Category Archives: Money

Who cares?

One of the things I have appreciated about my job of late is the opportunity to work with Mission Increase Foundation and evaluate patterns and practices in how Christian organizations think about fundraising, and what assumptions undergird what we do. I have so appreciated their consistent emphasis on helping individuals grow and deepen in their commitment to a cause (not an organization) as opposed to simply looking at people in terms of the size and frequency of their checks.

I have been giving a lot of thought to how Servant Partners can help mobilize people in their engagement with the realities of urban poverty in our world, and help facilitate a Christian response to the fact that one out of every six people in the world today lives in an urban slum, with very few churches among them. And particularly, how to do this without resorting to gimmicks or manipulation.

Which made reading this feel a bit discouraging. I came to Jordon’s post via a comment on Julie Clawson’s post discussing the pleasure-driven realities of $1,800 dinner tabs, and I realized that as much as I feel surrounded by people committed to various justice initiatives, it can seem like at the end of the day, people’s own personal preferences and comforts win and there is little likelihood that will change anytime soon. Jordon writes:

Growing up in the church, the only time I have ever been asked to sacrifice is when the church wanted something – a new building, more staff, or was in trouble financially.  We can blog about “costly grace” but for most of it, it has been pretty cheap.  I have quoted Ron Sider here a lot before but when the church is totally self interested, at least we blend in well.

If we are going to make a difference, it is going to cost us in real terms.  Maybe giving up upgrading our MacBooks, passing on a smart phone and other gadgets, taking in less conferences, or maybe downscaling some other things in life to invest in something that resembles more Kingdom values.   I guess the question is, are we willing to sacrifice for anyone else in this life other than for ourselves?

Now he is writing to church leaders in particular, but I know when I read this my own reaction was: “Ouch.”

I appreciated what Eugene Cho shared about how Quest was approaching “life together” in the midst of the unfolding financial crisis, and I think it is important to share our stories of how we personally, and how our communities are choosing to respond:

Anyway, our church elders/pastors met for our regular Elder Board meeting last night and agreed to devote the entirety of our “Giving Sunday” special offerings on November 9 and 16 to the Community Benevolence Fund:  50% to local food bank organizations in Seattle and 50% to support the church community at Quest that are in need.  We hope to raise at least $50,000.

We know that the current economic crisis is affecting many people at Quest and we need to prepare ourselves to not just talk about “caring for one another” but doing it.  In addition to funds, we know we need to be creative:  How do we encourage people to open up their homes if necessary?  How do we allow our church basement to be used for people for temporary housing?  How do we connect people to one another for job openings and leads?

One thing I appreciated about both Jordon and Eugene’s reflections was the emphasis put on what a group of people can accomplish when there is a will to act, and belief that what scripture says about how we are supposed to live and what we are called to value is actually true. Jordan’s example of churches banding together to charter cruise ships to save Armenian refugees, and Eugene’s understanding of every church member’s home and assets as “the church’s” shared resource for ministry point in the right direction of people sharing (not staffing) the burden of responsibility and action.

So much of “Christian” fundraising seeks to exploit a momentary emotional connection to a need or problem that can then result in a financial gift to an organization that promises to do something about it. What does it look like to help mobilize people instead to themselves engage and problem-solve and participate in a more long-term and life-changing way?

One way of doing this can co-exit pretty comfortably with the $1,800 dinner and the fancy laptops. The other invites a very different sort of “caring” that may not raise as much money but comes at a much higher cost.

Ignorance as bliss?

I went to the mall today with the big kids and Doug’s sister. I had a pair of shoes for Aaron to exchange that had been a gift, and another pair I had purchased for him in Seattle that needed to be returned. Our first stop was a Croc’s kiosk where Aaron got to pick out his very own pair as a gift from his beloved Auntie. Mercy has a pair of Croc’s knock-offs that she loves, and Aaron was very excited to be like his sister, and I was excited for him to have a pair of shoes he could so easily slip on and off (especially while traveling).

The pair he picked out were a few dollars cheaper than the ones Sarah originally purchased so each kid got to pore over the trays of little decorative thingys (I know they have some cutesy name but I have no clue what it is) that stick into the shoes and select one. Aaron left with a ladybug and Mercy now has a slightly eerie Cinderella head dangling off of the top of her shoe.

After the Croc’s kiosk, we headed briefly to the Apple store where we posed for a picture with the very large photo on their wall of one of our dearest friends, Steven, an Apple employee who was photographed for a recent marketing campaign. Aaron LOVES Steven, and his face was so precious when he looked up at the giant Steven image on the wall and recognized him. After the little photo shoot, Sarah offered to take the kids to the children’s play area while I ran into Nordstrom’s to return Aaron’s other shoes. So they took off in one direction and I headed in another to finish my final last errand.

Walking into Nordstrom’s today, I was struck by how incredibly luxurious everything around me felt. And I realized that the fact that I don’t go to malls and so very rarely shop for anything has really tweaked me. I felt so out of place there and so overwhelmed by it all: so many sleek and shiny things that, in an instant, had me longing after them.

Walking toward Kids’ Shoes on the second floor, I passed the kid’s clothing section. A rack of children’s jeans caught my eye when I saw that they were Seven for all Mankind jeans. I thought to myself, “Wow, I can’t afford those jeans for myself. Who buys these things for their kids?” Knowing how quickly kids blow through clothing sizes, I was stunned to see the price tag for these pants: $119.00. I am pretty sure that is more than we have spent on kids’ clothing in the last three years!

On any given day, I may think about the fact that I wish we owned a home. And Doug can definitely get excited about a friend’s nice camera and wish he had one like it. But for the most part, we live “off the grid” so to speak in terms of the more image-y kind of stuff, which is surprising being that we live in L.A. But where we live plays a big part in that, and who our peers are likewise informs those desires. And I guess I was just surprised how little time it took inside of a mall for me to suddenly feel like I needed a bunch of stuff I had not given any thought to or had no desire for previously.

That could either be a statement as to my weakness for this or that luxury on a Nordstrom hanger, or it could illustrate how well we are played by any number of techniques used to convince us of desires we did not even know we had. Probably something of both.

I returned my shoes and was reminded of one of the reasons why we always shopped at Nordstrom’s growing up: attentive salespeople offering great service that makes shopping not feel like a chore. I left the store and met back up with Sarah and the kids, and realized this was maybe their fifth time ever being in a mall. The highlight for them? Macy’s escalators.

Making soup

I recently came across the work of a man named Gerry Straub, a former Hollywood producer who, following a conversion experience in Rome, has devoted his time and his treasure to put the power of film at the service of the poor.”

Having exhausted his personal savings, he writes this about how he finances his film projects:

“In an odd way, I learned how to finance my films at the St. Francis Inn. There’s a friar there named Brother Xavier. He is a simple man, of Hispanic background, and all the street people love him. One day, he was cooking dinner. A volunteer entered the kitchen and asked, “What are you making, Brother Xavier?”

Brother Xavier answered, “Potato soup.”

The volunteer looked around the small, cramped kitchen and didn’t see any potatoes. And so he asked, “Where are the potatoes, Brother?”

Brother Xavier answered,“We have no potatoes.”

The volunteer asked, “Then how are you making potato soup?”

Brother Xavier said, “The Lord will supply.”

Well, you can imagine the volunteer rolling his eyes and thinking…what a sweet, pious thought…but the people are lining up in the yard and we need to serve them in an hour.

A few minutes later, there is a knock at the side door.

It was an off duty Philly cop. He had been at the farmers market and spotted 50 pound bags of potatoes on sale. He knew he passing the Inn and so he bought two bags and threw them in his trunk.

I make my films the way Brother Xavier makes potato soup…by trusting God will supply what I need.”

Food for thought

Ed Gilbreath writes an excellent blog, and his post today includes a collection of interesting links I would recommend. One is to an article discussing the gentrification that is happening in my old neighborhood in Portland. Our recent visits to our old neighborhood and church have surprised me by how very much the neighborhood there has changed since we left in 2002.

I realize that the same is true for my old neighborhood in Chicago, and it makes me wonder what the future holds for our little corner of South Central. Already there is a substantial population of “gentrifiers”, and that trend is on the rise both here and in urban centers throughout the nation. Bob Lupton, who has inspired many in our community through his years of ministry in Atlanta, speaks of “reweaving the fabric” of frayed communities by bringing people of resources (read money, education, and power) back into under-resourced communities. In this article, Lupton shares about being confronted with his own identity as a “gentrifier”.

But during prayer and sharing times at our neighborhood church we began to hear prayer requests for housing needs. “Please pray for us – our rents have just doubled.” “Please pray for us – we’ve just gotten an eviction notice.” It wasn’t until Opal, a church member who lived within sight of the church, came in weeping one morning that I first made a disturbing connection. She had just received an eviction notice from the home she had lived in for many years – the city told the landlord to fix it up or board it up and he had decided to board it up until property values made it attractive to sell. For the first time it dawned on me that as my property value was nicely increasing, so was the value of the surrounding affordable homes. As my wealth was accumulating, Opal’s poverty was deepening. It was my investment that was the catalyst for her displacement. I could no longer sit in the circle and pray with integrity. I was the problem!

An alternative

My friend, Jamie, tagged me with a meme he is starting. Reflecting on a quote from St. Francis he writes:

“The life of the Christian should be burning with such a light of holiness that by their very example and conduct, their life will be a rebuke to the wicked.” (St. Francis)
In an era where Christians are largely known for the sin they oppose, this wisdom could not be more timely. Francis calls us to face the compromises of our culture by becoming living alternatives with how we live.

In light of that, here is the question he is asking:

1. Consider aspects of our culture where we have too easily compromised, issues that you passionately oppose.

2. Then, ask yourself what it would mean for you, both as and individual and as a part of a community, to be a living alternative. Write about it.

3. Link back here to this post.

4. Tag others to participate.

I’m going with my first reaction to his question, and that is holding tightly to money and possessions: hoarding rather than holding loosely. While I could certainly write a long answer describing all the ways I have hoarded rather than given, I do have a few testimonies I can share. Alternatives to hoarding in my community have looked like this:

Not purchasing/owning a washer and drier and instead using a neighbor’s machine across the street.

Giving cars away (when our pastor joined our community, a couple gave them their second car and just this week, our friends gave their really nice Honda to my sister and her family).

Receiving inheritance money and giving a substantial portion of it away rather than stockpiling it.

Owning one pair of shoes that you wear every day.

Paying someone’s hospital bill outright rather than loaning the money.

Giving away thousands of dollars a year in rental assistance to a family struggling to get out of debt.

Buying a bunch of stuff at Costco for a friend repeatedly and refusing reimbursement because that friend’s finances are really tight.

Giving a large cash gift to help a growing family buy a van.

Offering to pay for some expensive self-defense classes for someone struggling with fear following a physical attack.

Sending monthly grocery gift cards to a single-mom with five children.

Choosing to give away the majority of your income to further the work of the church among the urban poor.

Buying Doug a new, really nice guitar when his strings were breaking weekly and it was held together with rope.

Living way beneath your means to free up money to give away.

Well, I could surely go on but that is a fine start. Thanks, Jamie. It was a blessing for me to rehearse these testimonies of generosity and sacrifice.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal…You cannot serve both God and money.”

Oops! I forgot the tagging part:

Jim

Eugene

Sonja

Making some noise

I happened upon a post by Eugene Cho today that speaks well to the issue of giving public testimony, as Christians, about our monetary giving (something I have mentioned here recently). Eugene and his wife, Minhee, are dedicating their earnings for an entire year toward launching a humanitarian organization to battle world poverty and one of his blog readers challenged their choice to announce that publicly, asking: “Why not just do it in secret?” I appreciated his thoughtful, honest response to that question, and encourage others to check out his post: Loudly Fighting Poverty.

This is my now

This past week I have repeatedly found myself driving around parts of L.A. that are a bit unfamiliar. Saturday I wound my way through the hills up to Rancho Palos Verdes; Sunday we drove to two different residences in Hollywood. And last night I ventured out through the hills and canyons of the Valley. In each of these places, I was overwhelmed by one thing: the sheer volume of luxury vehicles around me. And it wasn’t the standard L.A. black Mercedes fare: I was surrounded by Bentleys and Maseratis and Ferraris and Rolls Royces (and the really crazy Mercedes that cost an absolute fortune).

Getting gas in the Valley last night, I found myself sorely out of place in our dirty, black, 1994 Nissan Altima. Moments before, a white Rolls had been parked where my car sat filling, and it was a car straight out of a music video: totally pimped out, unlike anything I had ever seen on the streets. The three young men gathered around the car were laughing and smiling beneath the fluorescent lights.

Or on Sunday, it was the black Mercedes in front of us: the kind that makes you turn your head and stare. I was just beginning to take in the glamor of the car when another one, almost identical to it, drove up beside it, and then raced off. And in that moment the stop and stare standout became unoriginal.

As I mentioned earlier, I have been struck recently by the by and large disbelief I think most of us have that the Beatitudes as recorded by the gospel writers could actually be true. I remember the giant uproar caused by some comments made by Tony Campolo many years ago regarding whether or not Christians should own luxury vehicles: he was uninvited to conferences after that and had speaking engagements canceled. Communities that genuinely witness to belonging to a kingdom where the least are the greatest are simply and sadly not what most people think of when they consider the face of Christianity.

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.”

We are the rich; the well fed; the laughing. Can we really hear these words and say with belief: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Branded

A friend ministering in the wealthy community of Laguna Beach recently posted on her blog about how the perspective of her kids will be shaped by the affluence around her. One thing I appreciate about Patty’s blog is her honesty and willingness to ask tough questions about what it means to live in the land of the highly-resourced, especially considering their proximity to so much need.

normal is my problem. i’m not concerned about my kids being spoiled. we make plenty of money to be comfortable, but mia will never have chanel sunglasses or a coach purse while she is in junior high or high school…o, i’m not worried about my kids being spoiled, because it won’t be an option in our house, even if we wanted to. but, i am concerned that my kids will always feel poor because we aren’t millionaires. normal to them, will be the new car, juicy couture clothes, designer makeup, etc. because it’s what all of their friends will have.

As I read her post, I marveled at how mainstream luxury has become. Coach? Chanel? In junior high? You’ve got to be kidding me.

I remember having a similar reaction to hearing the litany of spa treatments that are now the norm for young teens or hearing of high school kids sporting Tiffany’s jewelry. At church.

Then last night I was reading through this week’s Newsweek when I spotted an article titled: “Branding for Beginners.” The short piece examines the prevalence of brand name-dropping in books targeting teen girls. The author writes:

“Chanel Vamp lip gloss, Jimmy Choo heels, Gauloises cigarettes, Absolut Vodka: they’re the kind of brand-name products you’d expect to find in a glossy magazine. But they’re popping up with astounding frequency in novels aimed at teen girls…brand names appeared an average of more than once per page: 1,553 references in all” (in six best-selling teen novels).

The article concludes:

“The Judy Blume books I read as a kid were about life lessons and defining yourself…The life lesson here is that you can buy your identity.”

From hip-hop to tween-lit, the gospel of bling reigns. Which is why JCrew honestly believes that I am going to buy Cashmere for my two-year old.

To lust or not to lust

This past week I read two things that struck me concerning how we view the homes and space where we live. The first was a review of House Lust, a book earning a fair amount of press for its examination of our nation’s obsession with the size and status of our homes:

Add to this a newly overwhelming lust for space. In 1950, the average American home measured just 938 square feet. By 2005, the average had grown to 2,434 square feet. The size of the putative American dream house expanded even more.

At a convention of the nation’s home builders in 1984, an ideal “New American Home” on display encompassed 1,500 square feet and cost less than $100,000. In 2006, the ideal house was 10,023 square feet, and was priced at more than $10 million. In the interim, Bill Gates of Microsoft built a 66,000-square-foot home near Seattle at an estimated cost of $100 million.

I am quick to say that one of the hard things for me about our life here is the impossibility of purchasing a home here in L.A. And while I sit at a distance through the many conversations my peers have about this and that remodel, this period restoration goal, this great refinancing opportunity, etc., I secretly wish I was in their club (though I certainly don’t envy the many headaches, the total displacement of families during remodel projects, lead and asbestos abatement, etc). I have a friend who has a very crass way of describing the way my generation has sold our soul to Home Depot, and while her words make me laugh I see how much acquiring and restoring homes can consume my peers.

The second piece that caught my eye was written for an internal newsletter for Servant Partners, and it dealt with the ways that crowding is a great stressor for those who live in urban centers, and in particular the slum communities where our staff members make their homes. The author quotes Danielle Speakman (Nothing But a Thief) who writes:

“Imagine your immediate family, who they are, what they are like, how many of you there are. Take all of you, add in your grandparents, and perhaps an aunt and her children. Now move into your bedroom. You all live there. All your possessions are there, you cook there, you sit there, you sleep there. Together…”

It is amazing, the juxtaposition from one world to another; worlds within one world; worlds that offend each other to the core.

The House Lust reviewer continues, quoting the book’s author:

“Unlike the robber baron-era mansions, modern-day megahomes don’t feature dozens of bedrooms or entirely new kinds of rooms — they mostly just take the rooms you’d find in a normal house and make them really, really big.” The challenge of filling up those rooms, he adds, is being met by outsize furnishings like the “extreme ultra king bed” that is 12 feet long and 10 feet wide.

Today was my first day back at work post-maternity leave, and I count it a grace to be in partnership with folks all over the world who have chosen those one room homes over giant rooms and oversized beds. They tell me a truth about life with Christ that is unpopular here in the land of house lust. They remind me of my own material abundance and they challenge me to consider ways to let go of some of that comfort and risk living with less.