Sunday, August 30, 2009

Wrestling an elephant

Psalm 131
O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty;
Nor do I involve myself in great matters,
Or in things too difficult for me.

Surely I have composed and quieted my soul;
Like a weaned child rests against his mother,
My soul is like a weaned child within me.

O Israel, hope in the LORD
From this time forth and forever.

I will say this for Idea Camp, it has definitely made me think… it’s almost been annoying, because I can’t stop wrestling with the elephant-sized questions it raised for me, and like most things I can't let go of, :^) this struggle is going up on the blog.

My hat is off to Charles Lee and his crew for bringing together such a wide assortment of representatives from a variety of different sectors of service. I’m really blown away by the fact that they were able to bring in so many influential people from all over and still hold the conference for free. I am particularly grateful for speakers like Leroy Barber, Mark Horvath, Jenny Hwang, Shannon Moriarty, and Greg Russinger who work very hard on domestic issues such as immigration, homelessness and poverty in the inner cities, and on merging the arts and activism. I really and truly learned from these guys, and I felt jostled –again—to take more seriously my role in my community, and to use the artistic gifts I have for the benefit of my community wherever I can see a role for that. I am, and will be in prayer about these things.

The thing needling at me, though, is the attention given to aid organizations that work overseas. This attention to the suffering of the poor in other countries is utterly familiar to anyone raised in the church, and it tends to be viewed with unquestioning admiration from those not engaged in such service. I would never ever EVER be arrogant enough to criticize the intentions, passion, creativity and dedication of the people devoted to this work. But I sincerely question its long-term effectiveness, and I question the effect that it has had on my generation.

I’ll address the second point first, and I’ll speak for myself here, even though I do know others who have had similar experiences. I had a fascination with the thought of working overseas, and I wanted to do that very badly in my late teens and early 20s. What could be a better way of distributing the privileges I’d been given as a white American than to go to a poor country and give my time towards helping them fix their problems? But also, what could better assuage my guilt and my feelings of helplessness towards the problems of race, class discrimination and poverty in my own country? What would be a more effective veil for the fact that I grew up without much money than to go to a country where they really had nothing?

Really, I had plenty of energy around wanting to help the poor... within the American concept of such things, I had grown up poor. The thought of helping to lift others out of a far bleaker poverty with my tiny pool of resources – the thought that I actually HAD privilege and with it some measure of power to assist someone else— was exhilarating. I could help someone!! I could really HELP someone!! And I could travel, too!! And, unlike the African-Americans I’d gone to high school with, these folks wouldn’t automatically put a mark in the negative column because I was white.

I was wrong about the last thing. Racial discrimination and white privilege are global, a nauseating legacy of colonial policies that privileged lighter-skinned members of the occupied nation. I was wrong about a lot, actually, but I didn’t get the opportunity at the time to find out how much more I was wrong about because circumstances kept me from going anywhere other than England, an experience that I loved, but which is absolutely unimpressive to mission-minded church folks.

I was bitter for a long time about this. I wanted a badge that said “I want to help the Third World, but I’m broke, too”. I wanted a chance to explain to people that my I also got tears in my eyes when I saw pictures and videos of emaciated folks with empty eyes. I felt deeply guilty over their situation. I felt it personally. I wanted to hug and cry with all of them. All of them. Really. I would have sold my possessions to pay off my debt and go help, but my possessions weren’t worth all that much. Supporting two Compassion kids kind of helped assuage my hunger to help (and it was like a physical hunger), but not really.

It’s a cruel dichotomy, really. My financial situation was mostly the result of bad luck and a lot of dumb but well meaning decisions, both mine and those of multiple family members for generations. I felt that the rich kids, who had always had everything anyway, also got to be the heroes. They also got to be honored and respected for their concern for the poor, for their “selfless” service in poor foreign countries. It was the weirdest dynamic that I lived in for the longest time, this blind, numbing jealousy of feeling that my economic status denied me even the privilege of selflessness, and that my race denied me the privilege of having visibly overcome the odds against me. I worked my ass off, and I struggled, and I really really wanted to make the world a better place, and nobody noticed. I’ve written about this before, but I really can’t stress how much this view of things had a hold of me.

Thankfully, I got a lucky break that changed everything. I got to teach English as a Second Language at Truro Church, and I got to put all that love and desire to help on to my students. That volunteer teaching helped me get a job as an admin assistant in the International Student Office at GMU, and I turned all that love and frustration and longing onto the students I helped. My position at GMU allowed me to get a Masters Degree for free, so I studied Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and turned all of that longing to be allowed to help the developing world into study of the conflicts that had shaped affairs in those countries.

And you know what I learned in that Masters Degree and in that 6 ½ years of service to students from all over the planet? I learned that people in the developing world are generally grateful for the money, but they want to solve their own problems. They have the intelligence and resourcefulness. For all of my longing to help, I can’t hold a candle to the ingenuity and problem-solving capacity of many of the students I met. Their personalities were forged in circumstances that required much more of them than mine required of me, and it shows.

More than that, though, they, and they alone, truly understand the dynamics of the cultural, economic, and political problems in their countries. Although they appreciate the desire of individual people to help, they cannot help but see the disproportionate use of American and European resources to fix their country’s problems as a desire for control of their country, and I honestly don’t blame them. To be fair, if I saw a regular flow of folks and money from South Asia coming to try to solve the problems of the inner-city DC, Chicago, or Atlanta, I would seriously question their motivation, too. How could they possibly understand what was going on? What, really, could they be after but a desire to influence the affairs of my country?

Which brings me to Dambisa Moyo, a woman who has written a powerful book, Dead Aid, that has probably pissed off a lot of people. I was 13th on the waiting list for this book at the Arlington Central Library, so suffice to say her ideas have gotten people's attention. I haven’t read the whole book, but the central argument is that western aid to sub-saharan Africa has had the opposite of the intended effect. Ms. Moyo doesn’t pull her punches. In the section “The foreign aid agenda of the 2000s: the rise of glamour aid,” she writes the following after mentioning the role of Bob Geldof and Bono in promoting the interests of the African poor to heads of state around the world:

“Scarcely does one see Africa’s (elected) officials or those African policymakers charged with the development portfolio offer an opinion on what should be done, or what might actually work to save the continent from its regression. This very important responsibility has, for all intents and purposes, and to the bewilderment and chagrin of many an African, been left to musicians who reside outside Africa. One disastrous consequence of this has been that honest, critical and serious dialogue and debate on the merits and demerits of aid have atrophied. As one critic of the aid model remarked, ‘my voice can’t compete with an electric guitar’.” p. 27

You can almost hear the slap across the faces of all the well-meaning Americans and Europeans who have tried to help. I’m sure there are well thought out counter-arguments against her (I found this as soon as I Googled her book), but right now I’m just sitting with her assertion. I’m thinking of what I’ve learned over the past 9 years since I’ve been in DC. I’m thinking of the guilt and frustration I put myself through over not being able to pursue my “dream”… and I’m thinking of how often I found myself squirming this weekend at Idea Camp, how often I wanted to stand up and say “hold ON a minute… how are you so sure this is what God wants from you??”

I’m not sure I’m right, either, but I think it’s high time for the church to question the wisdom of idolizing those who go overseas to “help”. Where are the voices of the African, Indian, Chinese, and South American Christians (and I am intentionally not adding a “-American” after those adjectives)? What do they really want from the American church? What do they really think of the money that goes into the charities sent to assist them? What do they think of the people who parachute into their societies for a couple of weeks or months to build a well or a house? I’m very supportive of the models used by, for example, the Mennonites, who do believe in sending people for years to become part of the community, and who do not proselytize, but I have to ask the question even of that model… what do the local folks think of them?

This is a long post, and I have no answers. Sorry if that’s frustrating, but thanks for reading this far if you have.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Remembering and forgetting

I was standing outside of Shoefly yesterday afternoon when I read Lonnie's text. I had just dropped $100 on 4 pairs of Extremely Discounted designer shoes and a cool Indian shoulder bag to replace the other ones that had disintegrated beneath the weight of everything I'd tried to carry in them on my daily commute. The shoes were a great bargain, and great timing as well, as most of my cheap shoes from last summer were falling apart and these would get me through the rest of the summer and hopefully through all of next summer, too. My feet are my main mode of transport on the weekends, so my cute little summer flip-flops --in fact, all of my shoes-- take a little more of a beating than most.

Still, it was $100 I didn't have, on the credit card I'd promised Patrick --my long-suffering friend and financial conscience/muse/confessor-- I wouldn't use anymore. Moreover, I'd promised myself to forget about the sale at Shoefly, and had duly taken my work laptop and Blue Boy, the sole piece of fiction I'd allowed myself in awhile, to Java Shack to spend the day reading and doing work. Trouble with that is Java Shack --a good local business that supports other good local businesses-- was covered with hot-pink flyers screaming about the sale. I told myself I wouldn't go. I spent 3 1/2 hours devouring the last 150 pages of Blue Boy, hoping this would make me forget. And at the end of that 3 1/2 hours, I sighed with contentment at the book's final, beautiful sentence, put my dirty glass in the bin beside the cash register, picked up my laptop case, and headed straight for Shoefly, almost knocking into people as I went.

So, standing outside of Shoefly with my laptop case, my beloved big, heavy orange shoulder bag, and a plastic bag bursting with $100 worth of shoes I couldn't really afford, Lonnie's suggestion that we spend the evening at the Potter's House at an open mic for recovering addicts and homeless folks felt kind of a like a knife in the gut. "Have you heard of Potter's House before?", he asked in his yoga-instructor-mellow voice. "Uh, yeah," I said, feeling a slow wave of rising resentment. Why was this coming now? Just moments ago I'd been animatedly chatting with the women in the shop about the shiny red shoes I'd just bought for a steal. Now I felt the full incongruity of that with the evening I was being offered. I told him I'd go home, figure out the bus schedule, and give him a call back.

Heading for the most direct way home, I was stopped by a police officer with a dog on a leash... "Go back, ma'am!! Go back!!" he yelled, gesturing wildly with his free arm. I scurried away with my huge bags, passing a family standing randomly in the middle of the street photographing a teenaged kid holding an electric guitar. A block away, I asked a female officer standing on the corner what was up. "We're looking for a black man with a mohawk," she said. It was official... I had dropped into an episode of Twin Peaks. I asked if the longer way I took home was ok, which she confirmed.

I trudged up to Highland Ave., the new shoes I'd stupidly put on before leaving the store digging into the backs of my feet. This was ok when taking the shorter way home, but the way I was taking was going to add another 10 minutes... quite long when wearing a brand new pair of shoes. By the time I got home, passing another cop car on what I assumed was the outer boundary of the Search For The Mohawked Black Man, I had bled all over the heel of one shoe. This seemed a fitting exclamation point to the mantra Lonnie's call had started in my head. "Your actions don't match your intentions, Moff. When are you going to learn?"

Flipping through my mail, I saw yet another letter from one of the two Compassion kids I sponsor. I don't open these anymore... they make me want to cry just looking at the outside of them. I never write these kids. One of them, a girl in Ethiopia, I've been sponsoring for 10 years. Why don't I write her? Because I feel pathetic doing so... what do I have to say to her? What in the world could she think of this person who maybe writes her once a year, always apologizing for not writing more? The pictures they send to me of her always look so sad, and I can feel the question behind her eyes: "Why are you bothering? Who ARE you? Why did God bless you with the money and not me?"

Tossing my mail on the table with a gesture of Bourgeois WASPy faux-existentialist Self-Loathing, the bag from Shoefly caught my eye, bathed in sunlight in the middle of the living room floor like some sort of modern art centerpiece. I eyed it with a mixture of longing and nausea.

Then I thought "I'm feeling longing and nausea while looking at a bag of shoes. Time for a nap."

So I laid down and pushed my face into the pillow, giving myself a little pep talk about going to the Potter's House. I would take the bus. I like the bus. It would be like a little trip into a cool DC neighborhood. I would read my book. It would be ok. People wouldn't automatically look at me, point, scream "Fake!", and beat me with copies of The Catholic Worker. It would be ok.

As it turns out, The Potters House is a really cool bookstore/coffee house with a very nice assortment of books for Guilty White Pomo-Christians such as myself. I bought a cup of chai tea (no milk) and a chocolate chip cookie, and settled into the corner to wait for Lonnie and to continue reading Sway, the book I'd started on the bus. And it was cool. No one appeared to have pegged me as A Fake. No one chucked any form of social justice media in my general direction. It was cool.

And it stayed that way. My time visiting with Lonnie was a challenge, but not because he made it that way for me. Not at all. He and I met at an emerging church conference in Albuquerque this past March that Richard Rohr and Brian McLaren set up as a way of getting Catholics and Emergent folks to talk. Lonnie is a community organizer, a passionate idealist, and a mystic who takes week-long hikes by himself in the backcountry of Yellowstone eating nothing but Power Bars, and who lived for a year in a Buddhist monastery in north India, teaching English to Buddhist nuns and learning more about how to pray. In other words, he's pretty freaking amazing. More than that, though, Lonnie is very present in the moment, but gently so. Being around him is a little bit like having someone stroke your hair. I calmed down a bit. I felt like things would be alright. His centeredness opened a bit of a door, an invitation for me to reflect more deeply than I normally allow (and he patiently put up with my immediate externalization of that all over him by asking him a jillion questions about life, the universe, and everything).

As the evening progressed and we chatted between musical acts and poets (who were all fantastic... this was one of the best open mics I've ever been to, made up almost entirely of former addicts, and almost all of them doing original material), I felt more and more like... this is going to sound weird... kind of like how I feel when I smell a mimosa tree in the summer. My Grandmother's house had a big mimosa tree out front, with its strange, sea-creature-esque pink blossoms with their fruity-sweet-tangy smell. There are few smells in nature that I love as much as the smell of a mimosa tree, and there are few smells that bring back such a strong sense of myself as a kid.

Talking to Lonnie was like smelling mimosa. I remember having spiritual practices, trying to meditate, spending long hours in isolation at Madonna House, trying to pray. I remember the longing I used to have for a just world, and how deeply I wanted to work for a development agency overseas to try and do something about the inequity of resources in the world. I remember never buying new clothes and the peace that came from knowing I wasn't wasting my money. I remember feeling like I was living the right way, so much so that I never, ever had to point it out to anyone else.

I also remember that it was never enough. Despite the times of peace, I always felt the razor's edge of how my consumption was still too much, and the sharp bitterness at the knowledge that my student debt enslaved me to have a "good" job, or at least something close to it. I remember the doubt mixed in with the peace, because my job wasn't that good, and there was always one more gigantic, unforseen expense --the car would break down, or the root of my freaking front tooth broke (I still don't know how), or I wanted to go on a trip to see a friend. Money, hundreds and thousands of dollars of it, evaporated. And my debt remained, going down in the tiniest of increments. It became necessary to have credit cards to cover the big debts, and those debts became bigger over time.

So last night was about remembering the sweetness of my idealism while in the presence of Lonnie, and in the presence of all of these gifted musicians and poets with their beautiful words and melodies and voices, with faces pocked and lined with the effects of their former lives. I saw myself with them, not an addict in the way they'd been, but as another person scrambling around in the forest and trying to find the path, another one who gets knocked off that path so easily sometimes, as often by my own force as I try to hurl myself down it as from any external source. In the presence of so many witnesses --the broken who were now redeemed (if still broken) and Lonnie, who has sacrificed a lot to live as he thinks right but who seems to have quite a lot of peace-- that seemed possible.

We all have to start somewhere.

We all need forgiving.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Jealousy, we are SO done.

In fact, I don't know why you came back. You and I had our final, definitive breakup years ago, and I've been a lot happier since. I suffered a lot when you and I were together. I lost friendships, damaged my reputation, and probably my mental health to a certain degree. Your constant borrage of unsolicited comments on how much happier, more successful, interesting and privileged everyone else was made every day a trial. You turned me against some of my closest friends. You turned me against family members. You turned me against myself.

ANYTHING would set you off. Someone else's nice clothes, their good job, a trip they took... hell, there were times when you'd go off because someone else shopped at a nicer supermarket than I did or went out to eat a couple of times a week. If someone got married or had a baby or bought a house, you used to scream and howl for days and I would be almost physically bent over from the weight of you leaning on me. The worst was when you and Self-Doubt --your best friend, who I am ALSO telling to hit the road-- used to tag team me. You'd go on and on and on about what everyone else was doing and wearing and Self-Doubt would glump and moan about how I was inherently unable to be happy due to whatever imagined handicap he came up with that particular day.

I was sick to death of the both of you then, and BELIEVE me, I haven't missed either one of you since.

So really, Jealousy, you're unwelcome here. When I said we were through, I meant we were THROUGH. You've done enough damage, and you add nothing to my life. You had a lot of nerve today, whispering in my ear about other people's money and marriages. REALLY, Jealousy? Giving me shit about money? I live in the richest nation in the world, among some of the richest people in that nation. I have a good paying job, access to fantastic health care subsidized largely by health insurance (which is also subsidized by my employer), a big apartment all to myself, am surrounded by loads of my OWN stuff that I bought with my OWN money without having to ask ANYONE'S permission, have a full fridge and cupboard and sleep peacefully in my own big, clean, comfortable bed every night. Are you f**king KIDDING ME, Jealousy??

And about other people's MARRIAGES, Jealousy?? Don't you think I KNOW how HARD marriage is? Don't you think I understand how difficult ALL relationships are, and haven't you noticed how much I love my friends and how blessed I am by them?? How rich my life is as a result of my friends, my church, and my family?? You haven't been around much, so you don't know me as well as you used to, and let me tell you, I'm not sweating the marriage topic all that much, Jealousy. You can't get me on that one the way you did for years.

I should have known you'd be around when Self-Doubt showed up this morning to give me a little talking-to about what a failure I am in my love life. I never see one of you without the other, and you both make me sick.

So really, Jealousy, for the last time... get the hell out of here, and STAY out.