In August we were in Sequoia National Park with our grandson and passed the cut-off to Porterville. I told the story of going to nearby Poplar as a preschooler to see my Father’s father. I think of Poplar as an even poorer suburb of Porterville. My grandfather lived in a two-room migrant worker’s house, as I remember it – a free-standing studio apartment with a kitchen and little bath off the back. I became famous for crawling up on his bed and finding his gun in the headboard.
Just last week I flew over the Oklahoma panhandle where my father grew up as a farmworker, each year joining the planters and harvesters who lived in the Great Plains, never completing a year of high school because both ends of the schedule were occupied. If you draw a raggedy line between Poplar CA and Strong City OK you can create a history of dried up towns and forgotten people.
All the unimportant places
So I was struck with Matt Black’s map of his epic research of all the regions of the United States where the poverty rate is higher than 20%. He traveled 100,000 miles through 46 states and Puerto Rico to create a monumental work of documentary photography titled American Geography. He calls the lines on his map “veins waiting to be opened.” He wanted to create an “inverse map” since whoever draws the map decides what is important. He went to all the places people deem unimportant. I grew up, my father and his father grew up in those places. They install a certain kind of memory of the world.
Even if you didn’t grow up in such a place, I think you probably have such a place in your heart somewhere. There is some territory in us where we feel we are more impoverished than others. It’s the place where we feel unaccepted or irrelevant. It is the place where we see ourselves as unimportant or in need of more importance. The experience of that place is as simple as being shocked and angry over the driver who is inconsiderate to us. It is as profound as finding out the friend or lover we trusted could turn their back on us, even a parent.
It is a blessing we are on Jesus’ map. Jesus is from one of those unimportant places, called Nazareth. He is much more like a migrant farmworker than a CEO. He says he has no place to lay his head, which even makes him dependent on others for housing. He spends a lot of his life and ministry on an itinerary from one forgotten place and person to more of them. I think he is still doing that. I know he has been to those places in me.
I wish Americans, in particular, related to the woman who grabbed the Lord’s hem, or to the man who told him about his self-destructive son, or to the out-on-the-margins shepherds coming up in the Christmas story. Some do, of course. Just last week one of my well-off friends was identifying with Zacchaeus, found by Jesus in a tree, welcomed to be somebody by not striving to become somebody.
Why do people accept their unimportance?
But it seems that most people do not reject the the hierarchical structures that define them as less important and valuable than others. For some reason, they rank themselves in relation to their oppressors. Everyone seems to accept there is a 1%, viewed like a beautiful species on the Discovery Channel, and they deserve to be important, they made it. The unpercentaged people at the bottom accept who they are as someone at the bottom. They even have trouble being valuable to God since their value is defined by the economy. Poor Jesus, offering beggars what they really need and they want Trump to free them instead.
As he made his way through his map, Matt Black began to internalize the common outlook and language of the territories where people at the economic bottom live. He found the feeling that “we don’t matter to the rest of them” is much more important there than the money people don’t have. In those places, being unimportant affects everyone’s self-worth, their self-esteem, their pride. It makes them angry — many Jan 6 rioters report feeling like a stranger in “their” own country. It drives them to despair — places of greater poverty have greater opioid deaths, which last week set a record of 100,000 overdose deaths in a single year with five weeks to go.
Feeling unimportant creates a sense of self constantly skeptical about the possibility for health, for safety, even for love. A narrative gets stuck in one’s head: “When opportunities arise, our town never comes to mind. After a storm comes, our area won’t be the first to get fixed.” People get used to nothing coming their way, no redress, not even any listening. They hunker down and stop looking outward. The people huddled up against the Mexican border are certainly doing that. The couple I got to talk to from Honduras were from an unimportant village. When they reached the border, they found they were from a throwaway country. I have never felt their pain. I do not need economic shelter right now. But part of me knows the dread, the potential overwhelm of facing how unimportant I can feel, and might actually be.
Matt Black’s map plots the places where people are on the edge of being homeless, where they are often resigned to feeling overwhelmed. Black found a tragedy being played out in all the places he visited. He was a bit surprised to realize in the unimportant places people usually internalize civic failures are as personal failures. Immigrants come to the portals into the country and are unwanted, tagged “illegal” when they get in. Citizens at the bottom go to the doorways to the treasure house of the U.S. and discover they don’t have the means to get in, they are unworthy, not from the right place. They blame themselves.
I don’t know whether to attribute this whole sensibility on Christianity or not. But I do know a few people who are recovering from their grandiose personal responsibility to be holy and to save the world for Jesus. At one point, they drank blame for breakfast. They have never succeeded in their lives (at least succeeded enough), the promise of God’s blessing notwithstanding. There are congregations full of depressed failures waiting for someone to tell them they can be greater, or tell them their failures were really successes — like Trump telling them he did not lose the election. Evangelicalism can run like a multi-level marketing scheme luring the poor to get-rich quick (see John Oliver); the government gets into the act of promising glory by perpetrating a voluntary tax on the poor through lotteries (according to T1J). The leaders all promise it will be great, but only if you do what you need to do. If you have bad luck, that’s just the way it is.
The American dream trumps Jesus all the time. Everyone is supposed to get rich. And one does that by working hard, being smart and doing the right thing — clawing their way up the hierarchy by grit and luck. That’s the subject for much cable content, self-help sermons and a lot of church sermons too! Despite all the evidence to the contrary, people still think the dream is reality and they’ll vote for whoever affirms it.
As long as people believe it is their fault they are poor, it is their fault their town has poisoned water, bad air, no jobs, the pyramid will stay in place. Someone is at the top and it is right to give them a tax break, so you vote for the people who do that. If people who have all the power promise to protect you, you vote for them. Even when they tell you you are at the bottom because of your personal choices, your immoral life or your bad luck, if they promise you the dream, you’ll believe them. Even if they tell you you’re stuck because you grew up in this impoverished town under terrible parents, you’ll wear the town’s t-shirt and expect it to prosper. I have a “Bad things happen in Philadelphia” t-shirt; that’s Philadelphia where the poverty rate hovers around 23% (read Inga Saffron).
Jesus is on the side of the poor, but his poverty in wealth or spirit does not define him, and neither does yours or mine. Even if we win the jackpot or are rewarded for our work, we’ll still feel that place where we are unimportant. We may have grown up in it, or it may have grown up in us; regardless, it will be a place where the homeless Jesus settles. Creation is wondrous and all the fruit of it is ours to eat, but it is all a reflection of the one who calls me “beloved,” who’s love affirms my worth. My ancestors firmly believed in the American dream and fought anyone who tried to take it away. I think I still feel their worthlessness aroused in me by the smallest things that make me feel small. Thank God, in Jesus I can even choose being small and not end up angry or in despair about how unimportant I am.