Friday, June 07, 2013

Poverty 101

Today at Annual Conference I learned that some of the affluent white United Methodist congregations in Indianapolis have been hiring a white middle class guy in Indianapolis to teach "Poverty 101."  When I asked the person who was coordinating this why they did this in this way she said it "helped the people in these congregations know more about poor people and relate to them."  I can imagine the relief of people who don't have much money that people who have more money now can "relate" to them.  Yikes!

I asked the person talking to me about this if she thought a class about women would be best taught by a man - or a class about African-American folks would be best taught by a white Englishman?  She wasn't quite sure.  Really?  I very much doubt that those things would happen - but we would easily pay someone who is not poor to teach another group of people who are not poor about what it is like to be poor.  This, of course, misses the whole irony that people who don't have much money (i.e. - the poor) could really use a job - and especially one that they are eminently qualified for, i.e.: teach us what's it like to not have money.

Over and over again I'm struck with how much in our society we construct ways to think that people who don't have money are a different species.

I was watching "The Daily Show" tonight and saw one of their correspondents take a trip to Iran to visit our enemies there.  The people that they showed visiting - were thunderstruck that people would think that hated Americans, of course they didn't.  They didn't laugh at jokes making fun of Jewish people and they didn't fall into any of the stereotypes that people would expect them to meet.

I think if people went into the homes of people who didn't have money (something I often do) they would discover that the people they are visiting are in all ways, except that they have less money, exactly like other people they know.  They would discover lively 80 year olds, and parents struggling to figure out how to do the right thing, and young people who are full of energy, excitement, and dreams.  They would discover that most people who don't have much money - do, in fact, have food in their cabinets.  They just don't have a lot of extra food.  They would discover that they have a lot of bills - but also that they have art work up on their walls, and certificates from their child's school celebrating achievement, and the delicious smells of the flowers on the front lawn and the baking going on in the kitchen as you talk.

As Christians you would think that they trust there is abundance in these places - you would be expecting to meet healers, and teachers, and thinkers.  You would expect to meet poets, and musicians, and philanthropists.  But not if what you are expecting to meet is poor people - rather than beloved children of God.  But that's what these Poverty 101 classes do.  They make the poor a group of people to be studied, rather than sisters and brothers to share life with and learn from and alongside.

I hope that we'll (that is "we Christians" to begin with) stop studying the poor and start hanging around to see what God is doing in and around the poor.

I wrote a piece that I presented at worship a few months ago - that I hope captures this more clearly.

Light burst into being...and God saw that it was good.

A couple of years ago Matt Tulley wrote a story in the Indianapolis Star about
the band at Manual High School.  People filled the auditorium.  Randall Shepherd
the Supreme Court Chief Justice sat on the floor so others could have seats. 
They had to expand the nights of performance so that all could see and hear and
people were thrilled.  Money poured in from around the city and support has

Matt Tulley saw the dedication of the teacher, the head of the band.  He saw
that he was doing something difficult in difficult circumstances. 

But here is what he did not see.

He did not see the parents getting their kids up every morning to go to
school, before they headed off to work, or as they came home from their night
shift job.  He did not see the one who despite the fact that they didnt have
electricity in her home - got her son out on the front porch every afternoon to
practice the clarinet.  He did not see the father who borrowed money from every
member of the family so that he could get a drum set and put it up in the
basement from the time her daughter was aged five.  He did not see the brother
who was responsible for getting his brother up and out of bed and headed to
school because their parents were already on the bus out to the IHOP on
Pendleton Pike to work.

He did not see the kid who got up sick and headed out to school, because he
loves his classes and he loves his music and the two feed each other.

When God said let there be light and saw that it was good - God intended for
that light to be used to shine on the places where no one ever sees.  Not only
the schools, but the homes.  Not only the leaders, but the invisible ones, the
parents, and students, and grandparents and siblings.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013


On Palm Sunday I asked the congregation to find someone that week and publicly celebrate some way in which they see the spark of God, the Holy Spirit, or Jesus in that person's life.  We talk about this a lot around Broadway - how do we celebrate what God is doing in our lives and in the life of the world around us?

This week Annual Conference will be meeting - and often it is the occasion for many of us who are clergy to complain about the people who worship in our places.  More and more I see this in much the same way as I see that we in the church (and in the larger society) treat our fellow citizens who don't have much money (that we label as "poor").  Our denomination pushes us to be critical of our members - to challenge them to give more, involve themselves more in local mission and outreach, ask them to be more than they are...and yet there is very little done to celebrate the discipleship that we see in the hearts and lives of people in our congregations.  Also, there is very little encouragement (check out our UM official liturgy to see if I'm wrong) to celebrate this which we see in the lives of our parishes.  And I mean "parish" both on the inside the walls and outside the walls measure - that old sense of parish that include a geography (we do believe in the incarnation after all).

I was recently filling out the "self-evaluation" for my district superintendent - and I was struck how even the questions that are asked and the way that they are framed - point us in the direction away from celebrating the lives of faith that the people in our congregation live - and point us toward their activity in and through the agency of the congregation.

I am continuously struck and amazed by the faithful living that the people of our congregation do.  I'm often overwhelmed with gratitude at the people of the French Lick UMC's, the Whiteland UMC, and the Huntingburg UMC, that shaped me and formed me.  Not only the worship did that - but the people of that congregation did.  Joe O'Nan who sang with me in the choir in Whiteland, talked to me not only like I was a kid, but a fellow choir member - he treated me as an equal.  That was a remarkable thing for which I'll always be grateful.  Chub Money would kid with me, but I knew he was paying attention to me.  Dale Helmrich was the mayor of Huntingburg and an active member of the church - and I got to see his stewardship of the city as a vital ministry that he undertook (and he understood it that way)...and Bruce, who owned the Gaslight, in Huntingburg, and who when I ran away from home when in high school, took me in, gave me a respite from my home, and unknown to me called my parents and told them that I was alright and that he would take care of me for a couple of days, but that they didn't need to worry.  I think of Jim Lammers, whose farm I threw hay on, and what he taught me about his care for his family and his care for the earth - his daughter who had a congenital heart disease, forcing her to be sometimes inhumanly treated by our health systems, and Jim's battle to have her always treated as a human being.  I think of Jim's care for his animals and the land on his farm - and the gentleness and care he took with it, because he loved it - the animals, the land itself.  And I saw in that - that Jesus had implanted these things in him and he knew it.  I saw Mrs. Suhrheinrich and her vocation as librarian at the high school and how seriously she took this as an obligation.  I think of Bob and Trudy Peterson, who often had us to their home at Thanksgiving after we met them when my folks first moved to French Lick in 1960.  They were a fixture of my life growing up - and I was constantly impressed with the ways in which they loved God, their family, and the church.  I saw them carry loads of pain, for themselves, their children, and others around them - and they were often a comfort to those who are burdened in ways that they knew all too well.

When I was at Broadway the first time I think of the Mosiers, John and Helen, who I'm pretty sure didn't like me - my irreverent and liberal ways.  But who in my first years back, found myself presiding at their funerals and spending time with them before they died and beginning to see past the way they had been upset with me and into the remarkable ways they shared themselves with the world.  Their oldest son had died in a fire his senior year in high school.  Across the years, when other families (inside and outside the congregation) faced similar tragedies they would go and be with families.  They knew what to do.  We don't celebrate such holiness of life and heart nearly enough.

I'm not saying that the stuff that we do in and around the life of the congregation should be ignored.  But it often isn't.  We are much more used to that and giving praise for that.  I think we have divorced Christian faith from our life in the world and made it more about a formed sense of piety - and attendance at Bible Study - then about how we treat our neighbor.  This is not an either/or - but it is out of balance already.

The Hebrew scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote a book several years ago celebrating an old biblical idea (he claimed anyway) - "the common good."  That's not spoken of much in church these days.  We talk about faith an individualized faith and moral code and not much about "the common good."  I bet it's been nearly 20 years since I've heard someone talk about the common good.

And we could begin by noticing where it is happening and we could celebrate it.  When we shine a light on those places and practices that others don't see - we give a remarkable gift.