Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Things We Do to Poor People

On the first Sunday of the month, we put out gray buckets and collect change that goes into a discretionary fund. If you read my last post, you know how I feel about Christians' duty to care for the poor. We started collecting change because some of our own congregation members were going through difficult times and I realized I had no way to help them out of church funds, even though I thought we should. Since then, I've been able to help the people stopping by, hoping for a little bit of help.

Because of our location, it doesn't happen a lot, but it does happen. We sit together, talk together, often pray together, and most everyone who comes through asking for help needs a hug in the worst way. I realize that many of us are blind to the poverty and struggles around us. Because my soul is often wounded by their stories, I'm sharing some of the horrible stories I've heard.

  • "I was staying in a hotel and was kicked out with no notice." Other versions: I was staying in a hotel and it went bankrupt, so I became homeless. I was staying in a hotel and I got bed bugs. I was staying in a hotel and didn't feel safe, so I left. (By hotel, they're usually talking about flophouses. There are several about three miles west of here.)
  • "We were doing ok and then I got sick." These are stories about waiting on approval for disability benefits, or being denied disability benefits and still not able to work. The bills mount. Households combine to try to survive together. Every utility is near being shut off.
  • "I'm in the wrong zip code." I happen to live and work in Maricopa County, where two-thirds of Arizona's population also lives. In other parts of the state, it's referred to as "The State of Maricopa." We have services here. But if you live in an adjacent county, you're often out of luck. Access to services is even worse in the rural areas. 
  • "I thought this car would be better." A tax refund becomes a down payment on a POS car. (There's just no polite way to talk about these cars.) The problems have been hidden, so someone drives off the lot thinking they're fine. Then something major goes and there's no money to fix it and no expectation it would have to be fixed so soon. The interest rate is insane, of course, because that's also what we do to poor people. In one case, the payment on a 2003 small SUV was the same as my 2013 small car. 
  • "But they started using." Drugs aren't usually the problem with the people who make it to my office. Well, at least they aren't using themselves. Instead, a partner started using and the household collapsed. Or a child. Or things have been wrong for as long as they can remember because drugs are part of their parents' stories. 
  • "I used all my paycheck already." There's this idea that poor people squander money when the truth is there's just not enough of it. They're used to having to defend themselves and what they do with the few financial resources they have, so they bring documentation and run down the list. "My paycheck was $254, so I paid my car insurance for thirty days, the electric bill, put gas in my car, and there's nothing left." It's amazing, actually, to sit with people who know down to the penny what needs to be paid and how much work they need. Many of them are hoping for $9 and looking for the jobs that offer at least weekly pay; they'd prefer daily. It puts "give us this day our daily bread" in a whole new context. Also, a forty hour week at $9 an hour is $360 before taxes, just in case you hadn't bothered to do the math. 
  • "Work is bad." Someone lands one of those $9 an hour jobs they've looked so hard for. Of course, there are a few teenagers working alongside them. One or two of those teenagers are the ones whose parents made them get a job, but the household is far from falling apart without the income. It's easy to pick on the person who is sleeping in their car. It's easy to make life miserable for the person who really needs the job. (These stories are actually the most horrifying for me.)
I'm well aware that some of these stories may be lies. I happen to think that Jesus was serious when he said, "Give to everyone who begs from you." He never said, "Give to everyone who begs from you after you check out their story." Also, the stories above aren't unique. One person has several of those things happen to them, usually. I hear the same sorts of stories consistently, too. Often, if only 10% of the information I'm given is true, that person desperately needs help. I'd wager that most of it is if they make it to me. Again, our location means needy people don't come by as often as they do in other parts of town.

Still, y'all, the things we do to poor people.

We have to do better.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Values Voting

Election season is in more than full swing. Occasionally one of my friends with a poorly curated list of Facebook friends will post something about who to vote for. At that point, I'm just there for the comments.

My own political affiliations are complicated, to say the least, but I won't go into all of those. Suffice it to say I don't talk about politics with my family for the most part. Every once in a while we'll go down that road of values voting. It's at least more civil than the Facebook explosions I occasionally get to watch. There are always two things that come up immediately: same-sex marriage and abortion.

I could hash out the ins and outs of those with no problem. However, I'm far more worried that those are the two values that are compelling your vote.

Let's be clear: I think gay people should be allowed to marry, divorce, adopt, and everything else right along with the straight people. Ditto for trans folks.  And if you want to talk about the biblical model of marriage, let's go for it. There's nothing quite so thrilling as prooftexting for this former fundamentalist, even if I know it only goes so far and is unconvincing in the end for most people. We can do the same with abortion. At the end of the day, we'll probably still disagree.

Also, there are other deeply Christian values that demand your vote if you want to be called by the name of Christ.

Let's talk about those. Actually, let's talk about one.

As a Christian, the love of Christ compels you to care for the vulnerable among you.

Full stop.

And worth saying again: as a Christian, the love of Christ compels you to care for the vulnerable among you.

You. In everything you do, you are compelled to care for the vulnerable if you call yourself a Christian. That includes all your resources: your time, your money, and your vote. (If you are among those who thinks that it is the church's job, not the government's job, to take care of people, great. Let's have your five billion dollars and make a game plan! You've got friends who can throw in a few billion more, right? Each?)

Because I'm a former fundamentalist who still likes a good prooftext now and then, here are a few things to consider:
  • "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." (James 1:27)
  • "But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind." (Luke 14:13)
  • "For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish..." (Mark 14:7a)
  • "You shall not  deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow's garment in pledge." (Deuteronomy 24:17)
  • "Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts." (Malachi 3:5)
  • "Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'" (Matthew 25:35-36)
  • "'Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.' All the people shall say, 'Amen!'" (Deuteronomy 27:19)

Time and again, scripture reminds us to care for the vulnerable among us. In fact, read through the prophets if you want to hear lots of curses rained down on those who don't care for the vulnerable among them. If that is not part of your faith, then your faith is not Christian. Then, we're left with the question: in our time, who is most vulnerable?
  • Children, of course: the poorer they are, they more likely they are to go to underfunded, crowded schools. They don't get enough to eat or healthy things to eat. They are, by merit of being children, vulnerable. Let's face it, you could drop kick a two-year-old with no problem. (You shouldn't, but you could.) By merit of being children, they're dependent on someone else for, well, most everything. 
  • Women: yes, the elderly women named as widows are vulnerable, but keep in mind that women still earn far less than men. Women whose male partners aren't present are penalized further. Women are more likely to raise children on their own. Women are more likely than men to be victims of intimate partner violence. 
  • Immigrants and refugees: move to a new place because your home is no longer safe. Surround yourself with people whose language you barely understand. See if you feel vulnerable. Never mind that many people are fleeing things those of us in the United States couldn't imagine. 
  • Elderly people: I mean, don't you go check on your grandma? 
  • People of color: you've heard about the crime that is driving while black, right?  
  • The poor:here's a lot of overlap with the other categories of vulnerability, but fewer financial resources mean more vulnerability. Choosing between food and toilet paper is no one's idea of fun. Getting evicted because you had to pay for a car repair might be worse. Being sick and unable to take off work to go to the doctor or buy a $5 box of over the counter something doesn't sound great either. 
  • LGBT folks: I said I wasn't going to talk about same-sex marriage, but yeah, you can't talk about vulnerability without talking about LGBT folks. Homeless youth are disproportionally LGBT. Trans folks are murdered at an alarming rate. 
Of course, I'm speaking broadly about groups here. For every case, there are a few people who break the rule, but many more who prove it. We have a culture with plenty of vulnerable people in it, often made more vulnerable by the systems we perpetuate.

If we even stopped the list at the clearly biblically ascribed categories of vulnerable people, you still have plenty of people to be concerned about. So here are my questions for you: what are your values? Who has informed your values? What has informed your values?

Does Jesus inform your values?
Do people who like to use Jesus' name without paying attention to what he said inform your values?

The answer might have a lot to do with your vote in a few weeks. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Co-opted Faith

I went to vote in the primaries this week. I took the ballot representing people most at odds with my values, hoping for the least offensive candidates to end up on the ballot in November.  I did my homework. I did lots of homework in fact. It was exhausting to read so much about federal overreach, construction of walls, and deportation.

This morning, I went to a city gathering. In a room of Jews, Christians, and Muslims--and those are just the faiths I'm certain were represented--we had two conservative Christian prayers. We were asked to pledge the flag. I neither prayed nor pledged. I sat respectfully with my Muslim sisters during the prayer. I stood respectfully during the pledge. After a presentation on the upcoming holiday drives, I gritted my teeth as the chair of the event talked about how this helps the deserving poor and makes sure they aren't given too much.

It's been a rough week, especially when there was a soul-crushing judicatory body meeting thrown in for good measure.

I've spent a lot of this week deeply offended--not the angry, go fix it sort of offended, but the kind of offended when you realize someone has missed the point entirely. I'm in pain as I sift through the ways my faith has been co-opted.

It's been co-opted by people who want to build walls to protect borders. Never mind that our current border patrol means fewer people try to cross but more die in the desert because they're crossing in remote, dangerous places. The life of a person only matters in certain cases.

"Don't oppress an immigrant. You know what it's like to be an immigrant, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt." Exodus 23:9

My faith has been co-opted by people who are certain that anyone who isn't Christian is out to get them. Muslims will destroy us, if not with their bombs then with the spreading of their faith.

"The Samaritan woman asked, 'Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?' (Jews and Samaritans didn't associate with each other.)" John 4:9

My faith has been co-opted by people who blame the poor for being poor. Maybe, just maybe, people work every angle possible to get extra stuff at holidays because that's when the people in power are ok with giving it away.

"Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him." Proverbs 14:31

My faith has been co-opted by people who preach fear, fear, and more fear. They preach it unrelentingly and at every opportunity. The immigrants, the Muslims, the government will all come to get you. They might even bring the boogeyman along with them for good measure.

"There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love." 1 John 4:18

Somehow the Christian faith, not just my faith, has been stretched, distorted, and mangled so that it perpetuates patriarchy

"When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles." Luke 24:9-10

and neglects the poor

"Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again." Luke 6:30

and tells the stranger they are not welcome

"I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me." Matthew 25:35

and forgets that the reign of God is not just about the future.

"Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Matthew 6:10

In fact, this faith that I call my own has been co-opted by people who ignore large swaths and overarching themes of the Bible. There's just no way around it.

"I'm convinced that nothing can separate us from God's love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or figure things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. " Romans 8:38-39

My faith is between the lines today, not in them, because hearing Christ's call for love, justice, and mercy seems so far away from the lines themselves.