Monday, November 22, 2010

Easing Into It

This sermon, "Money Matters: God Knows it Matters to You!" is an easy introduction to the truth about money, that when developed and followed to its logical conclusion would rid us of all notion of personal possession. The problem is that most of us are stopping far short of the logical end, and are instead self-satified with using our car to take youth to volunteer for a couple of hours. As long as we're doing as much or more than the next guy, we're doing OK, right?

God does not want us to compare ourselves to each other, but to hold ourselves accountable to His word and His standards. If Jesus were alive today, would He even own a car? Food for thought.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Modern Lamentations

Modern Lamentations

My eyes fail from weeping,
I am in torment within;
my heart is poured out on the ground
because my people are destroyed,
because children and infants faint
in the streets of the city.
They say to their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
as they faint like the wounded
in the streets of the city,
as their lives ebb away
in their mothers’ arms.
Lamentations 2:11-12

“Sometimes I think, ‘If I die, I won’t have to see my children suffering as they are.’ Sometimes I even think of killing myself. So often I see them crying, hungry; and there I am, without a cent to buy them some bread. I think, ‘My God, I can’t face it! I’ll end my life. I don’t want to look any more’”
Iracema da Silva, slum resident, Brazil, from Christian Century, 12 Nov ’75, p.1030.

It’s been a long time – more than 35 years, since Iracema uttered those modern lamentations that, despite a difference in continents, cultures and more than 20 centuries, sound alarmingly like the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah. I wonder how she’s fairing now? Finding Iracema today, if she’s still alive, would be like finding a needle in a haystack in the favelas of Saõ Pablo – which are as alive and unwell today as they were when Iracema made that statement. In fact, from 1980 to 1999 the number of people living in poverty in Latin America rose from 63 million to 130 million.*

“I like Saõ Pablo,” my local Brazilian pastor said, “but I don’t like the slums.” Today, in addition to housing the poorest of Brazil’s poor, they are also breeding grounds of violence and drug trade. Favelas, projects, shanty towns… yep, Jesus was right, the poor are still with us. But whereas some pie-in-the-sky think tanks and politicians continue to strategize about eradicating poverty, I just want to know, “What can I do that would really make a difference.”

This is the question that I am going to be blogging about for the next months. I’m in Brazil – it’s a great place to be contemplating this question for a number of reasons. First of all, the income gap between the average rich and the average poor is much greater than in the United States – with the country’s richest five percent of the population possessing 25 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), while 30 percent of the nation’s poorest scampers for 7.6 percent. This is actually not as bad as the gap between rich and poor in the US – the number three country in the world with the biggest gap between rich and poor. Nonetheless, the project poor still live in standard housing with indoor plumbing and electricity and many have cell phones (though they aren’t always working) and can afford to buy new clothes and eat out. Favelas poor live in substandard housing without modern amenities, and on their average earnings of $2 a day*, you can bet they’re not buying minutes for a cell phone.

Secondly, I am learning through personal experience what constitutes necessity and comparing it to my previous lifestyle in the United States. Before we left the country, we packed up our entire household and put everything in storage (because we are hoping our house will sell while we’re gone). We rented a 10’ x 30’ storage unit as well as borrowing a storage shed from a friend and storing our car at my sister’s house. We had a lot of stuff and it was never more evident than after we made what we thought was the last trip to storage. The house was so empty it echoed. The only furniture left was a desk, chair and mattress, yet on the last morning in the States, we had trouble fitting all of our remaining possessions in an SUV to take them to storage. Wow! I remember when I moved to Savannah, Ga., in 1995 with so few belongings that they fit in a Mazda Protégé plus a car-top U-haul carrier. Now I am part of a family of four, but still, that was a whole lot of stuff! I’ve been a busy little consumer, haven’t I?

In contrast, we moved to Brazil with a baggage limitation of 70 pounds each. Since we’re only going to be in our home here for seven months, we don’t want to go hog wild setting up house just to have to break it all down again. So our house is much more sparsely furnished than it was in the US and we have resisted buying things that we relied on in the US but have found we can do without here in Brazil. For example: I really want a garbage can under my desk, but I guess I’ll do without one. As my daughter told me while I was contemplating purchasing one: “You don’t need a garbage can under your desk. It’s good exercise to walk to the kitchen.” And so we don’t have an electric mixer or loaf pans or more than one towel per person or an ottoman to rest our feet on, but after three weeks of being in our house, I have to admit, we have everything we need, in fact more than we need, and it ain’t much!

Thirdly (and though there are other good reasons, I’ll end here with #3), I’m already trying to decide what to do with our stuff when we leave. The furniture we can sell back to the used furniture store we bought it from and many other things have been borrowed from the church, so they’ll go back there. That still leaves a bunch of stuff: toys, linens, kitchen appurtenances, a stroller. Like that last load to storage, it will be more than we thought.

I am reading Ronald J. Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and as I was reflecting on it yesterday, I started to look forward to the day I could give away all my remaining things when it’s time to go back to the States. I imagined myself pulling up to the local favelas in a truck, putting the tailgate down and then knocking on some doors to tell people I have some things to give away. As these random lucky recipients began to understand what was going on, they would rush the truck and start to indiscriminately grab things until just moments later, nothing remained. Now, before you go thinking that is some sort of unfair depiction of what might happen, I should tell you (briefly) about what happened when my roommate Karen and I decided to have a garage sale in San Golquí, Ecuador, as we were finishing our Peace Corps service. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. We did no advertising, just early one morning started setting up a couple of tables in front of our apartment and starting bringing our things out to sale. People looked but said nothing, and we wanted it that way until we got set up, since it was just the two of us to haul out a lot of stuff. Finally, when we had everything out, we began to announce in loud voice that things were for sale – cheap. It started out slowly, with a few people cautiously approaching the tables in curiosity and confirming what we were saying: “These things are for sale? And how much do you want for this?” When word got out that we were selling our stuff cheap (typical garage sale prices), people mobbed us. We’re pretty sure we lost a good bit to theft – we couldn’t keep up! It was commerce madness! And it was over in no time.** So, my favela fantasy is based on that experience.

In my imagination, I then followed a random lucky favela resident home with her new possession – let’s say it was some plastic food storage containers in a pleasant lime green color. Now she has someplace to store her sugar, flour, rice and beans. All this time, she’s had to suffer storing her dry goods in the plastic bags they came in, but now, she has color coordinated storage containers that will keep food fresher for longer! What joy! What enhanced quality of life! She’ll be the envy of her neighbors and she’ll wonder how she ever got by without them. When they finally wear out, she’ll have to cut corners for a month to save up money to replace them, because going back to life without plastic food storage containers is just not an option.

See my point through the heavy sarcasm? How can we (and I, specifically) help poor people? If giving my stuff to them doesn’t do it, what will? In a matter of a minute or two, I ran through the gamut of known avenues of assisting the poor and all of them came up with similarly absurd endings. The fact is that nothing seems to be working. Poverty is so wide-spread and systemic; what can I do about it? Let me cut to the chase and say, I DON’T KNOW! But that is the question I’m going to explore in these next months. Stay tuned.

*Pobreza e Desigualidade no Brasil, a UNESCO publication, 2003

**This is too funny so I have to share it, but I didn’t want to detract from my line of thought up there: Throughout the afternoon after the garage sale, people kept knocking on our door asking us if we had anything else to sell. I’m pretty sure we told them “no,” but people kept coming. Early the next morning, another knock on the door. I answered in my night clothes.
The woman said, “Do you have anything else to sell?”
“No, I’m sorry, we sold everything we had to sell yesterday.”
“You don’t have anything left?”
“No, nothing.”
“What about that nightshirt you’re wearing?”
The woman wanted to buy the clothes off my back! She nudged her way in the door and started looking through the house for anything else that might not be nailed down. She found a piece of fabric – very pretty – that I intended to take home with me.
“What about this?”
“That’s not for sale. I’m taking that home with me.”
She picked it up anyway and started to negotiate a price. I tried to gently take it from her, reiterating that I wasn’t going to sell it. And before I knew it, we were in a literal tug of war over this piece of material! I forget just how we finessed it – maybe I sold her my nightshirt as a consolation – but with some imploring and insistence, we finally got her out of the house – and locked the door behind her!