This essay was originally published almost six years ago, on the blog of a fellow Portland writer, DL Mayfield. When Commonweal published my recent essay The Thresher, I found myself thinking about this piece again. They share similar themes.
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I seek an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, and it is laid up in heaven, and safe there, to be bestowed, at the time appointed, on them who diligently seek it.
– The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
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The poor are ugly. They are not demur widows in biblical robes graciously accepting alms from pastel saints. They are young black mothers in pajama pants at the grocery store. They are old white men with no teeth and pornography habits. They are hardened teen alcoholics, gangbangers, pedophiles, strippers, con men, shtarkers, pimps, inveterate liars and parents perpetuating the very cycles of generational suffering that once shaped them. They are the children of God turned old before their time by Oxycontin addictions, botched abortions, and personality disorders. They’ve never heard of Pitchfork, they don’t know what selvage denim is, and they don’t care about your organic produce. They live hand to mouth and, my God, do they suffer.
I am a mental health counselor working in the Portland/Vancouver metro area. My current caseload of clients is comprised of low-income seniors, many of whom live in the type of government-subsidized urban apartments or predatory single-room occupancy hotels that serve as greenhouses for the kind of stereotypes I’ve just rolled out.
In addition to my current gig, over the last decade I’ve worked and volunteered with impoverished men, women, and children in a number of different settings. I have been a personal aid and overnight caregiver bearing witness to the loneliness and emotional frustration of the profoundly physically and developmentally disabled. I have been a case manager for commercially sexually exploited teenage girls. I have worked at a community mental health nonprofit and counseled at a church. I have visited prisoners in jail. I have advocated for impoverished elders, living alone at the end of their lives, crushed by regret and terrified at the knowledge that someday soon the gossamer thin membrane separating them from the world of the dead will vanish with a pop. I’ve done all this and more, and now I’m contemplating getting the hell out.
My resume wasn’t really what you were interested in, though. You want to know whether I was being hyperbolic when I sucker-punched poor folks up in the first paragraph there. The answer’s yes, I am being hyperbolic. I am engaging in an act of provocation when I say that the poor are ugly. I do not for one minute believe that the poor—a broad term with vast layers and implications we don’t have space to unpack here—are morally inferior, less capable of giving and receiving love, or suffering acutely, or achieving self-actualization, or anything else human beings are capable of. In addition to the strippers and meth cooks, the poor are also faithful family men, selfless grandmothers raising young children, unpaid rural pastors, the cheerful guys who collect my garbage and tend my landlord’s lawn. I have met many joyful, hopeful people living below the poverty line who are choosing to break cycles of generational harm and engaging in acts of generosity even under extreme duress, and I flatly reject the idea that I, a man often transfigured into a vehicle of naked lust and murderous rage, am better than them.
I am, however, better off in many tangible ways, and here we come to the point of my hyperbole. Poverty has incredibly negative consequences. Not having enough money to eat, clothe yourself, afford shelter, or provide schooling or healthcare for your children? That would break anyone. And it does. Poverty shoehorns human beings into its brutal crucible and holds them in the flames. It has the power to demoralize and shatter anyone. For the record, I’ve met and worked with a number of very wealthy people too. When it comes to the kind of things that can grind away at the human soul, money and power are just as effective poverty. But it sure looks more painful at the bottom.
The American poor are being crushed under the tank treads of a society that uses and derides them in equal measure. They are harried and victimized by corporations, and abused by judicial and political systems which favor those in power. In their oppression these systems often end up being agents of the middle class, who want the riff raff and all the headaches that accompany them kept out of sight, while still wanting access to their cheap labor and unquestioning consumption. They pick our strawberries after all. They buy those Nikes our ad agency helped make seem so impossibly cool. The middle and upper classes scorn the poor, ignoring the ways in which we step on their faces while simultaneously blaming them for their own situation, as if poverty were a life anyone would choose.
Like so many of my fellow Christians I am often rankly ignorant of—or brazenly calloused to—the workings of the systems that perpetuate the subjugation of the poor. Yet I claim to hate the evils of injustice and exploitation. I protest that I desire justice and mercy. Ok. Maybe. Turns out there’s a litmus test for that. It is the great catch in the contract of love. The stone, as it were, upon which men stumble and fall: In order to truly love the poor one must join them in their suffering.
When D.L. told me that she already had a number of contributors who would be writing on the topic of whether aspiring to downward mobility was enough, I thought to myself, No problem. I’m writing about the opposite; the idea that it might be too much. I’ve reached a fork in the path of my life. My friends are starting to buy houses, have children, shovel the last few nuggets of debt into the trash and begin saving in earnest. Meanwhile my wife and I are six figures underwater, working long, draining hours in social services, and beginning to seriously consider leaping from the HMS Nonprofit and swimming desperately toward any employer who will pay us wages on which we could afford to have a child.
Money isn’t even the main thing. It’s not as if we’re not living an incredibly privileged, eminently comfortable lifestyle. The problem is that I’ve never figured out a way to truly love the poor and disenfranchised without becoming entangled in their problems and having to listen to their broken cries up close. I’ve fought for a decade to somehow “serve” the poor without joining them in their squalor. I don’t want to be pulled out of my life raft into the raging sea of their sorrows. So, I’m standing here at the crossroads, a chilly breeze tugging at the collar of my shirt, looking back and forth between the two tracks and wondering which I’m going to choose.
When I first moved to Portland I took a job working at an aftercare facility with teenagers attempting to get out of prostitution. One freezing February night I was standing outside the house with a 15-year-old girl when she began telling me about her life to that point. Between drags on her Camel Light she described a childhood journey that had included a drug-addicted mother and more than 20 foster homes, all of which were merely the preface to the point where she began selling her body. After she finished up and we headed back inside I slipped into the closet of the staff office, shut the door behind me, leaned against the water heater, and cried. I’d come to have real affection for this girl, and the knowledge of what she’d been through was too much.
I’m tired. Weary of bearing witness to the violence we human beings rain down on one another. There are days when I feel wrung out like a washcloth, sick to death of trying to talk to scabby drunks holed up alone in their trashed apartments swilling mouthwash because it’s the cheapest way to dull the pain of life. What good am I doing? I’m tired of picking up one starfish at a time and throwing it back into the ocean.
I’m also tired of working for unprofessional, ragtag operations functioning on shoestring budgets. Tired of making less than my friends who stock the deep freeze at Safeway. Tired of being patted on the back and told my work must be so meaningful. Downward mobility? The siren call of upward mobility is pulling me towards the shore and I’m looking around, wondering who will lash me to the mast of my better angels.
And so I come, at last, to the question of where the good intentions I do occasionally have find their origin, and what it is that has kept me interested in the proposition of selfless love to this point. For me, that means arriving at Jesus Christ. He who surrounded himself with the stench of the poor, and had compassion on the peasant crowds, “because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.” There are many who claim no affiliation with Jesus of Nazareth and yet love the poor more fully and selflessly than I. There are many days when I shout at the ceiling, asking the Son of God, my so-called Lord (although it’s strange to call him that when I ignore him so much of the time), why he allows the widows and orphans to suffer, disoriented, alone, running forlorn upon the face of the earth like a hill of crazed ants, and receive only silence for my trouble. But I cannot quit him. His gospel is the most beautiful story I have ever heard told, and seems to me to explain the burning pageant of the world, including the existential despair that Kierkegaard called “the sickness unto death,” in a way that resonates, like a morning bell, with the ring of truth.
G.K. Chesterton noted with incisive clarity that, “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” The question for most people is not whether it is good for the broken-hearted to be comforted or the oppressed to receive justice. The question is whether or not we ourselves want to be the comforters and the bringers of said justice. Jesus Christ calls all who would follow him to wade out, neck deep, into the suffering of the world. To embrace the poor, holding nothing back, aspiring not to lay up treasures in this world but in the world to come.
For all his compassion, all his non-violent teachings, all of his physical healings, Jesus was focused on eternal life. I would argue that he defined that eternal life as something that begins here and now, but he also certainly seemed to be talking about another world as well. He made no apologies about speaking of a heavenly kingdom, a coming day when he himself would make all things new. A friend of mine read the following passage from the book of Revelation at my wedding:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
That passage’s searing vision of a reality different from the one I know now is the only vision with enough power to persuade me to continue on with my stumbling attempts to love the poor. Because the prospect of sacrificing myself upon the altar of love only makes sense to me if eternity is real. I believe that this makes me something of a small-hearted person. Perhaps, at times, I could find it in myself, have found it in myself, to love my brothers and sisters out of a pure and selfless place in my heart. I do not believe that I am all darkness. But money, security, a sense of calm and order, even if predicated on the suffering of others, exert too strong a pull. To actively put myself in harm’s way and give up on the flat out sprint toward American comfort and financial security that my entire culture is engaged in requires a belief in the most basic truths of the gospel. That heaven is real. That God is real. That there is one who will lead me to the rock that is higher than I and set my feet upon a firm foundation. Not just figuratively but literally.
In writing this essay I have reflected upon how regularly and with what astonishing ease I reduce the gospel of Jesus Christ to an abstraction. Just an interesting proposition or set of philosophical constructs to be debated in post-modern, vaguely spiritual terms while I go on living a life that shows precious little evidence of any real desire to adhere to his radical, endlessly upsetting teachings. My brother used to talk about the idea of losing your life to find it. Sometimes I wonder if I haven’t tried hard enough. If I might find the grail of contentment if only I could bring myself to unclench my claws from where they are buried in the idol of self-preservation. We all end up losing our lives in the end, right? Just let go, Ben.
It’s not that easy. The fear of suffering is so great in me. Too great to overcome on my own. How wondrous then, how ecstatic and deeply comforting are those moments when I turn back, repent, and find renewal in the belief that my Redeemer lives, and that “in the end He will stand upon the earth.” Nothing else could compel me to go on for one more day, challenging the American Dream and its legacy of bloodshed, and rebuking the part of my very own soul that wants nothing more than to run panting into the arms of material security.
Lord of Life, you’re my only hope. Speak to me again of the incorruptible inheritance you have laid up for those who cling to the hem of your robe. Show it to me, that I might run it through my fingers like silver and gold.