A Random Thought: Relocating Poverty

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I have a confession.  April has never been nice to my productivity.  There are several things I could blame it on.  The nicer weather certainly doesn’t help.  The Easter festivities, particularly the return of that which I fasted for Lent, creates opportunities for procrastination.  There is also the post March slump that comes after throwing everything I have into that month’s fiscal year end activities, vision casting events and Holy Week services.  This Sunday will also mark 6 straight months of preaching at least once every Sunday and I am just running low on creative fumes.

Be all that as it may, every April I have no desire to sit inside and do anything remotely resembling “homework” which includes reading, sermon prep, and writing blogs.

Over the last two weeks I have sat down several times to write half a blog post before becoming distracted by things that aren’t even really distractions, like flowers and birds and sunshine and bees and that joke I heard on television last night and how much I love outside and, well, you all get the idea.

All that to say, my Facebook update now tells me it has been over a week since I have successfully published a blog post and I have engaged zero people this week.

So, under a slight obligation to remind you all I exist I thought I would publish a random thought that, for whatever reason, has been on my mind this week as I have been looking at birds, bees, flowers and trees.

A few years ago I was working in a Rescue Mission in downtown Kansas City.  It was a wonderful and magical place and I miss it incredibly.  We served the best homeless people in the country and the place was truly a beacon of hope for everyone who stepped inside, whether they were clients, staff or volunteers.

But one week a van pulled onto our street with 4 men in it.  None of these 4 ever entered our building for food or shelter, just the restroom.  But in no time at all they turned the atmosphere of our street from something resembling a Broadway musical, to something from a 1970s crime movie.  They sold drugs and alcohol out of the van.  They started drunken brawls.  They vandalized local businesses and I think at one point someone even got stabbed with a knife.

After a week or two the entire staff of the homeless shelter met together to brainstorm a solution.  It came out that this van with these men had camped out on other streets around town and pulled similar antics.  Before arriving on our street they had been chased away from a bus station, a city park, a train stop, a neighborhood and other places until they became our problem.  Every cop and city official knew the van by heart.

Our solution was fairly straight forward and almost unanimously approved.  We insisted they either take advantage of our services or leave the street.  We spent some time carefully writing a new rule that would make it look like we weren’t asking them to leave, just implying people like them should leave.  We said something like, “If you do not come in for shelter you have to be off our block by 5pm and nobody is allowed to hang out on the street after 8am.”

It all sounded good and when we announced the new rule to our regular clients they gave us a standing ovation.  They wanted the van gone as much as we did.  And, of course, the van and its occupants were gone that very night.  We never saw them again.  The street resumed its singing and dancing and all was well.

Except it wasn’t well on some other street that night where a mysterious and seemingly unassuming van pulled in to begin a new reign of terror.

You see the bus stop had made this van the problem of a city park.  The city park had made them the problem of a train stop.  The train people had made them the problem of a neighborhood and the neighborhood association had made them our problem.  And we asked them to leave and go be someone else’s problem.

We didn’t solve the problem.  We just relocated it.  We just forwarded it to  some other poor souls who probably weren’t as equipped to deal with it like we were.

I have no idea why this still haunts me five years later.

I wish we had worked harder to find a better solution, although I still have no idea what that solution would have been.  It probably would have taken more time and effort on our part, both of which we did not have, especially when people were getting knifed in our street and when our business neighbors were blaming us for it.

But still, it seems to me that if we are going to be faithful servants of Jesus we should solve problems, not forward them to other poor streets and neighborhoods.

This has been a random thought of go before grace.

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What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: The Grapes of Wrath

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Over the last few weeks I have run across quotes, allusions and references to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” everywhere I turned.  I had a very kind High School English teacher who didn’t believe in torture, so I had never the book.  But I figured maybe God was more cruel than my English teacher and was now requiring that I read it.

So I was obedient to the calling and found a cheap copy on Google play.  As it downloaded, my wife warned me in a way that echoed Dante, ‘to abandon all hope ye who read that book.”  Although she had never read the book herself, her words were vindicated by a 1 star Google review by someone named Megan that said, “Horrible! I only read this because I had too for English class.  The whole time I’m thinking dafaq? is going on.”

I ignored my wife’s and Megan’s reservations and resignedly finger flicked my way through the book.  As my finger perfected the side swipe, my mind, heart and soul spent the week surviving the Great Depression with the Joad family.

As I struggled my way across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California with the Joads, I was often tempted to think, “I am glad we have come such a long way in the 75 years since this was written.”  Honestly, we kind of have.  I mean right now as a nation we do a lot better at feeding and housing homeless people than at any time before and better than most countries throughout history.  Despite popular belief this assistance does not just come from the government, but a large amount of individuals, churches, NGO’s and for-profit organizations give a lot of time and money to helping the less fortunate.

Still, I hesitate to write off “The Grapes of Wrath” as an antiquated story from that time when we evicted ranchers from their ancestral homes, lured them into traveling across the country, starved them to death and then insulted them by calling them, “lazy.”  Instead, the book seems to contribute to the very timely and relevant discussion about the two golden rules that war within us.  The first golden rule is that Scriptural one about loving your neighbor as yourself and treating others as you would like to be treated.  The second golden rule is much more persuasive, “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.”

The story begins with a bank that has the gold making the rule that farmers in Oklahoma had to leave the land of their ancestors because one man on a tractor could do the work of 10 without one.  The man on the tractor gets paid extra if he uses the tractor to bulldoze the ancestral home.  The story continues as scheming merchants and used car salesmen make up the rules of “fair” trade, leaving the homeless ranchers with junk cars in exchange for their priceless heirlooms.  Along the road, power hungry policemen, angry store operators and fearful property owners set the agenda by which the Joads must live.  Sometimes this results in violence.  Most of the time it merely results in the tyranny of an empty stomach and the pain of feeling useless and unwanted.

Steinbeck summarizes all of this with the sentiment that the Joads, “were weary and frightened because they had gone against a system they did not understand and it had beaten them.”  That sentence might be a worthy contender for thesis of the book.

But Steinbeck doesn’t let the second golden rule win the day entirely because the Joad’s story is filled with sudden bursts of compassion.  A one-eyed used car parts seller practically gives the Joad’s a car part for free.  The preacher traveling with the Joads confesses to a crime he did not commit so that the father who was accused of the crime could escape.  A starving mother feeds a group of hungry children the last little bit of stew she has.  Then there is the wonderful and classic diner scene where a cook gives a family a loaf of bread for 2/3rds of its cost. His wife goes one step farther and gives the children free candy.  This encourages some truck drivers to give a gracious tip.

But every crime of compassion comes with its own punishments and rewards.  The woman feeding the children gets yelled at by their mother.  The preacher’s confession gets the uncle to confess he has been hoarding $6.  In the end he keeps $2 for himself, which he wastes on liquor.  The one eyed used car seller gets a tongue lashing about feeling sorry for himself by the person who benefited from his generosity.  And in the diner, every act of compassion is followed by another act of compassion that is also accompanied by crude insults towards the beneficiaries.

I would like to think in the 75 years since the Great Depression ended we have become a more compassionate people who love our neighbors instead of inventing rules that favor the wealthy.  And perhaps we have.  Yet reading “Grapes of Wrath” gave me pause because I sense it is still not ancient history.

After all, I work with the 21st century migrant population and they are not unlike the Joads.  I spent three years working with homeless men in Kansas City and while some of them were born and raised there, the majority landed there with no money, looking for a fresh start.

Then I moved to the small town where I pastor.  It is filled with those who have migrated here from larger cities.  Most of them are young and dirt broke.  They moved here in beat up trucks or with no car at all.  They were running from a bad situation that usually involved drugs, alcohol and a broken romantic relationship.  They are desperately craving a new start but they never known anything different than what they ran from.  As I have gotten to know them, I find they are not unlike the Joads, “being beaten by a system they do not understand.”

Yet there are sudden bursts of compassion among both the inner city men and the small town migrants.  And these acts are quickly punished and rewarded all at the same time.  The offer of a place to stay comes with expectations and household rules that when broken yield angry brawls and hurt feelings.  The financial help from churches comes with the expectation that you will go to church there (a temptation I fight often to never convey).  Free babysitting is only free so long as the parents buy the babysitter the next carton of cigarettes.  The offer of free dinner comes with the expectation you bring the alcohol.  And lent money is always expected to be repaid, if not in dollars, in video games, movies, and cigarettes.

The rules and methods of compassion are opaque in such a world, just as they were in 1933.  Do we educate those who don’t know about the system so they can get along better in it?  Do we seek to reform the system and let some of those without the gold make the rules?  Do we vilify the wealthy as corrupt beneficiaries of the evil system?  Do we launch a revolution?  Or do we, who have the goldm visit the homes of the Joads?  Do we climb in their truck and travel across the country with them, letting their hope become our hope and their despair become our despair?  Do we listen to their stories, write them down and publish them to remind everyone else that our systems and structures and powers and authorities still leave much to be desired?  From what I understand of Steinbeck he advocated for all of the above but he seems to have been most successful on that last part.

So until the Bible’s golden rule trumps that other golden rule, I will seek to do the same.  I will visit the homes, travel with the people, listen to the stories and advocate for a better world.  To do any less would be to ignore the neighbor God called me to love.