Economy of Need: A Web Not a Staircase
The after-school program for 6th-12th graders in our under-resourced neighborhood that takes place each day in the bottom floor of my house is primarily filled with kids who come from similar backgrounds and home-lives. The specific makeup may vary, but for the most part, my little neighbors exist in houses run by single, strong, black matriarchs. Many know too well how to navigate the monthly waters of food stamps, WIC, and welfare. They know what weed looks and smells like, understand the meaning of the term “trap house,” and have been residents of several different areas of town and students at a variety of schools since they were born.
When we moved here, I knew full well how different our backgrounds and experiences were. I grew up in an American middle class family with two married, educated, and working parents. I took lessons when I was younger that helped cultivate a range of skills I would and wouldn’t end up utilizing. I came away from my liberal arts college with no debt and a job offer. It would be years into my 20s when I would finally figure out what weed actually looks and smells like; and I am constantly having to google phrases like “trap house” to keep up a decent (yet lagging) understanding of the world around me.
When we moved here, these children and neighbors were my “others.” They were my “poor.” And I could be good because they were in need. Since Jesus called us to do life closely with those who have to go without, I could look most like him in places like these.
Four and a half years of a routine imbedded in Highland (two of those working closely with these students) has done some definite deconstructing and reconstructing of perspective and placement for me, my family, and my community. Experience after experience of having my savior-complex debunked, learning the truth and need of interdependency across economic lines, and (quite frankly) being humbled by the things I do poorly and the stuff I don’t know have been powerful teachers in reality.
This past month, we have been discussing what it means to “grow compassionately” in our after-school club of about 20 teenagers. And in an effort to work some of that out, we’ve taken part in several different experiments in goodness around the city—such as ding-dong-ditching tiny gifts at neighbors’ front doors with cards that read “you’ve been hit with a random act of kindness, pay it forward!,” scavenger hunting for donation bag items to deliver to one of our city’s day shelters, and packing rice and bean bags to restock pantries in different parts of town.
What has been most surprising to me throughout the last four weeks has been the commentary surfacing out of this little band of young folks who are serving. To be sure, food pantries are not foreign territory for a few of their families. At least once in many of their lives, a shelter of some sort has been involved. And the other parts of town that we visited were not unlike ours in crime-rate and income levels.
Yet statements and wonderings bounced around such as…
“Are we in a bad part of town, Mrs. B? This looks like a bad part of town.”
“I was a little nervous to hand him that bag at the shelter because I don’t know how to talk to poor people.”
“Can we come and help cook at this kitchen for hungry folks?”
“I’ve got some clothes I can donate. Could I bring them here?”
“There are how many hungry people in the world? And I throw away food at school everyday…”
“My poor people” had poor people, I realized. And they have something to give. And they are compelled to do so.
God’s economy of need and giving is not hierarchical, I am learning. The goods of life do not trickle down from the haves to the have-nots. Rather than a staircase of provision, God’s economy of need and giving is a web where poverty is both relative and varying, where the most “unlikely” of folks have what I need and vice versa. It is the most backwards of things, this Kingdom way.
I may have a lawnmower to contribute to the little crew of boys who are starting a yard business this summer in the area, or I might have a connection and the networking skills to get a graduating senior help in filling out their FAFSA; but I have been shared the treasure of a connected community of porch-sitters, bike-riders, and door-knockers that I did not have in my previous residencies. This makes my life fuller and more relational with the stuff you can’t buy. I have both a need and something to give, just like my neighbors.
I have seen upper/middle-class folks find purpose and perspective while also sharing the fruit of their privileged resources. I have seen families under the poverty line find camaraderie and assistance for financial struggles while also sharing their wide-wisdom in open-door policies and a new understanding of who family includes. I have watched wealthy widowers, divorcees, and single moms need other wealthy friends just to make it through. I have witnessed families who are living off of aid systems stand in food lines as the servers and bring their gently worn apparel to donate to church clothing banks.
It makes no sense, and it makes all the sense.
The rich are not the helpers and the poor the helped. The rich are not the needed and the poor the needy. Rather, we are all in need and all able to give. It is what makes us human, one body, a family.
I am beginning to wonder if our commission for the rich to live life closely to the poor is far more about the restorative work of learning who actually needs whom rather than simply the affluent taking advantage of opportunities to share wealth. I am beginning to wonder what type of world would be cultivated if we all had to acknowledge our needs and wear them written out on large billboards above our heads—and would we be surprised at who would step up to meet them. I am beginning to wonder about the disservice we have done ourselves in the realm of middle/upper class church missions where we have created and functioned within programs as the givers in this trickle-down system of help. I am beginning to wonder if life-together with people who are unlike us is what forces us to break down some walls of false understanding and seek healing and freedom from those we thought “needed us.”
Ultimately, today I am wondering if the world’s money economy has aided in our belief that God’s economy of need and giving is similar to it: where few have the most and the most have the least, where the rich need little and can give more and the poor need more and can give little. Have the top-down ranking patterns of our societies robbed us of the understanding of our own needs and abilities to give…of our true placement in body-life.
During this season of Easter leading up to Pentecost when we most often remember the earliest church and read of their lifestyle in Acts where “all the believers were together and had everything in common,” where they “sold their property and possessions to give to anyone who had need,” I would challenge leaders and shepherds of congregations and faith groups to press their congregants and community members to be honest about the needs in their own lives. If they were asked to wear it in billboard fashion above their heads, would it be news to those around them? And would they consider looking in unlikely places to get those needs filled and/or healed—maybe by someone of a different background, economic status, race, belief, or lifestyle.
There is something empowering to the individual and the Church when all sorts of folks start getting honest about the need in their lives and start allowing the improbable givers an entrance into those hurts and deficiencies so that we can all get better together.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.” -Romans 12:2
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” -Acts 2:46-47