Simply complex

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.


  1. Something that has always bothered me is when people intentionally choose to live below their means, as you were describing, Erika, then seem to frequently be asking or expecting people that do have means to give to them when a car breaks down, medical bills come due, etc. I get that people with means willingly are giving to others, but it seems that there is this expectation that those with financial means should help out the people who have chosen to be poor (I’m not talking about the “real” poor). It seems that there is something wrong with this picture.

  2. Elizabeth,

    Thanks for your honest critique. I think it (supporting people who are choosing to be poor) is something that feels comfortable to most when it is in the context of something like “overseas missions”. Churches and individuals have a long history of supporting capable “earners” who choose to go live in a jungle or slum somewhere for the sake of service and mission; when it is local and urban or less “formal”, it perhaps feels different to many people to be in that same supporting role?

  3. Thanks for sharing the link and for putting your thoughts out there. This kind of conversation happens best when there are multiple voices and perspectives, so thanks for adding yours!

  4. I remember feeling pretty disgusted at the people who would line up at Walmart on Black Friday after the guy was trampled, but then I remembered one Christmas a few years ago when we had no money. We were gifted with three gift cards, two for a grocery store and one for Target by some folks that didn’t know us but had just heard that we were having a hard time. My husband went out to Target on Black Friday and got a digital camera. It was our one and only gift for Christmas for the family, including our child. And it was a very practical gift to ourselves as it allowed us to save money on film and developing. Its funny that we can forget so easily after coming to a better place, but once I remembered that experience I stopped feeling so judgmental and I realized that my ability to buy nothing on Black Friday was coming from a place of privilege.

  5. Thanks for this perspective. Every time I talk about anti-consumerism, Buy Nothing Day, etc I always try to give the caveat that it’s the wealthy’s responsibility to do these things. Not shopping at WalMart or buy Fair Trade is not the responsibility of the poor who are merely trying to survive, but to those who have had excess for so long. Thanks again!

  6. I think David Wierzbicki’s warning against over-generalizations is well-placed. What ultimately matters is one individual’s obedience to the unique mission God gave him, and personal obedience should trump conformity every time – hopefully, without undermining by fellow believers. I second that motion, strongly.

    With that caveat upfront, let me try to say as respectfully as possible that I am troubled by the way the missional church movement seems to elevate identification with neighbor as an end in itself. That framing seems to me to lead into thickets because – as this particular post suggests – perfect identification is an ever-elusive goal. Into the vacuum rush frustrations that actually impede comity and confuse instrumental means for ultimate spiritual goals to a degree that is quite self-defeating, even destructive, in the end.

    This posture seems markedly different to me from past generations of seminary graduates who sought to love the poor in Christ’s name and, after living among them, began to work with neighborhood residents on practical problem-solving that – in my opinion – did veer too far into partisan politics at times. Without having any idea whether I’m right, I suspect that this narrowing tendency of the missional church is a function of the very legitimate desire to ensure that faith is not reduced to a utilitarian equation in which its worth is measured by the ability to deliver measurable improvements on social indicators. That is the right direction in which to err, in my view; but I am surprised by how many worries discussed on missional blogs these days feel to me like the proverbial permit for the monkey. I begin to suspect that maybe the vision of the missional church is, after all, too small?

    If we could agree to prize the deeper empathy that comes naturally as the happy byproduct of life together in service of some other-stated goal, how would that “other goal” be defined? This to me is a $6 billion question that speaks to whether the missional church will be a passing spiritual fad or – as I once hoped – the first stirrings of Spirit-led revival, not only for our cities, but also for mother church.

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