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