Saturday, November 20, 2010

Poverty and Education

Earlier this week I was talking to one of the ladies I work with about poverty and education. We were discussing how the poor often do not get the same chances as those who are better off financially. Their school systems are not the same; and those that make it to college are ill-prepared due to their less-than educations growing up.

One thing I can say that I am thankful for is the education I received. My family was very poor, but I was able to attend decent schools. Since I did not live inner city, the school system in my area was about what it is elsewhere. So, I had the opportunity to take advanced coursework (and was encouraged to do so--which is very important to note since many inner city kids are discouraged from doing so). I was very fortunate in that area. Also, as a masked blessing, I had a step sister who was a year older than me. She was home schooled and often brought her work to my house on the weekends for me to do (for her, of course, lest I be pulverized). So, I was able to learn things a year ahead of schedule. (Plus, I secretely enjoyed learning all of the new information.) In addition to this, I would spend my summers learning as much as I possibly could before the next school year. When we would go to the flea markets, I would find 25 cent school books (and sometimes even free books!) and teach myself the information inside (mainly English and math books). Plus, I had access to a lot of accelerated reading books in my school library. So, I would read book after book of late middle school and high school material, stretching my elementary school brain to accommodate the new information. I was very, very lucky in this respect.

Others are not so lucky. As I have previously mentioned, my home life was hell, but I used learning as my escape. Other troubled children and teens find their escape in drugs, alcohol, gangs, boyfriends or girlfriends, video games, or in other addictions or distractions. This group is often misunderstood or overlooked in the educational system. They are branded as less than or beyond help. They are told that they are just like the misfits who came before them and will never amount to anything, will never escape poverty. They are often ignored or treated as if they are not worth the time and money it would take to educate them, to give them the tools necessary to rise above their circumstances. So, what happens? They become a part of this self-fulfilling prophecy. They turn into misfits who cannot escape their past, who cannot move beyond their unfortunate family "traditions." What many people overlook is the fact that these kids, these adults even, are worthy of our time and money. Sure, there are those who misuse or abuse the system, but this is not the majority. (Even so, what does this say about those who do abuse the system? They have given up and given into the lies that they are not good enough, that they will never amount to anything, that they are worthless. So, they might as well take advantage of the system since they aren't good enough to do it on their own.) If we want this cycle to end, we must be the ones to step in and and say, "No, I will not treat this child as inferior. I will love him despite the stereotypes we have given him." "I will give this adult the respect she deserves." "I will help this hungry person because they deserve to have a good meal, too." "I will sponsor this single parent family of 6 and forego the recognition that I feel I deserve because it is more important that these children have a Christmas and know that they are cared about and loved than for me to feel appreciated and honored." We must move forward if we want the system to change. If we hope to change it, we must do it with one person at a time, putting aside our disagreements or opinions, letting go of our feelings of entitlement or elevated pride. The proud are not the ones that do the most good in the world, but the humble. Let us be the humble hands and feet of a power greater than ourselves. Ekou Eleos.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Poverty and the Church

Last night at church we talked about James chapter 2. We discussed how those addressed in the letter gave special treatment to the wealthy, how they discriminated against the poor. James warns them against favoritism. We then got deep into a discussion about today’s poor and the church’s response (or lack thereof). We discussed the problem of poverty and how the church is called to respond. We even talked about common misconceptions about the poor and abusing the system, their belief systems and problem solving abilities, and the church’s inapproachability. I wanted to cry.

Maybe I come from a different background than those leading the discussion. Then again, maybe I’m biased by my experiences with the church. Maybe I am just too blind to see myself for what I am. . . .

Despite how far I have come, I still see myself enslaved by poverty. It is very difficult for me to remove the poverty lens from my eye to see the world objectively. I do not claim to have been among the poorest in the world or even the United States. However, I did grow up disadvantaged. I knew the pangs of hunger, worried about how my family would make ends meet, was homeless for a time, experienced crime, knew people threatened at gun point, had boyfriends and friends in gangs, lived on welfare and government aid, was affected by drugs, ate out of dumpsters, and went without so that my younger siblings could eat. I laid in bed at night crying as I listened to my parents fight over money, bills, and children—afraid that they would make good on their threats to drop us off at a children’s home. I learned to avert my gaze as we checked out in the grocery store with our colorful “money,” to be as inconspicuous as possible. (In fact, my main goal as a child was to become invisible.) When my classmates came to school each year with new clothes and gadgets, I tucked my hole-ridden shoes underneath me, ashamed. Today I still wear scars of my upbringing; however, you may have to look harder to find them as they have faded with time.

I wish I could say that there was something or someone specifically that made the difference in my life—that pulled me out of poverty. The truth is that there were little people along the way that made a difference in my life: multiple teachers that believed in and cared about me, a Physical Education teacher that bought me new shoes, a Spanish teacher in high school that took an interest in my suffering and encouraged me to overcome an addictive and highly destructive coping mechanism, a woman in my church that sponsored me so that I could afford to graduate high school. However, ultimately, I think what made the most impact in my life—that caused me to rise out of poverty—was genetics (giving me the intellect necessary) and the abuse I experienced at home (giving me the incentive needed). Had there not been abuse in my home, I would not have looked for an escape. Had I not had the ability to absorb information and the thirst to learn, I would not have found my escape in learning. My passion to help teens similar to myself along with my intellect provided the opportunity for me to attend college on mostly scholarships (and grants, ironically, thanks to my family’s poverty). Because teachers along the way believed in me, I learned to believe in myself.

It’s not that I didn’t encounter cynics growing up. I was well aware that I was being treated poorly because of my socioeconomic status. I was also aware that people looked at me as if I was scum because my family lived off of welfare. (This is a viewpoint that I adopted about myself and one I still struggle with today.) I learned to suffer in silence because no one cared about my pain. My family taught me it was better to do without than to ask for a hand out. Because of this, my family did not celebrate Christmas (or other holidays)—except when they broke down and asked a local church to provide gifts for Christmas. We generally did not receive gifts; and I learned to avoid parties and celebrations because I could not afford to buy them. (To this day, I am still very uncomfortable when someone gives me a gift or buys me dinner and struggle with what to buy others for birthdays, Christmas, et cetera.) However, I have no problem sharing what I have because my parents taught me not to be stingy or selfish. (We must share what we have with one another in order to survive.)

So here is this chapter in James talking about how those who grew up poor and persecuted are discriminating against the poor and giving special treatment to the rich. I must admit that I do the same thing. I have bought into the misconception that people like me are scum. We are dirty, lazy, irresponsible, lice-infested, uneducated, stupid, careless, and reckless. When in reality, we are hurting, hungry, gracious, selfless, loving, caring, humbled, misinformed, ashamed, worried, and terrified. We have bought into the lie that those better off than us are better than we are. They’re smarter than we are, more deserving, special, and blessed by God. We give them special treatment because we are disillusioned into believing that they are special, more special than we are. So how do we overcome what we believe? The answer is to live life with those who are less fortunate than we are, to see that they are the same as us. We must go out into the communities, play basketball or kickball with them. Sit with them. Serve them. Love on them. Whatever you do, get to know them. They are beautiful, loving people who are deserving of our time and energies. We are not too good for them. On the contrary, we are not deserving of the grace and mercy they give us. Let us echo God’s love into the lives of those around us. Ekou Eleos

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A conflict has arisen deep within my being. Some days it feels like my spirit is winning. Others, my pain and cynicism. Right now I am just hurt and confused.

I should probably preface this with a little of my history. I became a Christian when I was 13. I knew exactly what I was getting myself into, but was desperate for change. I knew that, coming from my family background, I would be ridiculed for my decision. I knew I would lose all of my friends. I knew that my boyfriend (who was 11 years older than me) would leave me. However, I had tried everything else and God was all that was left. I saw how different people were at the church down the street and I wanted to be part of what they had. I figured that even if I could have a minute piece of what they had, I could be happy. I could be whole.

So, I dove in head first. I gave God everything, laid it all out in his presence, and begged Him to change me, to save me from myself. I felt an immediate difference. I came home and told my family about my decision and got what I had expected--skeptism and ridicule. My mom probably had the best reaction. She merely stated that once I was a little older and could really have fun, I would change my mind. (I guess that is what she had done.) However, I reminded her that I had already experienced all of the "fun" things to which she was referring (alcohol, drugs, sex, et cetera) and that I wouldn't change my mind because I knew all about the "fun" stuff. She agreed with me, but still insisted I would change my mind. Most of my family just called me names and made bets on how long I would last before I went back to my old lifestyle. My grandmother, on the other hand, said that I needed to be admitted to a mental institution if I believed all of the religious crap I was being fed. She then cut off all contact with me. That was probably the worst reaction I received. My boyfriend said sayonara once he realized I would no longer put out. My friends weren't sure what to think, but quickly decided that I was no longer any fun and slowly trickled out of my life (some much faster than others).

That really left me with no one to turn to besides God. So, I involved myself in every church activity I could find. Most days I was at church. I was there Sunday mornings waiting for the pastor so I could help turn on all of the lights and the sound system. I stayed for both services and Sunday school. I was usually the last to leave after the late morning service. Then I would go home for a couple of hours and be back before church opened Sunday night. There was puppet practice (for our youth group that went on mission trips across the U.S. during Spring Break) on Sunday nights before the Sunday night service--both of which I attended. I would usually be the last one to leave on Sunday nights. Sometimes I would even contemplate hiding out so I could stay after everyone left. On Mondays, church was closed. So, I would try to find something else to occupy my time. However, many times I ended up at the church--just walking around outside, hanging out on the playground, or sitting in the cemetery. (Ok, I know. I was an odd child.) Tuesdays there was visitation (which entailed mostly the leaders of the church going out into the community to visit (for the purpose of conversion or invitation to the church) with those who had at one time in the past attended at least one service. Wednesdays was choir practice, then youth group. I usually got to church before choir practice and set up the youth floor. After youth group, I stayed behind to help clean up. Sometimes I would even sneak into Sunday school rooms to write on their dry erase boards. I would write verses and mini sermons that spoke against temptations and offered support to the hurting and doubting. I left these writings in hopes that someone would read them and come closer to God. On Thursdays, I went with a few people in my youth group to minister to the lower socioeconomic statused Spanish-speaking population in our area after school. On Fridays there was usually a youth event that I would attend. This was also the case with Saturdays. I was also on the Leadership Council for my youth group. I went on every Mission trip for which I was allowed. I went on every youth trip and even a few adult trips. I was on the church basketball team and the evangelism team. I was always the top person in my youth group on invitations. (We had a contest to see who could invite the most people to youth group.) I left tracts in public places, slid them in lockers at school, and handed them out to people I barely knew. My stories and poems in school were somehow always spiritual, even when the assignment seemingly prevented that sort of thing. I lived and breathed church. It wasn't long before I was given nicknames--names that were meant to be degrading, but ones I wore with pride (God girl, holy roller, and Southern Baptist Bible Beater--just to name a few). I even made the chastity pledge to abstain from any type of sexual activity before marriage (True Love Waits) and attended See You at the Pole. I joined every Christian group I could find (like Fellowship of Christian Athletes), joined several Christian message boards, and regularly went to several Christian chat rooms. I broke all of my secular CDs and refused to listen to anything that wasn't Christian. I only had one New Years resolution each year: to read my Bible from cover to cover--which I completed every year with time to spare. Thanks to my Southern Baptist pastor, I knew Hebrew and Greek history and many of the original words and definitions.

After high school, instead of going to college, I decided to become part of a ministry that reached out to hurting teens. I worked crisis lines (praying with everyone I spoke with), wrote Bible studies, evangelized and led many to Christ, and worked on several Christian radio shows. After I left there, I came to a Christian college where I learned even more about God and religion. However, by the time I graduated, I was in worse shape than when I started.

What I have failed to mention until now is the fact that the church really let me down. You may have read this in my previous post. However, the short story is that my mom admitted that she was in a lesbian relationship and left my sister's dad (whom she had been with for 12 years out of wedlock). My church found out (that my mom was in a same sex relationship) and cut us off. My sister and her dad needed their support to make ends meet and be able to eat, but the church refused to help or have any contact with them. They also pulled my support that I needed to remain in the ministry and would not speak to me. The ministry I was at overworked us and treated us horribly. The leadership there spread rumors and lies about me and my family. The church that I was attending did the same thing. By the time I left the ministry, most of the volunteers would no longer talk to me as they believed the lies. (Some to this day will not talk to me.) I also experienced a lot of spiritual abuse both in the church and at the ministry. So much so that it left me questioning if God even cared or was good. After all, how can He be a good God when His followers (who are supposed to be striving to be like Him) have caused more pain and destruction in my life (and the lives of many people around me) than anyone else? How can He care when he allows so many bad things to happen? It's not that I doubted His existence, but his goodness.

I came to a Christian college, honestly, to get away from my family. I needed an out. I hoped that maybe there my relationship with God and other believers would be strengthened. Now, I will say that nothing horrible happened at the college. Everyone there was very gracious and understanding. The faculty and staff went out of their way to help others. I just don't know that a Christian environment was what I needed at the time. Yet, I tried to make myself fit in a square hole when I was so obviously oblique. In my best attempts to be "Christian," I attended several churches to try to figure out where I fit. The problem is... my city of 40,000 people has over 500 churches. If you attended a different church every Sunday, it would take a little over 5 years to attend each one once. This can be a little daunting when you are church hunting. After 5 years of church hunting, I realized that most of the churches were very similar. Yes, they did have different belief systems (as minute as some of the differences may be), but they all expected the same thing--perfection. If you weren't perfect (which last time I checked, none of us are), you had better put on a happy face and pretend that you had no problems. Quite frankly, I was tired of living in this phantasmagoric state. I was tired of pretending to be someone I'm not. So, I stopped attending.

Oddly enough, this seemed to solve a lot of my problems. I no longer was reminded of my past pains. The facade was no longer necessary. (And I no longer felt the need to group lists in threes to balance my unconscious but unmitigated longing to be united with the Trinity in my everyday life. :)) The problem is that I became more and more cynical of God and Christians. I would not listen to Christian music or read Christian books. I didn't pray or read my bible. If I heard anyone talk about God moving or worship or prayer, I wanted to vomit or run away screaming or break down crying. I closed myself off from my Christian friends and went into myself. I didn't come out of that bubble until I realized that it wasn't helping. I was still miserable. I had just compartmentalized my pain. I rationalized that if I could contain it, I could control it and, maybe one day, even master it. I was wrong. The pain forced itself out into my consciousness everytime a sensitive topic was breached. Rather than facing the pain head on, I took the coward's way out.

I searched online for topics about Christians who have been hurt by Christians. I was hoping to find a message board or website. Instead, I found a letter of apology from a Christian, apologizing to an ostrasized group. Tears filled my eyes as I realized that maybe all Christians aren't alike. Maybe it's just the Bible Belt Christians... So, I went to this Christian woman's website and read more about her and her beliefs as well as some of her other writings. Then I noticed something that astounded me: not only was SHE from the Bible Belt, but she was from my area! I had an epiphany: there are outliers even in the South! I was estatic that I had found this blog that proved my cyncism wrong. A couple of weeks later, I realized that she (and a few others) had planted a church not too far away. So, I got the details and decided to give it a try.

The problem was I didn't realize how terrified I was to be in church again until I was in the parking lot. I ended up darting at the last minute. (Told you I was a coward at heart! :)) I made the drive back home and was calming my nerves with some last minute shopping when my phone rang. It was this Christian woman calling me. So, I decided to try again the following week. This time I didn't get a chance to bolt because she met me in the parking lot. So, I attended. I liked it. So I attended again... and again... and again... Now I have attended enough times to cause myself internal agony. This brings me to the point of today's post: I have to do something about this pain and disconnect. I have reached a point to where I realize that I cannot be both cynical about God and Christians and enveloped in this pain and grow in my faith. I have to somehow work through one or let it go. The problem is that I don't know how to do this. So here I am at another crossroad. Where do I go from here and how do I find the path?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I did not grow up in a Christian home. This is a big statement for someone coming from my area, where there are churches on every street corner. I wouldn't say that my family was against Christianity (at least not my immediate family). However, they were very hedonistic and believed that Christians could not have fun. For this reason, I grew up not knowing much about Christianity or religion in general. I never really thought about God except as a fun-sucking leech that had damnation in mind for all partakers in sin-laced fun (which everyone knows is the only fun worth experiencing).

As previously stated, my family was very hedonistic. I knew more about sex at five than I knew about God. Honestly, I cannot remember a time when I did not know about sex (and not just about sex but about perversions of sex as well). My first personal experience with sex was at five, shortly after my father left. Sex wasn't the only thing I learned about at an early age. I also learned about drinking, drugs, and murder. Both of my parents drank and did drugs. My mother was at least stable enough to keep a job. I wish I could say the same about my father--who wasn't even stable enough to realize that children are a joy and one that shouldn't be destroyed. Instead, he fought constantly with my mom, tried to kill her and me when he found out she was pregnant again), and used my brother and I for his personal entertainment when he was too drunk to care about anyone other than himself. This didn't last long, however, because he left when I was five. I haven't seen him since.

My step dad came into my life shortly thereafter. He was infinitely better than my father in that he did not drink, held down a full time job, didn't try to kill us (which is always good), and was always there for us. There was only one problem... he was more perverse than my father and needed more than my mother could give him. . . . (My experience is this is an epidemic affecting many men (and boys!).)

So, I fell into a deep depression, one that fell down on me as a deep fog, choking the vey life out of me. It seems my mother had the same fog in her life and tried to kill it any way she could. The problem? The fog came from inside her--as it did with me--and there is only one way to rid oneself of this kind of fog. . . But I fought against it in her life. I put all of my strength and determination into "saving" my mom, but I wasn't good enough. Because no matter how hard I tried, the fog always came back--more powerful than the time before. Before I knew it, the fog had spread to my brother. I caught him knife in hand. While wrestling my brother, I knew drastic measures would have to be taken. So, I convinced my mom to send him away, thinking maybe the distance would thin the fog inside him.

Don't be mistaken. I was just at fault. I am no innocent bystander. I brought the fog inside myself, threw out the welcome mat, and bid it come in and make itself at home. I would have done anything to be loved. I did. I come from a family that does not express love--not uncommon in the United States. Nonetheless, I could never adjust. I craved it. I looked for it anywhere I could find it. First I tried friends, but I didn't have many of those and they never could understand. I tried family, but I was never fun enough for my mom, never pretty enough for my step dad, never man enough for my brother. I even tried to meet my own needs, but I was never smart enough or perfect enough to be loved. I had my step sister until she started experimenting with drugs and boys. Then the parties started and pressure was applied. And I thought... maybe THIS is how my mom will love me... So reluctantly, I gave parts of myself away. First to drinking. Next to drugs. Then pieces of me were ripped away. I tried to tell my family, but they only congratulated me on my entrance into womanhood. So I shoved the pain down . .  further than all of my other pains. I decided that it no longer mattered. I no longer mattered. So, I gave the rest of myself away and welcomed the fog in to stay.
For some reason, this is when one friend decided to reach out--a friend who really knew nothing about me or my struggles--and invited me to her church. I tried every excuse I could think of for weeks, but she always had a solution. So, finally, I agreed. Once I got to her youth group, I took one look around and realized I didn't belong. I wasn't popular or rich enough to be there. So, I hung my head in shame and resolved myself to having a miserable time. Instead, I got a lecture from my friend on how I was going to interact and have fun. I actually did. People were nice to me. They talked to me. They befriended me. Never once did they snub me because of where I came from. They accepted me. And so I accepted Jesus. Everyone at church seemed so happy. I thought, Maybe if I can just get some of what they have, then I will be happy; then I will be whole. So, I dove in head first. I drank deep of Christianity and I changed. I stopped drinking and doing drugs. I left my boyfriend and my friends. I gave all of my "fun" up in pursuit of something more. The problem was. . . the fog never lifted. Instead, it seemed to cling to me. So, I tried to rip it out. But the harder I tried, the further I fell. And it became uncomfortably obvious that I was alone. No one knew me--not my family (because I had changed) and not my new friends (because I never let them in for fear of abandonment). The only one who knew all of me lived inside me. But who was that? God or the fog? Then I realized that I was the fog and despised myself for ever letting it in. So I tried harder to cut it out of my life, to find the pieces of me that I had lost or given away. It was too late. So I tried many times to get rid of the fog the only way I knew how, but was not successful at even that. The fog consumed me to the point to where I no longer had the will to rid myself of it. All I could do was pray to an unseen God to take it away--take me away (a prayer that was never answered).
The thirst for love was still there, however. It wasn't long before I discovered the online world. I thought, These people don't know me. These people can't see me. I can be whoever I want to be and they'll love me. So, I made friends with as many people as I could online. A few of them I put through hell because I just wanted someone to talk to, someone to care. So, I told them my struggles. Unfortunately, I think I freaked several of them out. . . mainly because they were powerless online and could not do much to interfere with my life. They could not stop me from doing things if I had my mind set on them. All they could do was be there for me and talk with me (which helped immeasurably more than they knew). A couple of these online friends have stuck with me through it all, but they are few and far between.
My senior year of high school, two of my biggest secrets came out and did irreparable damage to my family. My mom started drinking very heavily which threw her into a rage worse than I had seen in years past. She lashed out at me and my step dad mainly, but was on a path to self destruction. The summer of my senior year, she declared herself to be a lesbian and left my step dad for another woman. This is when all hell broke loose. I left home (in a desperate attempt to get away from home and from the memories. . . as well as the fog). My mom left home (to be with her girlfriend). My brother had been gone for years and no longer spoke with any of us. So, that left my little sister home with my step dad (her father) who was at the heart of my mother's pain and her decision to change her sexual orientation. The problem was that my mom was the bread winner in the family and I was the one paying a lot of the bills. So, two incomes were lost. My sister and her dad could no longer make ends meet. So, they reached out to my church. They explained that my mom left to be with a woman and asked for help meeting basic needs. Not only did they not help my sister and her dad, they shunned them, forcing my sister and her dad into homelessness. They did eventually get into government housing and on food stamps, but the wait was long. In the mean time, they moved around from place to place, searching for food and somewhere to lay their heads.
Meanwhile, I was at a ministry that, well, wasn't very helpful. The organization knew my problems going into it. (I was very open with them.) However, things began to go downhill quickly. I could not measure up and it became very clear that they found me to be worthless. My counselor left the organization. I begged for a new counselor. I cried out asking for help, imploring those in leadership roles for months to get me the help that I needed to no avail. The fog overwhelmed me. They spread lies and tightened the reigns of control over my life. I left. They attacked my character. I never could have been good enough for them. I realize that now, but at the time I was very impressionable. I thought that Christians were good, but I was wrong.
I moved in with some friends who were very giving, but ill prepared to deal with my problems. I stayed with them for two weeks in which time they provided housing, food, et cetera. But I just had too many problems, problems I hadn't sorted out myself. In the end, I hurt them, not physically, but it was real enough. So I moved in with my mom and her girlfriend (after convincing my friends that it would be ok, knowing it would not). I lied to them because, well, my other option would have been a shelter and after the horror stories I grew up hearing, I didn't think I could take it. I knew I could handle my mom. So, I sucked it up and moved back home.
Home life was hell, but I wasn't there long. I left for college after about six months. College was ok for the most part. I learned a lot and made some friends. I met back up with my friends who had helped me before and apologized for hurting them and for everything that had happened. I was also able to get back into counseling. It wasn't like typical counseling. It seemed like the counselor really invested (as did I) and it didn't feel scrutinized (which was very important to me). I got married (which was probably one of my biggest mistakes) and then divorced (probably one of my smarter decisions). I married not because of love, but because of social pressure. For some reason, people believe that if you date for so long, then you must get married. So, I did. The man I married changed. He was controlling before, but became unbearably so after marriage. He did things behind closed doors that are not uncommon in marriage (although I do not see how the women can handle such pain), but detrimental given my past. He probably hurt me more than anyone I've ever met. So, we divorced. Now I struggle with feeling like a failure to be so young and already divorced. I have no desire to marry another man and never will. I am afraid to go back to church, afraid of their judging and condemning . . . when we all sin. We all fall short of God's glory. Yet many Christians put on a facade, pretending that their lives are perfect; they are perfect. I am not perfect enough to be one of these lucky people. I struggle with calling myself a Christian because I feel nauseous when I think about what the church has done in the name of God. How can I associate myself with a group of people who have caused me and countless others so much pain, a group of people who post on their church signs that everyone is welcomed but blatantly discriminates against and condemns certain groups of people, people they are called to love? No, I cannot--I will not be one of these people. I choose to be forgiving. I choose to love. I am called to echo grace to all of God's children, not just the ones like me. Ekou Eleos.