On Poverty

7/5/17


For the past eight days, we've had essentially no running water in our home.

It started a few weeks ago when our water pressure dropped drastically and it took several days of phone calls to our landlord to get someone out for repairs. When a plumber finally did come out, he turned the water off completely and said he couldn't fix the pipes. They were too corroded to touch. A second plumber came out the next day and concluded the same thing. Our family of five plus our housemate spent the better part of every day simply trying to survive: Cooking, flushing, washing dishes, cleaning up spills, and even brushing teeth and faces required exhausting levels of work. We hauled water from our friend's house down the street in a Rubbermaid bin and gallons of plastic bottles, lasting us two days at a time before doing it all over again. There was not a single gesture of help or accommodation from our landlord; not one sincere word of regret or condolence.

After five days another plumber came, patched up more than one hole and left, supplying a barely usable trickle of water- not enough to run a washing machine, shower thoroughly, or even flush the toilet. He said it was the city's valve that was faulty. Days after that someone from the city finally showed up, found the mysterious last leak, and patched it up.

Water had been spewing at four gallons a minute, he said. The landlord vaguely assured us we'd "work something out" when we got the water bill. He has yet to decide how much of a discount to give us from our rent this month, despite us demanding it be at least half the norm. The ball is in his court, and he knows it.

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Poverty is not always about money. Poverty is just as much about being denied basic human dignity.

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Maybe it's easy to hear this story and assume we're getting what we pay for. Unfortunately, that's not the case. We've never paid anything close to the rent we're paying on this house (you'd be appalled if I told you) and it's in the worst shape of anywhere we've ever lived. We had very few choices of rental properties that were in the area of town that is accessible to people without cars- the people we hope to open up hospitable arms to. The further you go out to the 'burbs, the cheaper (and nicer) the properties get. But no one in need can get to you. Which is maybe the point.

But our motives weren't completely altruistic- they were practical too. Our housemate doesn't own a car and needs to be within biking distance to work and other places. Our family only has one car so most days one of us must be able to walk or bike to where we need to go as well. There are two universities in this town and landlords know they can hike the price up if the location is right, because students can cram four or five friends in a house and split the rent. But this house we're in takes the cake. In addition to the water fiasco, the bathroom is old and gross, the backyard so overgrown with sticker burs that it's essentially unusable, and the so-touted "third bedroom" is an entryway that my baby sleeps in that does not have a vent or an outlet. We have to run an extension cord into his room to put a fan in so he can actually sleep through the night without waking in sweat. If we're in this house through the winter, I fear the consequences of putting a space heater in the room. I don't know what we'll do.

The truth is, we want out. But if we break the lease it will cost us money we don't really have and can go on our credit record, possibly keeping us from leasing or owning in the future. We- the three adults in the house- are talking constantly about what to do, and the conversation has been started with the landlord. But ultimately, the ball is in his court. Will he show mercy if we ask to leave amicably? Maybe. Maybe not.

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Poverty is not always about money. Poverty is just as much about who has the power and who doesn't.

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Because of the mental space the house has taken up in my brain the past week and a half, I missed the necessary window to book a doctor's appointment for Alyosha to get a new Ritalin prescription. I have one our doctor in Iowa sent with us with hope and a prayer, but pharmacies here won't fill it across state lines. So he's been on half meds for two days and runs out tomorrow. Life will get harder for all of us then, unless by some miracle I can get him seen today. I'm angry at myself for letting it sneak up on me, but when you're manually fetching pails of water to flush your children's feces with while they stand around to watch, you don't have time to stay on top of scheduling appointments.

I don't know what school they'll attend because I don't know where we'll be living on August 15th. I haven't registered them anywhere. It might not get done until August 14th. I might be that mom, the one that everyone wonders about. Why didn't she have her act together? Doesn't she care about her children? What is so hard about just filling out some school paperwork?

I'm not sure when the last time was that my oldest two ate a vegetable. Well, I guess it was the green beans at my mother-in-law's house this weekend, but other than that I have no recall. I feel guilty about their eating habits, but once again, when you're just trying to survive it's amazing how quickly things get overlooked.

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Poverty is not always about money. Poverty is just as much about keeping your head above water and everything that drowns as you tread, tread, tread.





A note to end on: My family is going to be okay. We have affluent parents who can meet our basic needs in a crisis, we have higher education degrees that afford us opportunities, we have a lifetime of experience in white middle-class America in our pockets with which to work through options. It will be tempting for many of you to start brainstorming solutions for me, and although I deeply appreciate your care, I assure you we're spinning this over a million different ways in our brains every hour. I didn't write this post hoping you could solve my problems for me, or even for your sympathy or cries of injustice. I'm thankful for how you guys love me, but this post isn't really about me and I hope you see that. I have options. This post is to help us understand the plight of those who don't.




Are We Letting Consumerism Plan Our Families?

6/20/17

I push the massive red cart through the aisles, joking apologetically to passersby about my ineptitude at navigating a spaceship. My three-year-old and one-year-old sit happily enjoying their free ride, chatting it up with one another, with me, with anyone who will listen, really.

We need diapers, so I maneuver carefully through the numerous baby aisles, passing a veritable mass of inventions, each almost identical to the last. For a brief moment, the normalcy of these aisles gives way to reality and I see the absurdity for what it is. I have to count them, I decide. 11 activity mats. 6 excersaucers.

Tossing a few (of the dozen) plush animals at my boys to buy myself some time, I move to the bouncers. Only four, I’m surprised to find, but they all look almost exactly the same: sleek and white, seemingly better suited for the Apple store than the baby aisle of Target; four variations of a product with almost no discernable difference between them.

My three-year-old cannot contain the stimulation any longer. “I want to buy something!” he yells.

Bingo, I think.


Most Christians would probably agree that America has a consumerism problem. Yet if we’re honest, most of us are also unwilling to do anything about it ourselves. We will sit and bemoan the state of a society that values things over relationships, monetary exchanges over natural pleasures, but we subconsciously feed into the epidemic all the time. We convince ourselves that a “want” is really a “need”, we see lack where there is abundance, and we spend money because it physiologically makes us feel good, though we rarely recognize it.

But perhaps most damaging of all: We let consumerism plan our families.

It has become common for happy young couples to wait years before marrying because they are convinced they simply cannot afford family life yet. Certainly, this can be a harmless decision, but let’s face it: it does no favors for those attempting chastity before marriage. Waiting years in an intimate relationship to consummate the intimacy already in one’s heart is no easy task, and all too often becomes one tossed aside in frustration.

But a bigger problem, and one we’re seeing increasingly more frequently are couples in committed marriages postponing having children for years because they don’t feel financially prepared. And can we blame them? Articles like this one claim it costs $12,000 to see a baby through his first year of life, $230,000 to see Junior into adulthood. Who could help but balk at figures like that?

Yet all over the world parents are managing to raise happy, well-adjusted children at a fraction of those numbers, and almost all of our grandparents did as well. Ah, the argument might go, but in our time and place, cost of living is simply much higher. And to an extent that is certainly true: Childbirth itself costs much more than it did 60 years ago, and most American parents plan to save something for their children’s college education. These are valid expenses, absolutely.

But much more impactful may be the thousands of smaller choices between birth and college. With their first walk-through of a big box store’s baby section, parents-to-be may quickly become convinced they’ll need to renovate a new wing of the house to accommodate all the “necessary” gear. Get Chip and Joanna on the phone, stat! And it only continues as that baby grows under the roof of parents who feel they have no option but to keep up with the Joneses. They literally see no other way.


The goal of marketing is to make us feel a lack when in reality there is none. (If there were, we would know: Humans are incredibly attuned when it comes to identifying our vital material needs and seeking to meet them.) And we are never more terrified of lack than when it comes to our children; a noble instinct, but in our modern society, a sorely misdirected one.

If a young married couple believes that before they can bring a baby into the family they must be able to provide a closet full of stylish clothes, the newest playthings, a restaurant’s worth of feeding supplies, and every popular Mommy & Me class in town, they will struggle mightily to embrace a truly pro-life mentality.

And if that’s true of the young marrieds, how much truer is it of those unmarried and facing unplanned pregnancies? When bearing the weight of choice in a culture that tells them they have not “earned” the right to be parents yet, how many feel doomed before they even begin?

We need to support those in crisis pregnancies with programs like the Gabriel Project and local Christian pregnancy centers, to be sure. But have we underestimated the extent to which rejecting a culture of consumerism might change the trajectory of a baby’s life? If we as faithful Christians embraced lifestyles of radical simplicity, might it pave the way for young people to believe that relationships are not built on bank accounts?


One thing I’ve found by now, as I prepare to bring our fourth child into the family, is that babies need far less than our culture tries to convince us of. Quite frankly they are often most happy with less, as parents unable to rely on things are more free to engage in truly bonding activities that help their children thrive. This is a secret many parents of large families wise up to over the years, but it’s a tough sell to convince a first-timer that less is more.

If more of us lived out voluntary simplicity, spoke openly about our tight budgets, and joyfully invited young people into our homes rich in love anyway, perhaps our culture (even if only first within the Church) might become more pro-life. Maybe instead of communicating the message “you don’t have enough to do this”, we could instead communicate, “you are enough to do this”.

And maybe, just maybe we would see more young people made brave against the sneers of society, bolstered by our cheering them on to choose people over things. Every time.

Summer Book List 2017

6/9/17


Hey guys, remember when I promised to roll out a hefty new series on Catholic Social Teaching - while simultaneously moving halfway across the country to rejoin an intentional community, taking on a new part-time job, and welcoming a surprise pregnancy? How absolutely precious of me.

So, yeah. That series is running a bit behind. But I thought I'd hop on, wave hi, and throw some book recs your way for those long summer days ahead! We are due to arrive in Texas on Tuesday and are up to our ears in cardboard boxes as I type. Odds are you'll have a more productive reading season than I, so share your recs in the comments or on FB!

Amazon links are affiliates and help support our house of hospitality at no extra cost to you. And for those who don't know, anything you buy after clicking through my link goes to our credit- it doesn't even have to be the item I recommended. Thanks for thinking of us when you shop!

Just Finished Reading:




This is the kind of delicious novel that you devour in three days. It follows the stories of two women; one a white lawyer in modern-day New York, the other a black slave in 1850s Virginia. The long lasting impacts of slavery are explored here in an accessible way, bringing home again the shocking implications of the foundations of our country. Historical fiction at it's finest.



Currently Reading:




I'm a total sucker for classic literature with a child protagonist (think: To Kill a Mockingbird). This one is a rich coming-of-age story with excellent character development and descriptions. It's not exactly a page-turner, but if you're appreciative of thoughtful, exploratory writing I think you'll dig it. I am always refreshed by seeing the world through the eyes of a child.



Big Father Martin fan here, so my interest was piqued when I saw his spiritual memoir at the library. Coincidentally, it follows the same format that the book in my head does- one that maybe will see the light of day in the next five years. I'm always moved to witness how the faith of the saints and other spiritual mothers and fathers inform the way we live out our personal Christian devotion today. The Body of Christ is a powerful thing.




Sigh, Walter Brueggemann, why aren't you my friendly neighborhood surrogate uncle? If y'all are not familiar with Brueggemann remedy that quick. Most of his tutelage comes to me through husband osmosis, but I'm reading this one cover to cover myself. (And the other authors are great too! Wink.) This is a topic I'm passionate about and think many of you will love it too.



Will Be Reading:



Has everyone else on the planet read this one by now? I'm way behind here but have heard only good things and am determined to tackle it this summer. If you've read it already, was there anything that took you by surprise?



Eric's Reading:



A few chapters into this book and Eric was telling me it's a must-read for me as a mother of boys, so I definitely hope to get my hands on it one day, even if it's not this summer. Neither of us are huge fans of the Wild At Heart kind of men's books, not that there isn't good stuff in there, but because the model is really not inclusive of all types of males. Adam's Return, in contrast, examines the male initiation rites around the world that Rohr has spent half his life studying, and draws conclusions about the needs and desires of manhood and men's relationship to Creator and Creation in light of them. Eric highly recommends it.



Kids Are Reading:




My bigger boys are in stitches over the Pigeon series of books by Mo Willems these days. It's not necessarily impressive academics, but sometimes it's nice to just see your kiddos cracking up as they pore over a picture book. (And they're fun for parents to read too!)

Linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for Quick Lit!

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It's about time for another monthly newsletter update, and thank you to those who took the time to fill out the quick survey last month- your feedback was so helpful! If you'd like to sign up for these more personal notes, you can do so here. I'm excited to tell you All The Things after our big move next week! See you then!

The Dignity of the Human Person

5/18/17

This is the second post in a series of eight exploring Catholic Social Teaching. Affiliate links are used for recommended resources in this post.

Genesis 1:27 
 God created humankind in His own image 

You might see the idea talked about in its Latin form, "imago Dei". I love that we have a succinct way of expressing a reality so complex and mysterious.

In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, the "imago Dei" is explained like this: “the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. (108)"

Simply put, God our Creator took some of the most beautiful parts of Himself and placed them within each one of us. Every human being has dignity because every human being has been made in the image of God. Dignity is not a right that can be earned or lost by our life choices.

By the way, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church was released by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2004 under the authority of Pope John Paul II. If you're unfamiliar with the workings of the Catholic Church, this basically means that the Compendium is official and universal Catholic teaching. It's not just a fringe group that blows their social justice trumpet to the annoyance of everyone else. This is for and representative of all Catholics.

(I simply cannot move forward without begging you to buy a copy of the Compendium. If you are Catholic, this needs to be right up there on your bookshelf beside your Catechism. If you are a non-Catholic Christian, you will be encouraged and equipped with extensive language to articulate your Gospel-shaped social convictions to others. The Compendium is not just a feel-good religious book; it holds up in academic settings. Get your hands on this thing, guys.)


"A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person... It is necessary to 'consider every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.' Every political, economic, social, scientific and cultural programme must be inspired by the awareness of the primacy of each human being over society."  (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 132, emphasis mine)

I think it's fair to say a just society is what we all want. Maybe we could all even agree that the foundation of such a society would have to be the inherent dignity of the human person. But the idea of considering every neighbor WITHOUT EXCEPTION as another self- that's where it starts getting uncomfortable, isn't it?

I mean sure, in Mark 12:31 Jesus said the most important commandment- after loving God- was to love your neighbor as yourself. But we all know what He meant. He meant the neighbors who have earned their dignity, earned their respect. The ones who act in a way that makes middle-class Americans feel comfortable. Surely Jesus doesn't expect us to consider the undocumented immigrant taking our jobs as another self. Surely He doesn't think we'll be able to see ourselves in the black teenage boy who shouldn't have mouthed off to the authority figure in the first place. Surely Jesus meant that I love the neighbor who reminds me most of myself.

What if maybe, maybe, Jesus meant exactly what He said? What if, like the Compendium articulates, I am called to consider every single one of my "neighbors" (i.e. people I share the earth with) as another self? Not called to be nice to them, not called to make donations to them, but called to truly believe that they belong to me, and I to them?


Going back to the above quote, what could it mean to take into account not just the worth of my neighbor's life, but equally important, "the means necessary for living it with dignity"? That's the part that will get us.

Let me paint you a picture.

I was born to parents who were not wealthy, and whose own families had their share of financial struggles through the years. But both of their families of origin were white in Mississippi, so even without a cushioned bank account, they enjoyed a basic level of respect and privilege within their communities that their neighbors of color did not receive. My parents were both first generation college graduates, but while not college educated, my grandparents all worked stable jobs and owned their homes (this was made astronomically easier by the fact that the generations before them had legal right to own property. In their state, as you know, this was not a historical given.)

By the time I went to college, my nuclear family was upper middle class. Both of my parents worked at a Christian university so I got free tuition. I was given a brand new car the Christmas before I graduated- the exact make and model I had asked for. I can tell you right now I did NOT live out my first few college years "with dignity", but there was no systematic injustice to blame. I was just an immature idiot.

I had been through a high performing public school and knew how to succeed, so I grabbed my Bachelor's degree with hardly breaking a sweat. I married right after college graduation, to a man also from a stable two-parent, financially cushioned family, and we began our life together.


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“With due respect for the autonomy and culture of every nation, we must never forget that the planet belongs to all mankind and is meant for all mankind; the mere fact that some people are born in places with fewer resources or less development does not justify the fact that they are living with less dignity.”  (Pope Francis, Evangeli Gaudium)

Everything about the background of my life set me up to be treated with dignity by our society.

But had my parents, growing up in the deep South in the 1960s, happened to have been born with a different color skin, do you think my own story would have unfolded the same way? We both know the answer to that.

Had my parents been born Mexican citizens, grew terrified for my safety in a city riddled with drug cartel and violence, took the risk of moving to a new country without the finances, education, or language to succeed in it, and tried to piece together a life for me here, would I be in a respected position in our society?

I could go on and on but I'll stop because you get the point.

If creating a just society means working towards a system where every human being has the means necessary for living their life with dignity, how do we move towards that? It's a complicated topic to be sure, but I believe there is an easy place to start.

We love our neighbors as ourself.

That means we consider our neighbor when we make decisions for our own lives. We seek to understand systematic injustices that keep certain people down and boost other people up. We befriend those who make us uncomfortable. We offer our money if it helps, sure, but mostly we offer our butts in chairs.

We sit and we listen. We sit and we become the learners, not the instructors. We sit and we become the weak, not the mighty. We sit and simply be with people. We get to learn that we aren't the saviors. There may be a time for action that comes, but for a good long while we sit down and shut up. We listen to the marginalized, we listen to our neighbors. We have our butts in chairs.

And while we listen, we honor the image of God in our neighbor.



Peter Maurin is one of the most radical and lovely Catholics that I've had the honor of becoming familiar with post-humously. Dorothy Day often credited (or some say, blamed) him for starting the Catholic Worker movement, but as he was more of an odd duck and less of a charismatic leader than Dorothy, his place in history has been rather muted. I feel pretty certain he's a saint.

In her autobiography The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day describes Peter in a way that I believe epitomizes Jesus' desire for how we would relate to the other. Living up to this description would be a worthy life goal for all of us; imagine how differently the world would see Christians then.

“{Peter} did not begin by tearing down, or by painting so intense a picture of misery and injustice that you burned to change the world. Instead, he aroused in you a sense of your own capacities for work, for accomplishment. He made you feel that you and all men had great and generous hearts with which to love God. If you once recognized this fact in yourself you would expect and find it in others. It was seeing Christ in others, loving the Christ you saw in others. Greater than this, it was having faith in the Christ in others without being able to see Him. Blessed is he that believes without seeing.”
(If you've been around long enough you may remember I've quoted part of that before. It moves me like nothing else can.) 

Peter's contribution to Catholic Social Thought remains largely through Dorothy's extensive writings about him in her books and journals, as he wasn't the prolific writer that she was. She even wrote a book entirely about him that I haven't read yet but still feel confident in recommending to you.

His own writings were short and sweet and came to be known as "easy essays". They are compiled on the Catholic Worker website, and here is an example:

1. To give and not to take
    that is what makes man human.
 2. To serve and not to rule
    that is what makes man human.
 3. To help and not to crush
    that is what makes man human.
 4. To nourish and not to devour
    that is what makes man human.
 5. And if need be
    to die and not to live
    that is what makes man human.
 6. Ideals and not deals
    that is what makes man human.
 7. Creed and not greed
    that is what makes man human.

To nourish and not devour.

May we live our lives in such a way towards all.

May we be willing to be corrected, able to be changed, and open to being wrong.

May we honor the dignity of the human person in every neighbor we encounter.


Thanks for joining me for this series. You can read the post before this one here and stay tuned for the next one, the call to family, community, and participation, in the next two weeks.





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Someday, the light will shine like a sun through my skin & they will say, 'what have you done with your life?' & though there are many moments I think I'll remember, in the end, I will be proud to say, I was one of us.

(Brian Andreas, Storypeople)

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