Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I'm starting with the [wo]man in the mirror.

This past weekend, we took a last-minute trip to Cincinnati for a conference. It was a mini conference of the CCDA (Christian Community Development Association). For those of you unfamiliar with this organization, you should check out their website here. (Of course, I've provided a link to the philosophy section of their website, but you can get to the home page from there...the philosophy page will let you know what we're all about.) Our church is a member of this organization and our way of life is greatly informed by the wisdom of John Perkins, the founder. In short, this is why we do not just do a ministry or two for the poor, but we have moved to their neighborhood so that eventually we can minister with the poor. If relocating to an area of need is not an idea that is familiar to you, I would encourage you spend a bit of time reading through the website so you can get an understanding of where we're coming from.

So Pat and I relocated to this neighborhood over two years ago. We (especially me) brought with us our middle-class mindset about...well...everything. Part of this mindset, I realized this weekend, was the idea that I came here because I had something to offer. Part of moving here, as the CCDA would put it, is to ensure a more even distribution of resources. As I thought of it on my terms, I was doing this by paying taxes that support the schools the children in this neighborhood attend. And I brought all my money with me, which I could pool with the church to do ministry or use on my own to directly benefit those around me. Or something like that.

What has happened, though, is that I spend a good deal of time feeling poor, much like the people I came to work with. If class in our society was determined solely by income, there is no way we would be middle-class. It makes me feel as though I have no resources to offer. I can't throw big parties for my neighbors or be the person who gets them a nice gift on their birthday. I find myself learning parts of the government system from the inside...just like my neighbors. I don't have anything up on them that I can offer to help them better their standing in life. What a bummer. Why did I move here, again? What good is it to move to help the plight of the poor if I just become poor, too? I haven't been feeling as sorry for myself as I've felt at other times, but these questions have been lingering in the back of my mind for awhile and surface just enough to make me feel pretty powerless.

This weekend, we attended one of the break-out sessions on empowering people in our neighborhoods. (Catch the irony?) It was led by a very spunky old woman, who has made working with the poor her life's work for over 40 years. Sitting under the sound of her voice, I had one of those moments when you feel you mentally "snap out of it." She spoke about beginning with people where they are -- with their assets. She says everyone has something to contribute and our job is to help people know what it is they can contribute to their neighborhood. It does not matter what other problems or issues a person has to work through. We are to help them see their assets, which means we are to see their assets, too, and be open to receiving from them what they have to offer us.

First of all, moving into a poor neighborhood in order to receive anything from the people there goes against the prevailing thought on the matter. We give to the poor; that is the best we can do. Or is it? The speaker had us quote to her the verse that says, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." Well, yes. That's why we give to the poor, right? We do not want to be merely people who receive blessings but also people who give them, because that is better and we want to do what is better, right? But then she called us all "gift-snatchers." Come again? If it is more blessed to give than receive, she said, it is stealing someone else's blessing when we always put them in a position of receiving. Hmm. Mindset change #1. I should be looking for what my neighbors have to offer me. This recognizes the dignity God has given them and affirms to them that they have good things to offer other people. So, sitting in that session, I began racking my brain to think of what my neighbors may have to offer me. What could I ask of them? I already ask to borrow an egg from time to time, but that's pretty trivial. What do they really have to offer?

Then she said you can't be fake about asking things of them. You have to actually need the thing they have to offer. Crap. Stop trying to come up with things they can do for me so they can have done something for me. Now what?

I don't know that it sunk in during the session, but certainly over the course of our time there, I had an epiphany of sorts. (And, dang it, it's after I already sent out our epiphany letter!) I have moved into this neighborhood and found myself in a place of need repeatedly. Now, I'm not ready to go asking to borrow a buck from my neighbors (the need isn't that severe, and I don't think that's the sort of thing that would be beneficial to our relationships). However, finding myself in a position of financial need many times since moving here has led me to feel pretty worthless from time to time...which very well may be a feeling I share with my neighbors. We find ourselves in the same boat in this way. The playing field is leveled and I don't have anything to offer them that they might not have to offer me: expertise in a different subject or time (which I may be more short of than them these days) or creative thinking or friendship or who knows what else. And this not having much in the way of financial resources should force me to figure out what other resources I have to offer. Money is not THE resource the way I had been thinking. According to that way of thinking, neither me nor my neighbors have anything to offer anyone. So, when this is all said and done, I will know how to treat people like they have things to offer, even if they are poor, because I will have to take myself through that process first. And that is grace beyond grace, because I will not have to make it up and I will not be fake about it because I will not be treating others any different than I am learning to treat myself. (Not that I'm done...I just now know my assignment.)

I by no means hope to live as paycheck-to-paycheck as we do currently for the rest of our lives, but I recognize that it is a blessing that is preparing us for the work we are to do here. And it is good for this time in our lives. (Remind me of this if you hear me starting to grump about it again. I might not like you for a few minutes, but remind me anyway.) God is faithful to help me see people as He sees them -- beginning with me. This is good.


Sue said...

bravo, lezlie!!! well said and epiphany inspiring!

Maria Kristiansen said...

Wow Lez! You are learning some very cool things. Thanks for sharing.