A Life Overseas – It Doesn’t Get Easier

  

Will you join me today at A Life Overseas as I talk about poverty? 

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From my spot across the room, I heard an older woman talking to a young intern.

“It will get easier – I promise!”
We were in a hard area. An area where poverty pounded the pavement and homeless gathered in shop doorways, waiting for their evening meal at any shelter they could find. The intern was working at a nonprofit organization as a part of her social work major at university. She had grown up in a suburb with well-kept lawns and less visible dysfunction and poverty. She was struggling.
I stopped what I was doing when I heard the statement.
I grew up in an area where poverty was ever-present. From deformed beggars on the streets to children with the bloated tummies and reddish hair of malnutrition, I was never shielded from my surroundings. I am fully comfortable navigating the streets of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and various cities in North America. I spend time with refugees and before I get to work each day, I have already passed ten to fifteen homeless people.
But there’s one thing that I’ve learned about many of us: Seeing and responding to the poor doesn’t necessarily get easier. You may get used to it. You may not stare, or get startled, or cry every time you see a small child put their hand out for money and follow you down the street, ever-persistent in their goal. But it doesn’t necessarily get easier.
Some of us are hard-wired to feel these things in our gut. It doesn’t make us better than others, it doesn’t make us worse than others. It’s who we are at our core. Identifying and empathizing with others is in our DNA.

Read the rest of the article here at A Life Overseas 

I Cross to the Other Side

At 6:30 in the morning Central Square has already been awake for hours. Stale pools of water with some left over garbage cover the brick side-walk in a low lying area, a result of heavy rains from last week that have not yet evaporated. Pigeons flock to the water enjoying an unexpected pool, loudly arguing about who splashes first.

My husband arrived back from Turkey last night and we talked late into the night resulting in a worthwhile fogginess. So on this Wednesday my mind is buzzing with both the noble and the mundane.

I arrive downtown and I purposely choose to get out on a different side of the subway. Because today I don’t want to see Valerie and know that she is still homeless. Because today I don’t want Donald asking me for spare change.

I am the Priest and the Levi of the Good Samaritan story – I cross to the other side. 

Is it ever okay to cross to the other side? Is it ever okay to purposely choose to avoid the unpleasant? Is it ever okay to ignore disparities?

I don’t think it is, but I do it. I could give all manner of excuses, I could explain myself away, I could tell you that it really doesn’t make a difference. And maybe it doesn’t — but maybe it does.

I cross to the other side because I have no solutions. I cross to the other side because I am tired. I cross to the other side because there is no inn to take people to.

Maybe it’s not about having solutions or an inn. Maybe it’s about just showing up and saying ‘hi’; acknowledging the humanity of another person who struggles. Maybe it’s about early morning solidarity and knowing I share these streets, this neighborhood with the homeless, the crazy, the suits and ties, the little black dress, the vendor, the street musician, the fruit man, the tourist. Maybe it’s about being present among people and proclaiming a faith in the midst of this beautiful, broken world.

But all that comes to me after I cross to the other side. 

What do you do when you cross to the other side? 

Learning to ‘Be’ Instead of ‘Do’

Learning to Be

In the spring I moved to a 4-day work week. Basically 40 hours in 4 days instead of 5. This is a good move for me as I needed the space a 3-day weekend provides.

But it also means that on Thursdays I’m tired. Really tired. I meander more than usual, I am unable to efficiently get dressed, get to the subway, get to work, and click control/alt/delete.

I’m finding that inefficiency is a gift.

I’ve found that in the inefficiency that is Thursday I stop and find out the names of those on the streets: those who curl up under the tall pillars of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral; those who cuddle concrete and brick walls close to ward off the cold; those who spoon together for physical comfort under tattered blankets, their hoodies pulled tight over their heads.

It’s on these days that I learn more about buying coffee instead of giving money; where I find out who needs surgery, who stole a wheelchair, why Sheryl is so thin.

I am not sure why this happens on Thursdays – maybe it’s because I’m tired and with my tiredness, more relatable. But I think it’s more that I give myself permission to be more than a machine, I realize how I live the ‘now’ is important, realize getting to work a few minutes late because I stopped to get someone a coffee is somehow worth it. It’s these moments I will remember when I can no longer work, not the efficient minutes in my grey cubicle.

There is a stark contrast of this Boston to the Red Sox Boston, to the Celtics Boston, to the Harvard, MIT Boston, to the Robert McCloskey Make Way for Ducklings Boston. And yet this is part of the fabric of the city and the people here don’t much care about that other Boston. Their lives are caught up in the crisis of today with its hunger, addictions, and relationship struggles.

I will never know how to “do” poverty; “do” homeless – and maybe that’s part of the problem. Before I’ve always thought of this as something to “do” and it is in the doing where I trip up. I alternate between guilt and pride, between true empathy and anger, between ignoring and connecting in a sickly sweet way that oozes pity instead of true concern. Maybe “doing” is all wrong – not what this is about.

Because on these days, where interacting is natural and comfortable, where there is no guilt, where I am tired, I learn what it is to just “be”. To relate human to human in the early morning fog of tired, steam rising from manholes, and the city in its pre-workday quiet.

Maybe it’s about “being” instead of “doing”. Maybe in being I learn to bear witness to the human story that gets lost in the doing. Maybe.

Image credit: wrangel / 123RF Stock Photo

Reblog from DL Mayfield – Silver and Gold

This piece is long. And it is worthy of its length. It is one of the best pieces I have recently read in its beauty, conviction and clarity. I encourage you to get a cup of tea or coffee and head to DL Mayfield’s blog and read the entire piece. Maybe even twice.

I seek an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, and it is laid up in heaven, and safe there, to be bestowed, at the time appointed, on them who diligently seek it.” – The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan

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The poor are ugly.

They are not demur widows in biblical robes graciously accepting alms from pastel saints. They are young black mothers in pajama pants at the grocery store. They are old white men with no teeth and pornography habits. They are hardened teen alcoholics, gangbangers, pedophiles, strippers, con men, shtarkers, pimps, inveterate liars and parents perpetuating the very cycles of generational suffering that once shaped them. They are the children of God turned old before their time by oxycontin addictions, botched abortions, and personality disorders. They’ve never heard of Pitchfork, they don’t know what selvage denim is, and they don’t care about your organic produce. They live hand to mouth and, my God, do they suffer……read the rest of the piece here

Blogging Trips – the New Short-Term Missions

Blogging - the new short term missions“Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” *quote to author Katherine Boo from a woman in a community she was reporting on.*

When Katherine Boo wanted to write about a community in India she spent 4 years living within blocks of the neighborhood. She went to the slum that she wrote about every day. She took copious notes and recorded conversations making every effort to check facts and verify stories.

She didn’t swoop in like an eagle eyeing its prey, ready to snatch and eat. She was steadfast and disciplined. It sounds like a laborious task, but also like a writer who was determined not to dishonor those she was writing about.

I didn’t realize until this year that there was such a thing as blogging trips for Christians, a short-term mission if you will.

Let me explain.

Let’s say an organization that works in the developing world wants to promote their work, get the word out on what they are doing. The new way to do this is to bring on popular bloggers, bloggers with thousands of readers and tens of thousands of twitter followers. The thought is that these bloggers will take their 7-day or 10-day trips to a country and come back with stories. Compelling stories of poverty and women and justice and why it’s important that we know about these people and these situations. Ultimately there are two goals: Raising awareness and raising money. The two go hand in hand.

A good writer can use their platform to do both those things for the organization.

But I’m not sure I agree with this approach to awareness or advocacy. And, though I’ve read several blog posts that challenge short-term missions, I’ve read only one essay that brings up blogging trips. 

Before I move forward let me be clear: I am really trying to work through this one. I’m not trying to point a finger, I’m not trying to judge, but I am trying to get my head around this and why I question the validity of these trips.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

The bloggers that go on short-term blogging trips are complete outsiders. They rarely know the language or the culture to which they are going. The chance of them misreading culture clues, misunderstanding what is communicated, and thus misrepresenting the situation is high, indeed probable. The chance of getting a distorted view of the country and the people is also probable. While this can happen in regular short-term mission trips, in the case of blogging trips the material is distributed to a wide audience, an audience who (in general) has not traveled, does not know the developing world in all its complexity.

The story is big, but the understanding is small.

There’s another problem that I see. And that is of glorifying the poor as sainted in their poverty, barely capable of sinning or evil. The beautiful African kids, noble in their poverty, the woman who uses her hands to sew clothes for livelihood and raises ten children on the side. The one-dimensional views that the blogger gets in their limited exposure to the situation can come across as naïve and creative writing, instead of fact telling and informative.

I think stories are important, I tell them myself. I also think that it’s important to see other parts of the world, to have our worldviews challenged and exposed, to rethink Christianity beyond a western lens. And if that is all the bloggers were doing I think I would be okay.

As I’ve tried to work through my feelings on this new type of short-term missions, I continually come back to the writing and work of Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer prize-winning author and one who works hard to write well on poverty. I was first introduced to Boo through the excellent writing of D.L.Mayfield. She and Rachel Pieh Jones have become internet mentors to me on story telling, largely because they do it so well and have wrestled with this longer than I have. D.L.Mayfield wrote a piece called “Katherine Boo, Short-term Missions, and the Earned Fact“. In her essay she confronts well the tendency of the church to simplify problems and write without regard for the complexity of the issues.

The goal would be to write without glorifying or demonizing, to tell a story that is accurate and compelling, free of stereotypes and broad representation. In Boo we see a writer who does this, a writer with the rare ability to remove herself and ego from her narratives of others, a difficult task. She does not get lost behind sweeping generalizations but in her own words “Nobody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense. People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people.” (from Reporting Poverty in Guernica Magazine)

I see in Katherine Boo a real and honest struggle with how to report. She does not gloss over the difficulties, she does not use words like a “voice for the voiceless” or “advocate”, something that I would argue takes far longer than a week or ten days to achieve. Instead, she wrestles honestly through this work and this vocation.

I have spent a great deal of time overseas, and thankfully when I was there I had not yet discovered that I loved to write. I say thankfully because I fear it would have been far more about me than about the people or countries that I love. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent so much time overseas that I struggle with a 7 to 10 day trip that supposedly equips the writer with material that will be widely distributed and read.

I began this piece with a quote taken from an article in Guernica Magazine called “Reporting Poverty” in which a writer interviews Katherine Boo. I come to the end of this piece with another quote – one that pierces to the heart of the issue:

“We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.”

Blogger’s note: I realize this may be controversial and I welcome diverse opinions. As I said in the piece, I’m trying to work through this and may well end up with a different opinion.

*as quoted in Guernica Magazine: Reporting Poverty by Emily Brennan

Early Morning Warnings

I get off the subway early. We, the early morning crowd, share a special bond. We nod to each other, though we don’t know each other’s names, places of work, or families. It’s the “We’re up with the birds” look, a “knowing” look. A “we’re up while everyone else is still asleep waiting for their alarms to ring” look.

I pass by people who I see almost everyday, say hello to Mary who sells the Boston Herald. And today Mary says to me, as she periodically does: “Watch your bag honey”. And I nod and thank her.

And so I watch my bag. Because Mary knows this area well. While I think I know it well, I’ve only been walking this route for a few years. She has lived and worked this area for many more. and she knows the various characters that live life on these streets. She knows who you can trust, and who you need to watch. She knows that poverty and homelessness does not mean you are automatically a good person who has fallen into hard times, does not mean you are automatically trustworthy. She is an astute observer of human nature and knows that the mean come in all sizes and income levels.  The sly and the underhanded, the mocking and disrespectful – these are not just categories that the middle-class and rich fall into.

It’s an interesting dilemma for me as a white privileged woman. I observe many white middle-class Americans, I read their essays on the poor and I wish they would talk to Mary. Because their subtext is that the rich are bad and the poor are good, the rich deceptive and the poor honest, the rich rude and the poor kind. But if we’re honest we know that’s not the case.

I have met wealthy people who give graciously and responsively, aware that every penny is from God. I have met poor people who would (and did) kill their last chicken to show you hospitality. I have met rich people who wear arrogance around their necks with their latest Gucci scarves, and poor who mock and yell and rant at all those who pass by.

And so Mary periodically tells me to watch my bag. She tells me who to give to and who not to give to, she tells me who to watch out for and when I should cross the street and go to the other side. And I listen – because Mary knows these streets.

Picture 188These early morning warnings teach me a couple of life lessons. One is that the worst and the best of humanity are represented in all spheres of society; the second is that in life we need our “Marys” – those people who know where we walk and can help us discern true and false, can help us walk in the ‘good’ way, the wise way.

Mary’s early morning warning made me think of one of my favorite verses in the Bible. It’s a verse that gives instruction from the prophet Jeremiah:

Stand at the crossroads and look; Ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is – and walk in it.~ Jeremiah 6:16a 

So on this early morning, just as I chose to watch my bag, I will choose to ask where the good way is – and walk in it. 

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Wrapping Up the Week – 5.18.13

With our daughter Stef home from college accompanied by a friend, our house has been full of activity this week. The walls are bursting and the dishwasher is forever running. Accompanying this was our first summer-like day of the year. With temps in the low eighties on Thursday and now in the seventies, it feels like all things are possible.  And I’m so looking forward to summer – longer days and warmer nights; where Sangria meets porches in twilight and life takes on new hope.

On to wrapping up the week.

On violence and neighborhoods: There is much to read in the debate on guns, but I loved the article “Gunshots on Warm Spring Evenings” for its poignant reminder that life continues to go on in neighborhoods where there is violence. Where gunshots are fired and the wounded continue to walk around and live life – because they don’t have a choice. Here is a quote from the article:

“My heart ached for him. I’ve spent many years reporting on Newark, and I consider myself pretty well acquainted with the havoc that gun violence wreaks on a community. But it’s not just about blood and mayhem. The effects include a gradual acclimatization to violence that makes it seem O.K. to let your kids play 100 yards from the spot where someone just squeezed off a few rounds. It twists your perspective. Alters your perception of danger.” ~ Jonathan Schuppe, Oped piece Gunshots on Warm Spring Evenings

On Social Justice: Christianity Today published an excellent piece this week on social justice. “You Can’t Buy Your Way to Social Justice – Or Why the Activism of some Fellow Americans Scares Me”  is a must-read.  I won’t be able to do this article justice so will give you a quote that I hope will lead you straight to the article to take a read:

“If my generation cares so deeply about global issues of justice and poverty that they are willing to change eating, clothing, and living habits, where are they? A significant challenge for nonprofits and ministries remains recruiting people who will commit to serve long-term outside the United States.

I know there are a plethora of good reasons that concerned American Christians can’t just uproot and leave the States, from family to health to finances. I know I simplify. But I have a theory about what is partly contributing to the dearth of young Americans willing to spend their lives on behalf of others. They think they already are.” ~ Rachel Pieh Jones in You Can’t Buy Your Way to Social Justice

On Grandmas and Food around the World: This article will make you smile – take a look at 34 Grandmas around the world and what they cook their families! It’s a fun look at food and culture!

tangerine2largeOn my bedside stand: Travels with a Tangerine – From Morocco to Turkey in the Footsteps of Islam’s Greatest Traveler by Tim Mackintosh-Smith is part travelogue and part history as the author traces the journey of Ibn Battutah, a 13th century Arab traveler. It promises to be a fun and informative look at travel throughout the Middle East as well as a great way for this non scholar reader (me) to learn more of the history of the region. Along with this book I’ve begun a small volume by Saint Athanasius called On the Incarnation. It is excellent in its wisdom and explanation of the mystery of God in the Flesh.

So that’s it – have a great weekend and thank you for continuing to read Communicating Across Boundaries, offering your perceptive comments and views!