Assimilate Or Go Home: Dispatches from the Stateless Wanderers
2011 COLUMN CONTEST WINNER
DLM is a home-schooled pastor’s kid, a real life Bible-college educated evangelical in the middle of Portland, Oregon. Currently living in low-income housing with a bunch of Somali Bantu refugees, a husband, a baby, and a very cranky cat, DLM writes about her missionary dreams and cross-cultural schemes while ardently striving to put the “fun” in fundamentalism.
Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz?
In the beginning, this is what I thought the cost of following Jesus would be:
I would embrace my inner frump, becoming one of those old women who are free from the tyranny of fashion, one of those women who wear the bad kind of Aztec patterns (short vest, pleated pants) not the currently hip kind. I would be so fair-trade, sweatshop free, eco-friendly, and social-justice oriented that I would convict and inspire people as I walked down the street (smelling faintly of patchouli and wearing a STOP GENOCIDE NOW T-shirt). Note: this fantasy stopped just short of me wearing granny glasses.
I would become an organic locavore, raging against the industrial food machine. I thought about eating lentils, learning how to cook kale and beets and parsnips and quinoa. How much better I would feel, eating only happy chickens and cows!
I would do without so others could have more. I thought about never having cable and never having a gym membership and never going to a restaurant that doesn’t use coupons.
I thought about actually living in solidarity with the poor, of being a radical obsessed with downward mobility. I thought: moving into low-income housing will be fun! We will become the heroes and best friends of everyone in the complex, our door will constantly be revolving with streams of children looking for a warm environment for homework help, refugees learning English while laughing and drinking tea, people popping in to borrow sugar or drop off cookies. Everyone would love us.
What I didn’t think about:
The amount of creativity it takes to make thrifted clothes look good. The horrible allure of inexpensive sunglasses and ill-fitting neon shirts. The amount of energy that is needed to shop for and cook food sustainably and seasonably. The way you begin to hate radishes with a passion.
How moving in doesn’t make you a neighbor. How living in solidarity takes so much freaking time and energy that at night you won’t be able to do anything else but lock your doors and collapse in front of the TV to watch reruns of House. How your neighbors are not goodhearted people who have been dealt a bad deck of cards (well, some are). Mostly, they’re exhausted single mothers who scream at their children and smoke at the playground, addicts and shut-ins and the mentally ill, refugees who use you up and then ask for more.
I didn’t realize the cost of human relationships. Of teaching boys to read in second grade, and then sticking around long enough to watch them pretend that they don’t know me in the elevator, laughing and joking with their friends, dressed head-to-toe in gang colors. Of watching the refugee girls I have poured my life into let their dreams float away, most never finishing high school and instead getting married at younger and younger ages, breaking my heart with each wedding. Of being friends with the sick and watching them die, witnessing relapses and abuses, standing by and suffering with people. And then taking those finite bursts of furious energy that you feel and running countless programs and classes and mobilizing volunteers and of it never being enough.
I never thought I would mourn the inability to go back, back to a time when the weight of the world wasn’t on my shoulders. The ever-present voice (I would say Holy Spirit) inside of me is only getting louder: The world is not right, the world is not right. That voices urge me to continue to read and to pray and to rush around doing, to corner people at parties and talk about famines, to pity the slacktavists (those who talk about justice but do not live it out), and to never stop ranting about the follies of an unexamined, materialistic life. I can’t catch my breath. As it turns out, the examined life is one of loud desperation.
To which, most people respond: just tone it down a bit.
From the church itself I am told to say a prayer or two, read another book, or (horror of horrors) “raise awareness.” Just stop bringing up the awful and the uncomfortable. There is a strong pull in the church to mirror the rest of culture. Gone are the dog days of hellfire and brimstone: today you are likely to drink a cup of fair trade coffee while a dude in flannel plays artful songs about justice (if you go to a church catering to people who read McSweeney’s or whatever). We want to be liked, admired, and successful. And so we build churches that cater to making very specific demographics feel supremely comfortable. Although it warrants no air time or conversation in the media, this is where the majority of us are. This is the middle ground of evangelical Christianity, the place where Jesus is sold as the key to a good life, and it feels pretty great.
So when confronted with the truth about the world (the inequality, the brutality, the injustice—the sin), what are we told to do? This is what I am hearing: surround yourself with people who want to talk about justice. Write some songs and put on a benefit for a hip cause. Write awful poetry. But give all your money away? Adopt older children from foster care? Volunteer your free time to teach English or citizenship classes or driver’s ed? Live with poor people? Stop buying stuff? Never have a savings account or a 401K or a “real” job? That would be ridiculous. Because Jesus would not want our lives to be ruined just because so many others are. Right?
But I think he would. God’s children are being raped, God’s children are starving to death, God’s children are dying of astonishingly preventable diseases, and you want me to tone it down? I am only now starting to realize that I can’t. I have looked hard at the facts, and by the grace of God I am starting to understand that I am not special. That I am one of God’s children, and I must do everything in my power to help my brothers and sisters.
My fear is that you will read this and say: good for her. That you will patronize me and put me on a different plane, or planet, or pedestal—one that you aren’t expected to live in. That you will find safety in the neat columns of words and in the soothing amounts of negative space sandwiching these thoughts. That this would all seem so unattainable and esoteric that you make a decision to never really engage in all that is not right in the world.
But if you listen hard, maybe you will hear that voice too. The one telling you that there is a reason you feel like screaming and crying when you watch the news, that lurking malaise with the American dream, that dark corner of your thoughts that is always asking: what else can I do?
I can’t promise the key to a good life, but I can tell you that Jesus wanted us to be all up in the human condition. He would have no problem telling you to sell all that you have and give it to the poor. And when you said no, you couldn’t possibly do that, he would look on you with so much sadness and so much love (for you, yes, but also for everyone else) that you might take a second and reconsider. You might start to dismantle, piece by piece, the walls you have constructed to keep the poor and the needy and the stateless wanderers so separate from you.
No joke: it is rough. Every day a chance for justice, every decision tinged with moral questions, every thought yearning to be in line with the kingdom of love. I am not the most fun girl at the party anymore. But I do sleep hard at night, dreaming of the world as God would have it, where all of his children were valued as equals.
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