to my friend, who is coming out

I sent this letter to my friend about a week before the DOMA decision came down. In the week or so since I have had the go-ahead to publish it, I’ve kept it close, hoping I had the right motives, and wondering what friends – in all parts of the country and the political/religious spectrum – would think of it. In the end, I cannot do very much to determine whether you read this post with grace. I only know that I do not want my friend to be alone anymore.

I lit a blue candle for you at an interfaith Pride service last week. I needed to pray with my body.

It wouldn’t have been the place for you in some ways, with vague references to a benign force, possibly named God, who seemed mostly to exist to affirm US and our IDENTITIES and our PRIDE! I thought of you and me, iron sharpening iron, trying to learn from one another the passé art of humility.

But in some ways, it was beautiful, complex, justice-seeking and, so important, safe and affirming. And so I wished you were there.

Because you are coming out, and though this will not subsume all your many other layers, it will be a turning point. It will shape the next episode of your becoming. It has already shaped mine. It will be hard for you, and I hope soon I can literally stand with you – and the multicolored family your lot has been thrown in with – and say you are loved. you are whole.

You are whole, and you are stronger than anyone could have known, and you are deep, wise, and gracious. That is why I can – and that is why I must – have my own baby-coming-out and say also, I support you.

What a silly thing to have to say to a friend. Even friends with troubles and strange opinions, I don’t tell them “I support them”. I love them, and I love you.

But, there it is anyway: I support you and I am glad for who you are. And I support whatever decisions you make. You are a good decision-maker.

I live in two places, and I live in between, and I live outside of both. I know, I really do, how it feels not to belong anywhere. We ended up in an American culture that is strangely intolerant of nuance and grace. If people think you are slightly wrong, they will let you know that you are very, fatally wrong. You and I have always occupied this inhospitable in-between, everyone thinking we are wrong, and this will not change for you. Not ever.

Because if you are celibate, many of the only people who know your struggle will turn on you. They will call you a sellout and a tease. They will tell you to go home to the Bible-thumpers.

And even though I know, between your beliefs and your personality, that your love life would be very, very far from the “promiscuous lifestyle” some would expect from you, it might not matter much; if you have a family, many of the people who claim to love you will still put sorrow in place of the joy they express for everyone else. They will call you a sinner and a destroyer. They will talk about you behind your back saying things like “love the sinner, hate the sin”, and commence hating the thing they just defined you by. They will tell you to go home to the gays.

Being who you are is not a sin.

Nothing that truly defines you is wrong.

I will not tell you what to do. I do not know what you and God have been saying to each other lately, or how you think about the Bible these days, or which parts of it the Spirit has brought out and said, these are for you. I only know that you follow Jesus with your own quiet intensity.

I do not know your dreams for a future love, or who you will fall in love with, or when, or what that will mean for you. I only know that you are special, and you could make someone else terribly happy, and loneliness is not a virtue.

I only know that you will always be family. Whatever you do will be hard in its own way, and I will do all that I can to make it easier. You know how I want to live in a commune? I will be neighbor. I will be aunt to your children.

Do I sound too much like a mother? I know this all comes from a place of great privilege. But all I know to do with privilege is to tell the world I don’t want it. We are all struck with equal, unpredictable, terrible force by genius and love, by disaster and disease. Why make it any harder on any specific group of people? The world is changing at a pace which, when we are truly honest, terrifies us all. Why blame others for our fear?

I write you a letter. I hope you do not feel used. I must admit that I see your face and speak to you, but imagine a great many others who might read this. Some will tell me that I must pick a side; that I must stand for The Family or for Progress, for Civil Rights or for The Bible. Perhaps only a few will understand the region, the culture, and the generation you and I share, which have complicated your past and your future so.

And that is why I will not pick a side. Because this is not an issue. This is not an abstract question of philosophy. This is your life, and I am on your side, and I cannot imagine what you have already experienced so how could I dare to try to convince you? We have talked about “the others like you” – stuck in these in-between spaces. They will not all agree. But I am on their side as well. I stand with you; with laws and attitudes and policies that free you to make your own decisions just as I do. Of course we all have responsibilities to ourselves, our partners, and our communities, to make decisions – sometimes hard decisions – about what it means to be our sexual selves. May we all do so with humility, with discipline, with the guidance of others, with our traditions and scriptures, with self-giving love for our partners, and above all, with hearts and bodies attuned to the winsome whispers of Holy Spirit.

I am very, very proud to know you. Maybe that is what Pride means to me; not that we use our own pride to prop ourselves up, like cardboard cutouts pretending to be autonomous, but that we learn to see all that is extraordinary about each other’s stutter-steps toward life, toward humanity. Remember, when your struggle becomes monotonous and it feels like a children’s book or a farce, that your story will always read to me like an epic.

May you, gay, truly yourself and vulnerable before the world, find yourself surrounded by all the love and grace and acceptance that you, hiding, “straight”, have found in all the pockets of Christ’s kingdom where you’ve nestled. May you always find a way into messy family, mysterious Church, into all-loving triune God.



when more is not enough

“The economics that Christian hospitality seeks to embody, then, is marked by abundance, surplus, excess, and surprise.”
-Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality

Abundance! Surplus! Excess! Surprise! You could make a song of it; the list rolls off the tongue with ease. It sounds beautiful and hopeful and you want to rush out and invite everyone to a feast.

Maybe you start a food pantry, and you say you have faith that God will provide the plenty. You stock your shelves, open the doors, and prepare to welcome God’s precious children with a smile.

And then an ocean of need crashes in and floods your little store room of food. God’s precious romanticized children are just as broken and ugly as you are, and as you stand exhausted in the quickly-empty closet all your faith looks like wishful thinking; you discover that plenty is an illusion and there will never, ever be enough.

What is enough?

All the nonprofits, all the discussions about poverty, we talk about getting the poor to be like us. If only they could join The Middle Class, we say, then we wouldn’t have to feel guilty about them; then they would have a future; then they would have enough.

All the world worships the middle class, don’t they? Politicians wouldn’t dare not to pay homage. Sitcoms about normal life take place in the suburbs. Advertisers and credit cards offer sacrifices to anyone with just enough to consume a little thoughtlessly. And that is, indeed, how we identify them, the successful-enough, the middle class: by what they consume.

Why, then, the indignation when food pantry clients show off brand-new Nikes? Why act surprised when food stamp dollars go to expensive Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, when Tide becomes a street currency, when too-new cars park outside the Near East Side’s dilapidated rental units?

These are the markers of success. Of enough.

Meanwhile the do-gooders, the nonprofits, the bleeding hearts, the Church, and I rush to give people more, more, more. If only they had more, we think, they would have happier families, healthier bodies, they would leave the gangs and get savings accounts. Then they could get all the things that I can get.

But it is a pipe dream. We are standing in empty closets. There is never more; always scarcity. We despair.

I submit, though, that we despair only because we base our assessment of human well-being on market assumptions. We believe a certain amount of money is necessary for happiness, for freedom, for healthy families and healthy bodies, for virtues like hospitality and generosity and patience, and even for the “luxury” of seeking God. And we believe we are better off the more we are able to consume.

Click through to the story

Beans in a Ugandan offering plate. Photo by Ann Voskamp

The question remains. How much money is really enough money?
Enough to live on. Enough for rent and blankets and rice, beans, seasonal vegetables and the occasional can of tuna fish. That is more than billions have.

My food stamps, though they are labeled “supplemental assistance,” have been quite sufficient. They are enough for someone to eat a healthy variety who knows how to cook and how to shop. So which empowers the poor more – to dole out more money for frozen chicken nuggets at $8/pound, or to teach someone to make a simple chicken stir-fry for themselves at a fraction of the cost? Why are dollars for convenience foods a human right, but not the satisfaction of creating something from scratch? Why not the meditative rhythm of cooking, that ancient human act? Why not food that is made from food that is made from earth, rather than food made in laboratories?

Of course it is easier to hike up the payments than to teach such skills and hope for such intangible goods. Of course, if you ask them, people will grab for the money in a culture where consumption constitutes the good life.

We think we are countering that culture when we ask the middle class to give to the poor. But too often we are only operating from within, and perpetuating, the myth that money can solve any problem.

We will only counter that culture when we look at what we have and declare it enough! We will never discover abundance until we reach for contentment. We have taken on the wrong assignment if we count success as satisfying consumers before making disciples. And we are guilty of a deadly pride if we think only the bourgeois should be generous, contented, joyful people.

When we burst out thanksgiving over all that is already here, when we delight in the boxes of pasta before us, when we learn to celebrate every moment, every day that the Lord has made; and when we carry burdens for one another, when we give ourselves – not just our tithes – when we cherish one another as family and forget we could ever ask for anything more. That will be God’s kingdom coming, God’s people feasting, all giving, receiving, teaching, learning in a rhythm of shared contentment.

There is an abundance of food in the pantry, if none take more than they need.

There is a surplus of opportunities to help others.

There is an excess of God’s grace and sustaining power for the hurting and the weary.

And the surprise is there’s no income threshold for learning, believing, and living in the hospitality of God.

Joining with The Despised Ones for a synchroblog: Justice, Solidarity, and the American Dream.

who loves us

Last night at supper, a friend: “All the debates between conservative and progressive Christians are really about one thing: is our faith primarily a matter of what we believe, or of what we do?”

He’s right. In matters of life and policy, from resource distribution to personal conduct to teaching on doctrine, the battles over the Church’s priorities and positions are often a tug-of-war. Will the flag fall behind the line of adherence to the Bible and tradition, or on the side of action to improve the world we share with others?

“I have memorized the Bible,” says one, “but I have done more good,” says another. “Because my way is orthodox,” says one; “Because my way is fair and nice,” says the other. “Let us submit to an authority,” says one; “Let us strike out with boldness,” says another.

One defines a Christian by a list of inviolable beliefs and tends to personal holiness based on those unyielding beliefs, with little regard for the cries of a hurting world. The other defines a Christian by a list of actions, orthodoxy and personal choices secondary to feeding the hungry and fighting for justice.

Both of them sound to me like exhausting exercises in missing the point. Infinite hours of debate and conversation will never draw the two closer to one another; they sit on a seesaw rocking on a fulcrum of pride.

Our faith is neither a matter of “what we believe” or of “what we do.” It is a matter of whom we love.

Believing things and doing things are projects. They require work and striving and scorekeeping.  Knowing and loving God is a way of being. A way of seeing. A way of resting. It can be done by children and sinners.

Do not tell me what you believe. Do not tell me what you have done. Speak to me of events unspeakable, of the thunderous waves of God’s presence. Tell me about the whispers of God’s face where you have seen her among the stars and beneath tall trees. Read me out the words that gave you peace when all seemed lost. I have no use for your arguments and reasons, the definitions you have so carefully wrought. I want to know about the times when you felt small – the quiet certain moments when you knew that you knew nothing, but there was peace.

I will not live and die for what I believe. I will not live and die for what needs done. I will live and die for God who has captured my heart, who has taught me of my infinite worth and is leading me ever deeper into humility. The closer we get to God the better we see what he sees – the better we walk with the rhythm of his ever-giving heart. The oftener we return to the ocean, the better we remember we are not so big.

Sink into prayer, ask to find more of God, and there she will be; do not be afraid. She will be wild and terrible in the stories of Scripture; she will be dirty, raw in the depths of poverty; she will be wide, soft, and loving in the fragmented mirror of a Church reflecting her on its better days; but always she will show you more yourself, sanding down the edges of you that weren’t meant to be. It will hurt. Do not abandon those places. Do not say she wasn’t there.

Chase God; follow Jesus; seek the leadership of Holy Spirit; and you will be caught by love, and you will love. You will believe when it is hard. You will act when it seems impossible. You will know every day how strong every one of us is connected, and you will learn ever deeper how every smallest action creates or destroys, sways the world – and you will not say any matter in our lives is not important to God. You will tremble with rage in the face of injustice, and you will not be still, but you will act for the poor and brokenhearted because you can do no other.

And when you tire of personal discipline, or of wrestling with faith and doctrine, or of working always for justice, you will hear him calling you to come and be. Rest a while. You will look back and discover you had believed aright and acted with courage, but it was because God called you into those things to show you more of himself.

Then, when someone wants to argue with you, takes offense at your actions or questions your beliefs, perhaps you will not tug the rope but will pull yourself along it; and when you reach the other side perhaps you will join hands in silent prayer. And when you open your eyes perhaps you will find you each see the other anew.


crowds are made up of people

Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”

I never noticed the crowd before.

I always thought Jesus just raised the widow’s son because he had nothing better to do. Because he knew he was supposed to, maybe. Because it was his job.

But this is different. Jesus had very important things to do – he was leading a crowd to a town! They must have been jostling, talking, kids running around, people asking questions – “Rabbi!’ “Rabbi!” – with the disciples there, too, blundering about in all their earnestness like always.

If I were leading a crowd somewhere, we would give a funeral a wide berth. People died all the time. People died young all the time. There was no reason for the two crowds to meet.

Jesus, though – Jesus didn’t see a funeral. He didn’t see a crowd. He saw one woman, whose last hope for a family had been stripped from her. He watched her replaying scenes from her son’s life, helpless to stop reliving a happiness she would never know again.

And he had compassion on her. And he stopped. And he gave him back to his mother. Did he even think about what chaos must have ensued?

Zacchaeus couldn’t see over the crowd, but he didn’t go home. The professional in his suit and tie climbed a tree instead; and it must have been a relief to be invisible for a while.

Why did Jesus stop? Didn’t Zacchaeus have some fairly first-world problems? The text doesn’t say what made him single out the sinner in the tall tree; but we know he was always looking, searching out people in pain, people who sought him, people whose sin was bearing down hard on them. The Spirit has a way of calling attention to the people on the edges.

Jesus and crowds have a strange relationship. He alternately has compassion on them and feeds them, alienates them with his weird teachings, confuses them on purpose with impenetrable stories, weeps for them, shows vague disdain and disinterest in them, tries to get away from them, is worshipped by them, seems wearied by them, blesses their children.

This used to confuse me. But my own life has become much more crowded in the past year as an “adult”. I have a larger network of shallower relationships than I used to. Graduation expands one’s peer group vastly. And I live and work near the middle of a city, surrounded by crowds and interacting regularly with hundreds of people experiencing various levels of poverty.

It is exhausting.

Now I get Jesus’ ministry a lot more than I used to, and I’m also more intimidated by it, because even though it’s wiser, it’s not any easier. It’s not easy to let the crowd be and say and do what they will while you minister to one person at a time.

How did he stay open to these individuals’ needs, to their pain, when the needs and follies and demands of the crowd are so blindingly overwhelming?

And how did he so often stand against the crowd… precisely because of his love for the crowd?

I don’t often know; I rarely feel that I succeed. Sometimes circumstances absolutely prevent me from spending any time on the more intimate relationships that make this work worthwhile. And sometimes I follow the crowd in the wrong direction because I just can’t fight the current anymore.

But I find myself looking harder for the lost and lonely, for the rock-bottomers and the desperate-for-a-glimpse tree-sitters. I find myself throwing away efficiency and the crowd’s demands to reinstate compassion, following my heart when it goes out from me to offer the unbusinesslike moment of rest, the hand on the shoulder, the gift of my full attention.

And when it is still all too much, when I get overwhelmed or make mistakes or need to get away, there is the friend, the phone call, the timely Scripture or the whisper of the Spirit bearing rest, and I see Jesus walking through the crowd toward me.


why we all can’t help stealing from the poor

Pope Francis says wasting food is like stealing from the poor.

I think he could have said that wasting food IS stealing from the poor.

Equating the two exactly might be a little far-fetched on an individual basis. My spoiled lettuce could, in theory, have been given to the poor, but if it hadn’t gone to waste, it wouldn’t have been because I made a salad for the homeless guy outside. It would have been because I made a salad for myself.

On a corporate level, though – the systems that make it so easy for individuals to waste food – they are one and the same. Wasting food is stealing from the poor.

Our food is cheap enough to waste largely because of USDA subsidies to farmers. Among other strategies for manipulating the market, our government buys agricultural products from our farmers to keep them off the market and allow American farmers to set prices in the world market for many goods. The EU and other developed countries also have the resources to play along with various kinds of subsidies for their own farmers. This keeps developing countries, many of which are already crippled by debt owed to developed countries, from being able to produce or buy food to feed their own people (more here).

Working at the food pantry and with the Food Bank (the nonprofit wholesale distributor for food pantries), I see what few Americans see (or at least understand): I actually watch that food get wasted.

Some of those products are simply destroyed, but some are packaged and sent to the Food Bank. They are, in turn, made available to the food pantries for free or for pennies. Hooray!

Except not.

Generalizations, which can apply to a large group but should not be assumed about any individual, now follow.

Our clients don’t want them.

how would you incorporate this into your diet this week?

how would you incorporate this into your diet this week?

They don’t know how to cook very many things.
They, like most of us, like processed foods in brightly colored packaging.
They can get those foods from corporate donations to the Food Bank and using food stamps.
When the food stamps run out, they use their own money or go to the soup kitchens (which, admittedly, might find ways to use this stuff).

They’re just not in dire need of, and have no desire for, canned sliced carrots, or suspicious-looking bagged mashed potatoes, or dry kidney beans.

This includes me. I use my food pantry, but I’d rather pay money for fresh carrots than come up with something to do with these gross ones. I get the canned corn and tomatoes, which I know how/want to actually use, like everyone else. And which the pantry has to buy at grocery store prices because they are so popular.

Those 48 cans of carrots will not be gone for at least a year; meanwhile people an ocean away starve by the millions.

It is an uncomfortable and politically unpopular truth that American poverty, while a vicious and multifaceted evil, is generally a luxurious lifestyle compared with the lives of the world’s poor. But it doesn’t take a Ph.D in economics to see that our farm subsidies benefit huge farming corporations tremendously; small family farms a little; and America’s poor a negligible amount.

And they are actively feeding a system that results in the deaths of the world’s most vulnerable – such as mothers with children living on less than $2 a day.

Of all the things in the world that bother me, I truly have no idea what to do about this. This is a function of Congress and the agricultural lobby, and has nothing to do with my choices; more than that, it’s just about the least sexy, most complicated issue our legislators deal with. Don Draper himself couldn’t sell the voting American public on a “stop supporting our farmers” bill.

I hope that poorer nations will develop governments and markets strong enough to compete.

And I hope that Pope Francis will not be dismissed as “out of touch with reality” for his justice-oriented statements, the way his predecessors were for their morality-policing ones. Because, whether we like it or not, he is right. It is simple.

Wasting food is stealing from the poor.

The Farm Bill, reassessed every five years, is currently before Congress. Some more info here.

when the homeless guy is me

“Middle class Christians talk of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. It is a very orderly, sanitized process. Sin is when we are unkind in word or deed, repentance is when we say “I’m sorry”, and forgiveness is the expected response to anyone’s “I’m sorry”. There is no cosmic battle here, no spiritual warfare.”
Ministry With the Homeless, John Flowers and Karen Vannoy

But shouldn’t sin, repentance, and forgiveness be the wildest words in the world? Perhaps we are so bored and lackluster precisely because we are too prideful to believe our addiction to television or the grudges we hold against our parents are actually separating us from God and poisoning the world around us. What if we really saw ourselves in comparison to the life we were made for? Would we not understand our respectable, comfortable, over-processed lives to be the mud-wallowing, pitiful farce that they are?

We wonder how the homeless could get so comfortable with homelessness, with alcoholism, we wish they would dream bigger. But the “dream” we have for them – the acceptable minimum of an apartment and some groceries and the heat on in the winter – is not an objective reality of happiness or prosperity; it is nothing more than a cultural norm we’ve accepted as the standard for “success”.

In truth, the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicted person lives closer to reality than most of us, precisely because he or she experiences life as a cosmic struggle for survival; while the middle-class mediocracy has already lost the struggle. Neither person lives an abundant life. But the second, who simply settles for what is before him, doesn’t even know it.

And the point is not that this vanilla, moderately successful guy should be ashamed and try harder; the point is that he is missing out on an incredible gift, the life that is truly life. He is missing out on the kingdom of God, the restoration of relationships into their right order, all things made new, and the realization that every moment, every breeze, every person is an incredible gift. The God of the universe died for all these, and we count them as ho-hum occurrences? The God of the universe gives us the power to defeat death, and we cower in a corner, insulated from any risk?

This is what we cannot get our heads around, that we are all the most gorgeous, elegant, promising of creatures, and all have fallen short, all are truly worms when we see every selfish action for what it is – sin, horrible and insidious and life sucking. We cannot begin on the path towards life until we understand the tragedy of this, even though deep down I think we know it. Might it be that pity makes me so uncomfortable, because I have not come to terms with the fact that I should rightly pity myself?

For months, maybe more than a year, I lived in a haze of mild depression. It was never diagnosed, but now that I am on “the other side” I can see very clearly: I cried for no reason nearly every day, slept and ate too much, and withdrew into a shame and hopelessness I could not understand. Most people describe depression in surprisingly similar ways; it is like suffocating in darkness, and all the thrashing about you can muster only tightens the blackness around you.

Emerging from that pit was like a second salvation, when over the course of a few weeks I realized that I was finally and rather suddenly free. Simply feeling “normal” again was so foreign that there was a brightness to everything I’d never noticed before. For a time, I truly did see every breeze, every moment, and every friend as a spectacular and breathtaking gift, because I was free somehow to enjoy it. I finally understood what a monstrous thing it would be to waste any scrap of those marvelous things – ironically, at the very point when I felt free from the senseless guilt and shame I’d experienced. And there, in that freedom, the very greatest gift of all: that God’s gratuitous grace was ever poured out broader and deeper than my own infinite monstrosity, inspiring a gratitude that covered over all the rest.

But most of the time, I see myself as neither a very wonderful and beautiful, nor a very horrible and dangerous creature, when in fact I am in most moments both. Still I catch glimpses of both selves, even as I believe the Spirit helps me every day to tip the balance a little farther to the former side. I see my own brilliant potential when I am cooking a spectacular dinner or making a friend laugh, when I am completely present and completely grateful in those moments. And I see my shadow self, too, when I am being manipulative or petulant with my boyfriend, my family – or even the people I serve at the Friday pantry. The more aware I become that my own life is an epic drama, the more I do recognize these two realities at work. As I look back to my own past, or face new and humbling challenges in the present, I am reminded of my own proclivity to stray away from what is best towards my own selfish will. And as I trust God’s slow stirrings within me, I find the joy of sharing my best self with others.

The more I learn about my own incredible capacities for both creation and destruction, the more clearly I can see both in other people. And the more God’s work appears in my life, redeeming what I have destroyed and making me into a better creator, the more hope I have for others.

And this is why I, who have always enjoyed relative prosperity and the appearance of a squeaky-clean record of conduct, relate better most days with the addicts and the victims I find among the homeless than with the self-righteous and boring among the upper middle class. I’m not an alcoholic, but I’ve self-medicated with my own little addictions. I’ve never gambled my life away, but I’ve sure wasted some precious things. And I’ve never been physically abused, but I’ve dealt with my own kinds of wounds; I know what it is to need an understanding ear and a gentle challenge to keep moving forward. And here, over institutional food and a paper plate, is where I find the few people I know who are willing to be honest about how broken and childlike we all remain behind the band-aids and defenses.

So as I point people toward the clothing closet and the free clinic down the street, may I honor their wild humanity and their deepest needs by pointing them also towards the God who loved me beyond my own wounds and my own self-destruction. May I never dare to believe that they need my food or even my listening ear more than they need my Lover and his restoration into the kingdom that is coming. May I never dare to believe that anyone needs him more than I.

there are some things you don’t think about

I’d like to write more here about poverty as I’ve experienced it this year. I think I’ve resisted because  when you talk about poverty people seem to think you’re inviting them to argue with you. I’m not trying to whine on my own behalf or to argue for or against any specific policy, action, or belief; just hoping to communicate a change in perspective and maybe inspire a little compassion.

My mail makes several stops before finally landing in my hands. It turns out to be a surprise letter from my friend at boot camp, and a surprise letter from the Department of Social Services. It is postmarked February 28 and contains a form that must be returned by March 10 if I am to continue receiving SNAP (food stamp) benefits. Today is March 8, too late to mail the thing.

Fortunately it is a sunny day outside, and I leave work early on Fridays. I fill out the form, copy my most recent pay stub at work, put on some walking shoes, and head downtown. It is a mile to the DSS offices, housed in an enormous building with other county departments.

The suite number addressed on the form is not a place I can go, so I make my way to “food stamps undercare” on the building directory. I open a door, turn a corner, and am confronted with an exact replica of the waiting room at the Department of Health or my own food pantry – at least 50 people of all colors sitting in uncomfortable chairs while three exhausted-looking bureaucrats try to explain forms and rules over objections, excuses, language and literacy barriers and special circumstances. Babies squirm and fluorescent lights fluoresce. I stare for a few seconds, know at a glance anyone I try to talk to will tell me to get in line, turn around and leave. The woman I find in the office on the next floor up first directs me back to undercare, but I explain myself in a couple of sentences and she offers to send my form via interoffice envelope. Barring an administrative snafu, my grocery budget is safe.

All’s well that ends well – for me. I had an enjoyable afternoon walking through my city in the sunshine. But I’m lucky I had the afternoon off and could get my form in before the weekend.  It was a small inconvenience to fulfill the requirement of submitting a pay stub; I had to go home and get it and bring it back to work to copy it; but it’s a good thing my office has a copier I’m allowed to use. I’m lucky I live close to downtown and had no trouble walking to the DSS. Perhaps luckiest of all, I am competent and assertive in an office environment. I knew how to find a shortcut around the waiting room, and was not afraid or unable to succinctly explain what I needed to the person I finally apprehended. I consider her my equal and expected she could help me.

The world is filled with gatekeepers who exist in equal parts to help you and to keep you from disrupting the system. Getting what you need from them usually requires a complex set of skills and attitudes – respect and patience, but also confidence, firmness and persistence, as well as a general ability to communicate what you are asking the person to do for you. Those are skills and attitudes I learned watching my mother talk to doctors’ receptionists and bank tellers, and working in the offices of my high school and college. They are not skills everyone possesses. An office environment can be incredibly intimidating, especially considering the high levels of frustration often apparent on both sides of the desk for an issue as vital to a family as food stamps.

If I had not been able to turn the gatekeepers’ “no” into a “yes”, I would probably have had to take a number and sit in the waiting room. Assuming the office had not closed before they reached my case and received my envelope, the hour or two I would have lost may seem like just an annoyance. However, time is a resource many people cannot easily spare. You miss your bus; you’re late to get the kids from after school; you forgo your cheap or healthy dinner for a quick frozen pizza; you can’t get through all the homework help; there’s always another form to fill out.

I’m a no-excuses kind of person, but it’s the little things that make you feel powerless. Your mail comes late and suddenly, unforeseeably, your food budget is threatened by invisible powers with computers. Those bad days when things pile up and you’re overwhelmed by everyday life? That is, far too often, the life of the poor.


On Pop Theology and being called a demon

I’m a guest today at On Pop Theology. It’s a fun space and I’m excited to join up with their cool team of writers; will you pop on over?

Four days ago, I was accused of being a demon.
A woman came from the food pantry where I work into the church office, demanding to “speak to the head pastor about a family emergency” (read: ask for money). When I offered to go with her to speak with the assistant pastor, who is equipped to handle such requests and does so with real compassion, I became the subject of a long diatribe, beginning with “You a racist” and ending with “you a demon” as the elevator doors closed to take her away.

one day’s worth of life

My alarm jolts me awake, heart racing. It’s been like that lately.

After the usual shower I plod my way down the stairs. I’m up earlier than usual. Most of the time my housemate Brendan makes the coffee, which is lovely, but there’s another kind of pleasure in making it myself, the smell of the beans and the precise measuring. I’m always thankful for my cup of coffee, I don’t know how.

Even after a cup, though, I sit down to put on my shoes and my eyes close involuntarily, reminding me I didn’t sleep well at all. Yesterday was a hard day for living with people – one of the hardest. The conflict still hangs in the air.

I’m five minutes late because I slept five minutes longer. It’s a reliable 22 minutes to walk to work in the winter, when I keep up a good pace to stay warm. This is the best way to start the day, outside, feeling the city I live in, using my legs and praying. There’s always so much to see – today tiny snowflakes are dusting everything and it looks just like powdered sugar.

I say hi to people on the sidewalk. There’s a lady on the phone next to her two wiggly toddlers, and I am thinking how beautiful they are when she screams at the girl to “get the f*** over here”, picks her up by the jacket, and throws her on the other side of the sidewalk hard enough to leave a bruise. The girl starts wailing and I walk on by, wondering like always what I should do in these situations; coming to the conclusion like always that there’s really nothing. These episodes are common in my neighborhood and I always pray for the kids. I feel small.

I get there after the Food Bank truck leaves but just in time to actually move the stuff with Joe. I messed up our order for the first time, an understandable mistake, but I still feel bad. Worse because Joe doesn’t say anything except to list all the stuff he’ll have to go buy. There’s no one to be mad at but myself; of course I offer to go with him to the store. He’s playing country music in his car, and I want to cry for how much I miss home.

Like I said, I’m tired. The tire on the dolly is flat for the twelfth time and why the hell doesn’t someone get that fixed? Usually I am glad to help move the hundreds of pounds of food, feel the strain in my arms and create order out of our little stock room; but today when I drop a box of margarine I swear and just stand there, all my energy fighting the urge to step over the box and walk out, walk home. Why do we even give people margarine? It’s not a food. They don’t deserve it, they’re not looking for work. Ugly thoughts, I don’t like myself at all today. Help.

I feed myself lunch but quelling my hunger does nothing for this foul mood. I spend the rest of the afternoon looking for the motivation to send some e-mails, mostly staring at nothing instead. Today it seems pointless. Whether the e-mail gets sent or not, things are never going to change, people are just self-absorbed and messed up. I’m done with the homeless people, done with the church people, done with myself.

I finally get out of there at four. I’m glad to at least be walking home; I think better on the move. East Genesee Street slides by and I’m not really looking – until I’m almost back at that one bus stop where I saw a little girl being abused. I saw a little girl being abused. I haven’t even thought about that girl in the seven hours since I passed her, not consciously at least, and suddenly this fans my sullenness into white-hot anger. I’m angry at the woman hurting her child. Angry at whoever hurt the woman. Angry at the apathy all around me all the time, people going about their junk food and their Netflix and their politics and money so they don’t have to touch these people and feel their pain. I wish there was someone I could fight. I’m walking fast up this hill; I was really cold before, but now I’m sweating in these layers.

In a couple hours I’ll go on a Tuesday-evening just-because date with my boyfriend. I’ll worry that I’m not very fun today, but he can always get me to relax somehow. I’ll sit across the table and tell him my ugly day and wonder again where he came from, how he got so caring and intelligent and lighthearted; we’ll make Rice Krispie treats and play with the marshmallows and be sickeningly happy together. My heart will be big again.


Do you know, do you know how beautiful it all is, do you see at all? So many days in this work I think my heart has shattered out across the whole world and I’m just too broken anymore. But then I walk out into the world and I start to find the little pieces, one at a time, here the tracks of birds’ feet in the snow, there a backpack bouncing wildly, it’s happy to be running home off the bus.

Do you ever sit and wonder at how much tragedy and how much that is good and true all exist together in this little space, the earth? You can’t name evil until you know what we’ve lost, the wound of it, but is there anything more right and whole than redemption? It’s all right there, soaring sweeping glory next to black despair next to a holy cup of coffee so near to innocence betrayed.

It’s too much, really it is, none of us is God and thank goodness, I couldn’t stand to really see it all like he does. I only occupy so much space and my heart can only stretch so far. But we choose our worlds like never before and I’m not going to wrap myself up in a car for when it’s cold and a radio for when I’m bored and a smartphone for when I don’t want to deal with people. I’m going to fight to choose the real physical world where all the stuff happens, with the blue-and-yellow house on the corner and the stray cats and boring conversations and homeless people muttering nonsense and babies with hats on. That’s where I help feed people, where my choice of transportation affects others, where I’m falling in love. It’s so miraculous God couldn’t stay out of it, he came here and lived and died for the beauty and pain of a girl on a sidewalk, and all the people passing her by.

little things with great love

my walk to work these days is perilous. About two thirds of the property owners in Syracuse are civic-minded adults, and one third doesn’t deserve to own property at all. I am talking, of course, about snow and ice on their sidewalks. While there is a law mandating people clear the walks on their own property, it appears to go unenforced (even on the same block with a school, where I live).

This causes my spirit great outrage. If people can get their grass mowed (an aesthetic need), they should be able to clear their sidewalks (a safety issue). I’m one of the luckier pedestrians, since I don’t own a car but I do have a new pair of hiking boots that needed broken in – and I still do a lot of sliding on the ice.

(end rant. begin actual point.)

A block from my church, Planned Parenthood and the New Hope Pregancy Center sit side by side. The whole width of the sidewalk in front of Planned Parenthood is snow- and ice-free. The sidewalk and parking lot in front of New Hope are really, really icy.

Which organization displays greater care for the community and the frightened women approaching their doors?

(I hesitate to use this example; nonprofit work is hard and the last thing we need is to go around criticizing each other. I’m sure both organizations are really trying to help people. But…)

When I was a kid, there were a lot of Sunday School lessons on this verse: “Whatever you do, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to the Father (Colossians 3:17).” I think the parents requested it so maybe they could have a few days off from trying to cajole us into doing our homework and chores. But since I’ve been going to Big Church, I’m not sure I’ve heard more than a few sermons on doing things with excellence. And this confuses me, especially when it comes to volunteer, nonprofit, and church work, which we are actually doing in the name of the Lord Jesus. 

What does it mean to love the marginalized? Not to fix them or provide a service to them or deal with them? For that matter, what does it mean to love the people we live with or the people in the grocery store? There are never too many small acts of kindness and consideration in the world. The more I think about these Big Problems like Poverty and these Hard Things like Community, the more I wonder if they don’t all come down to one little thing at a time.

link to original image

something pretty for the food pantry.

It’s easy to get burned out and start letting the little things go. But I pray that we can learn to take joy in those little things. That we can do our jobs one day, one moment at a time, and remember that our excellence and those extras serve as signs of hope for a beautiful world, not a barely-maintained one.

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