Tag Archives: poverty

All the unimportant places: Maps of civic and personal tragedy

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.

From Tulare County files

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.

Being beloved

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.

Inquirer, Sep. 2020 after presidential debate

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.

It’s a Depression: How to face poverty

The story goes that one of the young brothers among the desert monks went to an elder and asked, “Would it be right if I kept a little money in my possession, in case I should get sick?”

The elder, seeing that he wanted to keep the money, said, “Keep it.”

The brother went back to his place and began to wrestle with his thoughts, saying “I wonder if the elder really gave me his blessing. So he went back and asked him, “In the Lord’s name, tell me the truth, because I am upset over this money.”

The elder told him, “Since I saw your thoughts and your desire to keep the money, I told you to keep it. But it is not good to keep more than we need for our body. Now this money is your hope. If it should be lost, would God not care for you?”

 That’s the question, isn’t it? “Will God care for me?” In a depression that is even more difficult to believe.

The gift of poverty 

We sometimes talk about the spiritual gift of poverty that is implied in 1 Corinthians 13:3: If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” and spoken of in 2 Corinthians 8:9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.”

If you have the gift of voluntary poverty (like the monks in the quote above were working out), then maybe the economic depression we are in feels like an opportunity to trust God and you are excited to see what happens. For most of us, however, we are more likely to be slogging it out in our more typical spiritual capacity. No doubt we long for greater gifts. But, for now, we are trying to do what we must do in the face of difficult circumstances.

MoMA | Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. 1936

What to do when we face poverty

It is a good time to revisit what we are called to do when we face poverty. There are some basic ways we typical believers are taught to live:

1) All believers are called to live free from the bondage of materialism and undue attention to personal comfort (Matt. 6:19-24, Luke 12:33-34, 14:33). The goal is to never be burdened with material things and never to be a burden (1 Thess. 2:9). This does not mean individualism or self-reliance, but it does mean personal responsibility.

2) Some people may be called to special divestment of wealth because possessions are a stumbling block to them (Mark 10:17-23). This does not mean that having possessions is wrong. But it does mean that possessiveness can control us. We may also be called to divest ourselves of our high expectations for our wealth and success and reduce ourselves to following what God has for us rather than what the “invisible hand” promises. This expectation may be more controlling than the possessions themselves.

3) Not all giving and not all poverty are examples of the gift of voluntary poverty (2 Cor. 8:1-4, Rev. 2:9). We may need to admit that we need help – that we are involuntarily poor. The greatest antidote to poverty in our society is sharing, and sharing is probably the antidote we are most reluctant to use. Share housing. Share incomes. Come up with joint projects to make money. Individually, we may not all have enough to live on. But, chances are, as a church we have more than enough to live on.

Rely on one another

If we do not help one another, we may not get a more miraculous act of help from God. We often rely on God to move the godless mechanism of the “economy” to help us, instead of relying on his own body – and we are upset that we are not helped. Likewise, the body often has very little imagination for how we are connected financially and we end up sending people to “the world” for help, relying on people/powers who don’t care about Jesus to care like Jesus! In this era of reduced circumstances, we will need to return to a Biblical view of ourselves. For that necessity we can give thanks for the depression.

I think we need to seek a dramatic filling of God’s Spirit in our church, so we can meet the challenges of this day. The first Christians are a good example of how this can happen in a group of people. When the Holy Spirit filled them they followed the Lord’s example of

  • owning nothing that tied them to this time and place and
  • distributing what they had to relieve the burdens or meet the needs of others (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-37).

Right now, we are seeing an increased call upon our compassion fund for food and shelter; I am delighted that we store up money for that use. Many of us already share housing and even incomes – that’s good. Our convictions and skills may be even more necessary this year – because it is an economic depression.

I believe God will help us. Even if we don’t obey him, for our sake he becomes as poor as we are. But to be blessed, we must become poor in ourselves to be rich in Him.