seek him, ask him my questions, tell him of my sadness, burn with anger towards him, beat back the numbness of the Empire with everything that I have got. And all he wants to do is invite other people along with me.

He never wanted me to have all the answers. He wants me to follow Jesus towards the sparrows that the world has forgotten, to stick around and be a witness to their beauty and dignity as they drop, one by one, to the ground.


So I guess I am asking if you want to come along. Because I myself am going.












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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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Katherine Boo, Short-Term Missions, and the Earned Fact

“To me, becoming attached to a country involves pressing uncomfortable questions about justice and opportunity for the least powerful citizens. The better one knows those people, the greater compulsion to press.”

–Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers


I just finished Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a National Book Award Book of the year for 2012, and I am left astonished. This book might be a game changer for me, and for all of us caught up in wondering what it all means to be a writer/photographer/artist in an age of continued economic disparity, of violence and suffering and disease and death. Really, this might be the best book I have read on suffering, and on how to tell these stories true. It is a story about a singular slum in India, but it is also a story about the world. It isn’t pleasant, or easily understood, nor can one reduce it to stereotypes. In the best sense, it is truth.

I would recommend the book to anyone, for the writing is beautiful and the stories eye-opening. But what interests me even more is the author herself, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Katherine Boo. Boo practices what she describes as “immersion” journalism, spending months and years living among those whom she writes about. And for as long as she can remember, she has wanted to write about the poor. She has won awards for her depictions of the poor in America for various newspapers and magazines, and in 2007 she began her residency in Annawadi, the Indian slum where she would spend the majority of her next four years. Her book reads as a novel—Boo as a character is completely absent. In her afterword, she explains how she came to be so intimately familiar with her subjects as to know their thoughts: basically, she followed them around and asked them, over and over (to their eventual annoyance) just what exactly they were thinking. And she writes how her Annawadi friends were aware that she was writing about them, and that she was going to write it all down: the good and the bad, their virtues and flaws. But they helped her, and it was for themselves that they spoke and let a foreign follow them around, year after year.

This in of itself is something we can take away from the book: the chance to let people talk for themselves. But it is rigorous work, and the time commitment is steep. Katherine Boo talks about the importance of the “earned fact”, of seeing and experiencing something enough times to report it accurately. This takes on special importance for those of us interested in writing about the marginalized. Do we have what it takes to be these kinds of writers? I can only hope so. In a culture that is increasingly hurtling towards instant results (End Poverty Now!, short-term mission trips, poverty bloggers) there is startling beauty and impact to be found in a single soul spending 4 years listening to those who have things to tell.

Now hear me when I say this: I do not think our attempts at short-term missions/poverty reduction/raising awareness are bad. I don’t. But I am ready to call them what they are, which is primarily a method for changing our lives and perspectives. As a long-term missionary recently wrote, we need to stop telling people that they can sign up for a week or two in another country and change the world. This is false advertising. What we can do is tell people that if you go and see the realities of the world for yourself, if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, your life will be changed. Your world will never be small again; your choices never isolated to the benefits to you and yours alone. And hopefully, once you have seen and heard from the other side of the gap, you will never look back at a life spent pursuing anything less than seeing the kingdom of God come here on the earth.

Katherine Boo is not a missionary, nor does she impose any sort of moral or spiritual undertones into her book. But we still have so much to learn from her. Her radical relocation and time commitment, her desire for truth at all costs, her love for her subjects, and her distaste with traditional narratives surrounding poverty. She writes:

“I quickly grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor: the ribby children with flies in their eyes and other emblems of abjectness that one can’t help but see within five minutes of walking into a slum. For me—and, I would argue, for the parents of most impoverished children—the more important line of inquiry is one that takes longer to discern. What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might the ribby child grow up to be less poor?”

The Church especially has latched onto a less-nuanced version of the last question, and all but ignored the other two. We prefer to talk about poverty when it is manageable, when it can be solved by us—conveniently with a certain project that we can donate to and thus help “cure” the problem. But really, the other questions are where it is at. What is it about the world at large that causes these problems? How does the way we live as average Westerners contribute to the problem (one of Boo’s biggest questions stems from the “profound and juxtaposed inequality—the signature fact of so many cities”)?

These are not easy questions, so it is no wonder we don’t like to look them long in the eye. But Behind the Beautiful Forevers was a gift to me, a chance to learn more about the world and a chance to look inside my own heart. I don’t say this lightly: this book changed me. It takes the concept of “giving a voice to the voiceless” and shakes all the pious do-gooderism out of it. It confronts the double lies that we view the poor as inferior (while Boo presents them as flexible, smart, adaptable, corrupt, hopeful, and human) and that most of us simply have no real relationship with those who live in extreme poverty. How can we write, donate, pray for or minister to those that we don’t even really know?







We can’t.






For more information on Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Katherine Boo, you can read her interview with the Millions here, or read about some of her influences (with tips for prospective immersion journalists) here.

On Thursday, we will continue in our War Photographer series with an amazing essay from another “immersion” author that borrows a bit from Boo as well.

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Eid Mubarak

It is Eid al-Adha, and I am sitting in Target eating Pizza Hut. We drove to the edge of the neighborhood, the toddler and I, and she is swinging her legs and saying “no, no, no” quietly to herself. Around me, men and women walk by in the holiday spirit, wearing long white robes or bright head scarves, talking and laughing and shopping.

I am embarrassed by my pepperoni, by my lack of devotion, for caving in to the allure of getting out of the house and using up my gift card. I keep forgetting where I am, all the time. I am in Target. I am in the middle of East Africa. I am in the middle of the country. The dichotomy of this neighborhood will never stop surprising me.

In all the space this long week afforded, I met a girl at the park, here visiting from Denmark. She was Somali-born, elegant and professional. As we sat in a burnt-out little park on perhaps one of the last nice days this year will have, she gestured at the city skyline a mere mile away. I have never seen this before, she said. This kind of place where all the poor are so close to all the rich. I looked around, and agreed. The infamous park where so much loss has happened, the big cavernous churches standing empty, the streets crowded with activity. And then, separated only by the freeway, is the glittery allure of downtown: big money, fast walkers, cafes and brewpubs. In the long silences of this week, hats shoved down on our heads, the baby girl and I have been walking. And the dividing lines are real and nearly visible here, I knew what she meant. This way of containment, of narrowed lives, have never been a part of my story.

On Sunday, a church next to the park has a fleet of blue busses, parked in a row in front of the sanctuary. That electric blue seems so out of place, that it leads me to wondering: How does it feel to be bussed to church? This leads to other questions–How does it feel to stand in line to get food for your children, to get a coat for the coming winter? How does it feel when you can’t leave your apartment after dark for fear of getting mugged? how does it feel to grow up with so much trauma and anxiety as a child due to inner-city life that you develop PTSD and are labeled attention-deficit?

I don’t know, how this feels. That is sort of the whole point.



It is Eid al-Adha.



I watch this video, and I am overwhelmed. By the enormity of a holiday that most of us don’t even acknowledge; at the sheer number of pilgrims on this earth. And for some reason this thought makes me both sober and feel less alone. I feel every inch the apprentice, the novice, to this new way of life. I feel like I am taking small steps on my own pilgrimage. There is some mutuality here, after all.


I am sitting in my apartment, wondering about the ways people sacrifice, every day. Eid Mubarak, indeed.

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A Vulnerable Post

I loved this post this morning (again at Jessica’s blog, this time written by her friend Constance–also, is it just me or do a lot of cool people live in Texas????). And it got me thinking about all the ways I strive to NOT make myself vulnerable in my life.

I can’t really write about the nitty gritty details of working with refugees on the internets, for many reasons. Suffice it to say, in some of the populations I am in contact with, the amount of sadness and oppression is threatening to swallow me whole. On Sunday I cried all throughout the service, feeling so powerless. And then, of course, there was this amazing sermon on prayer and I left feeling empowered and determined to keep going.


Besides the emotional toll of living life with people (some of who are in desperate and tragic circumstances), sometimes I am overwhelmed by how petty I can be when it comes to giving up stuff.


It can be simple, like the fact that I am really careful not to cook beef whenever my Hindu friends are over (which is becoming more and more common). Or that I now mentally budget in a “hospitality” section under grocery money, for fruit and biscuits when people drop by. Or how I have to keep my apartment cleaner for the same reason (when really, I am fine with living in a certain amount of filth messiness, i.e. you can’t ever see my bedroom floor). I have to grind my own spices in order to make chai the way people like it.

How I have to let go of schedules and preferences for my own daughter in the presence of others (it seems someone is always shoving something sugary in her mouth). I (sometimes) dress her in the princess-themed sweat suits that my neighbors/students love to buy her but make me cringe.

I try hard to dress modestly at all times, but sometimes I would like to waltz around in yoga pants and a tank top and call it good. I glance at fashion blogs now and then but despair when I realize 90% of fashionable clothes need to be modified to make them refugee appropriate. So I give up and wear jeans and sweatshirts all the time.

I scrimp and save and work part-time and am quite vocal about doing without and work towards being more of a giver and not such a hoarder, and then I go and sit in my neighbors apartments and silently covet the iphones they were coerced into buying but don’t know how to use, the $200 water coolers that every family now inexplicably owns, marvel at their derision towards any car that doesn’t look brand-new. I am jealous, sometimes, of their things, have a little pity party for myself every now and again.


It is amazing how small-minded I can be. How it is a constant struggle, to close myself off and live as selfishly as I want.


There are winds changing in our future, directions being pursued where our lives would have to change even more drastically. What would be hard for me to give up? (I already know some of the answers: coffee every morning, bi-annual trips to H&M, Mad Men). Now I am in the process of analyzing why it would be so hard for me to give up these things. And how sad it would be if these trappings kept me from bringing the kingdom of God.


Does anyone else think like this too? Did Lent dredge up any surprises for you?

What would be hard for you to give up?


PS: Tomorrow I am posting a Holy Week(end) Playlist. So stay tuned!

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