In a recent post, David Fitch tackles head-on the issue of why the Missional and Emerging Church movements are so white. I resonated with some of his experiences and observations and thought I would share a few of my stories as well:
I remember being at a justice and compassion conference hosted by my denomination a few years ago, and one speaker shared a series of thoughts about “living simply” or choosing to have less materially for the sake of mission and discipleship. After he had spoken, the mostly white audience nodded approvingly, but a pastor of an inner city church that has significant impact on its urban community stood up. “It’s one thing for all of you to get up here and talk about what you should give up, what nice car you shouldn’t drive, what vacation you should forgo. It’s one thing for you to say this; you’ve had your chance to have these things. My people are still climbing to get to that point. So it’s one thing for you to say that we should give those things up. It’s one thing for you because you’ve had them. We are just now getting that same chance.”
I remember a few people around me cringing at his words; judging him for what seemed like a selfish, stuff-loving orientation. I felt differently that day, though I struggled to assess why.
More recently, within our church community in L.A., there were places where I felt judgment run strong between ethnic groups in the area of money and how it was spent. Our church had some of the most generous, committed givers I have ever known. Many of these people came from families that had money and they themselves made really good money–and they gave a ton of it away. They were committed to supporting the ministry of the church and they valued living without certain things they could afford for the sake of being generous among others. That said, they were also the folks with high-paying careers or home-ownership or investments or whatever that, while not necessarily affecting their daily finances certainly existed as a backdrop of wealth to their simple lifestyles.
Others in the church who came from immigrant backgrounds were certainly inclined toward building wealth that their family had never had; providing for their kids what they had lived without. These were individuals not unfamiliar with hunger, limited opportunities in terms of education, and rarely home ownership. It was more common to see the latest electronics gadget or bigger TV in their homes, while the “simple living” folks had hand-me-downs.
But again, retirement accounts, college funds, families with money, and a home, not to mention career/education assets that could be applied toward earning more money, change the overall picture of those choices a bit.
Doug and I were the “poor folk” among our peer group. We made choices to pursue school and have babies (well, we didn’t always make those choices, but the Lord blessed us) and commit our energies to our community as lay pastors. Our poverty was, in essence, a chosen one, and that made it a bit easier for me to live among peers who were buying and remodeling homes and eating well and, again, giving away A LOT of what they had. But there were times, if I am honest, where I would hear the discussion about simplicity among these peers and know full well that they had not lived on flour and water crepes filled with peanut butter because that was the best they could do. They had the choice about when and how they would go without something; within the broader scope of our “choice”, we did not enjoy that same freedom.
That said, Doug and I were always in the center of people who would not hesitate to give us a financial gift when we were met with two three-hundred dollar deductibles from my hospital stays associated with Mercy’s birth; or help us buy a minivan when we ended up with three little ones with not-so-little carseats that exceeded the capabilities of our Altima’s back seat; or send us a check from afar to cover a car repair that was necessary but totally beyond our means. I am aware that being white and educated and connected makes my “urgent difficulties” or challenges look soft compared to those of so many of our neighbors there.
I recall too Eugene Cho’s reflection on some amount of hesitancy he felt toward “Buy Nothing Day” as a response to the hyper-consumption of Black Friday:
Why my reservations? I’m still moved by a conversation I had with a friend couple years ago that challenged my support for Buy Nothing Day. This friend who is African-American said some interesting stuff [paraphrasing]:
Buy Nothing Day is basically a thing of and for White folks and comfy Middle Class folks who have had the privilege of consumption their whole life. And now, they can afford to start things like Buy Nothing Day. True, it speaks to the issue of overconsumption but how much of it is to appease their guilty consciences. I’m also very skeptical and cynical of Christians who’ve jumped on this bandwagon - the “enlightened evangelicals” who also come from a place of privilege. Stuff like this sickens me because it has completely no idea about the plight of minorities and low income folks that are trying to survive.
The thing that got to me was the story he shared about some of his family and friends who simply NEED to make many of their major purchases on that day. Specifically, he shared about his uncle and aunt. They get in line every year in the frigid cold here hours before the retail store opens at 5 or 6 am because it’s the only way they’re able to get their kids the necessary tech gear to keep up.
I’m not dismissing the cause behind Buy Nothing Day. We need to address this because us Westerners and particularly, Americans [including me] are just gluttonous.
But let’s be real here…Black Friday shopping mean different things for different folks. For many of us, it’s a game, a sport and an event we mark but for others, it’s a matter of necessity. This is why I have reservations about Buy Nothing Day. Perhaps, the majority of us should sincerely adopt Buy Nothing Day and let those who truly need the “doorbusters” be the first in line - for a change.
One final thought: in terms of Fitch’s observations. He speaks of “living beneath one’s means” as a high value for many in self-identified Missional/Emerging groups, and when I think back to so many individuals and families I have known over the years I think of single mothers working one or two or three jobs to support not just her kids but her sisters kids; I think of households made up of generations; and I think of the way those individuals would, without any hesitation take in another mouth to feed or another child to raise. This was a different sort of “living below their means” that considered their wealth and property to belong to a much broader community of individuals than I can ever remember seeing among any of my white peers.
So, I don’t have all the answers as to what is right or faithful or how we can all be in this together. I appreciate David’s discussion and would love to hear more.