All the World's a Classroom
This is the third post of the Understanding Poverty series.
Imagine entering a room, a banquet hall. You approach a small group of people to greet, but they scurry away instead. People start to turn their backs on you. Your hesitant smiles meet derisive stares.
The message is clear: You are an outsider. You don’t belong. You’re not wanted here.
How would you feel? Shame. Small. Something rotten. What is wrong with me?
Am I not good enough? Not cool enough, not pretty enough, not handsome enough, not educated enough, not rich enough, not talkative enough, not tall enough, not healthy enough. Or, too cool, too educated, too rich, too talkative, too tall, too fit, too womanly, too manly, too light, or too dark.
Now imagine that in the midst of that uncomfortable room, someone comes in and scans the crowd. She makes eye contact with you and her face beams with joy.
Your savior has come. She heads straight to you. You’re drowning, but she’s lifting you up. Someone is actually happy that you’re here. Someone is here who says, You belong.
Outsiders and Their Saviors
I daresay most of us have experienced being an outsider, some more severely than others. We know that strong sense of shame, of being rejected for who you are.
How much do we long for that someone who embraces us as we are? Or, how much relief envelops us when that person comes.
Outsiders and their saviors is a lens through which I’ve been reading biblical stories lately, Jesus’ stories, in particular. Jesus was not only the Savior of the world—in the take-away-the-sin-of-the-world sense—He was constantly a savior in social situations.
Imagine Zaccheus’ wonder, an outsider, cast out by his tribe for working with the enemy and swindling his own people, when Jesus turned his eyes on him. When was the last time someone saw him for who he was? Jesus not only saw him, He let Zaccheus feed and minister to Him. In this meeting, Zaccheus was affirmed and challenged to transform.
Imagine being a leper whom Jesus touched, who had probably forgotten what it meant to be seen or have human contact. Jesus’ healing was not only physical—it was emotional. You are accepted. I accept you.
Imagine being the woman who touched Jesus’ garment. Or being a child who wanted to come near Jesus. They were outsiders, but they found an ally in Jesus.
In fact, more than an ally. They found someone who would eat with them, someone who would touch them and talk to them, someone who would be with them. They found the kinship of God.
Expanding Our Circle
As a Christian who aspires, however insufficiently, to be in the world as Jesus was, Jesus’ example is challenging. To go where no one else wants to go, to be with people most people avoid, is… well, I don’t want to do it.
We like to congregate among likes and we exclude. We like relationships that will give us something. Sometimes we even find our sense of belonging by excluding people.
To a kind of social life that only consists of people who affirm us, Jesus’ love toward those shunned by society is simply provoking. While as humans we may concede to some inside-outside relationship, God’s inside circle is expansive beyond our conception. There is no one whom God does not want to rescue.
Perhaps it would do us good to remind ourselves of our outsider-ness. Go back to imagining that banquet hall, to being rejected, and to being rescued.
Gregory Boyle in Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion writes about the gang members he works with,
Homies have been “outside” for so long they forget there is an inside… The toxicity gets so internalized that it obliterates the “me.” You couldn’t possibly have interest in knowing things about “me.”
All throughout Scripture and history, the principal suffering of the poor is not that they can’t pay their rent on time or that they are three dollars short of a package of Pampers. As Jesus scholar Marcus Borg points out, the principal suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame—a global sense of failure of the whole self.
Exclusion by money is as old as time. What never gets old is this: Jesus was born and lived as a poor person. The first public words Jesus spoke was, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs are the kingdom of God.”
Homies seem to live in the zip code of the eternally disappointing, and need a change of address. To this end, one hopes (against all human inclination) to model not the “one false move” God but the “no matter whatness” of God. You seek to imitate the kind of God you believe in, where disappointment is, well, Greek to Him. You strive to live the black spiritual that says, “God looks beyond our fault and sees our need.”
To that diminished sense of self, God says, I am happy to be with you.
To Be Known and Loved
Boyle tells a story of Mother Teresa when she once told a group of lepers how loved by God they were and a “gift to the rest of us.” An old leper raised his hand and said, “Could you repeat that again? It did me good. So, would you mind…just saying it again?”
To be accepted for who we are, fully, isn’t that our greatest need?
Tim Keller writes,
To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.
God goes beyond than tolerating the outcasts—He delights in them. Now if we could be a force of that kind of love in the world…
See related essay: Human Strudel
What happens when literature meets art history meets design? I think, the wearables at Literary Book Gifts! Meet Melissa Chan, the creative mind behind Literary Book Gifts, and the story of how it came about. If you’re one who likes to play up your bookishness and “wear your books,” check out her shop and use the code included below!
1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What is your passion and interest, and what occupies your mind each day?
My name is Melissa Chan and I am from Toronto, Ontario. As you can probably tell from the store, I love literature and design! Ever since I took an art history course, the world of fine art has always been fascinating as well, this influences a lot of my style decisions and design choices.
Each day I am thinking of new designs to do, but often I redesigning previous designs, just to get them perfect.
2. How did you start Literary Book Gifts? Where did the idea come from?
Although I started Literary Book Gifts this year, many of the designs had been swirling around my head for a little while before then. Finally I decided to try to put together a t-shirt design which, as it turns out, is not as easy as I thought. It took me a while to get a handle on the graphics editing software. And even after that it took me even longer make a design that looked any good. One of the first designs I made was for Moby Dick and I think I did it about 5 or 6 times before I was reasonably happy with it.
After a lot of deliberation, I picked out some high quality shirts (I always try to go for as much cotton as possible) and threw up a website. It was not a very exciting launch, but that is how Literary Book Gifts was started.
I love the feeling of nostalgia you get from seeing old illustrations and book covers so one day I decided I would make shirts that look like that.
3. From your designs and products, it looks like you love the classics. What makes them awesome to you?
I do love classics! I think greatest stories to this day are the classics. I’ve never encountered more intricate and epic stories than Les Miserables or War and Peace. And I think a lot of other people would agree that there is no comparison to their favorite Jane Austen or Charles Dickens story.
4. Fun reasons to “wear” books!
Wearing books makes for a great conversation starter! My personal favorite reason to wear books is because it is a helpful everyday reminder that our life is a story, just like the ones we read in these books.
Check out Melissa’s designs and shop at Literary Book Gifts! You can use the promo code JOSEPHINEELIA20 for 20% off anything in the store, no minimum, and can be used unlimited times.
**I don’t receive anything from this coverage, just spreading the word on something interesting!
If you follow this blog, recently, I posted my reading list on Understanding Poverty, which has been the subject I’m trying to delve into this year. Some of the books on that list also make an appearance here.
To see all of the books I’ve read in 2018, check out this page:
Educated is hands-down my favorite read in 2018 so far. It makes everybody’s best-of lists because it is just that fantastic. Westover tells her story of growing up in a fanatical, survivalist family who doesn’t believe in going to school, going to the doctor, or being registered in any government system. She finds a way to get out of her home and be in school for the first time at seventeen, and as she discovers education, she grows into her own self and her own thoughts. The most marvelous aspect of this memoir is her deep reflections on what is happening at every significant moment in her personal evolution. The tension between family loyalty and being able to think for her own is lucidly portrayed. It does two things for me. One, it makes me more appreciative of my own journey of education and the privilege to think. Two, it gives me a bit more understanding on the people and environment Westover grew up around. Simply said, it’s a marvelous and riveting memoir, deeply insightful and beautifully written.
Evicted is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It deals with the deep struggle for housing for the poorest of the poor in America. One of the biggest points of the book is that eviction is not only caused by poverty, but it also causes poverty. Matthew Desmond wrote out his research brilliantly in a very engaging narrative nonfiction form. He followed the lives of several families and individuals for an extended amount of time and recorded their challenges every step of the way.
This book was what sparked my quest into the topic of poverty. I got it through a Kindle sale a few years ago because the title was very intriguing. Imagine, I got it for $1.99, the same amount some people live on for a day. $2.00 a Day also follows the lives of a few people, but also covers some policy background that has historically impacted–for better or for worse–the lives of the poorest in America. Several common themes emerge from this book and Evicted, especially on how people cope at this level of poverty.
Hillbilly Elegy has been credited as one of the explainers of the protectionist movement that arises from those who feel left behind by globalization, modern economy, and society. I don’t think J.D. Vance set out to play this role–he was really just telling the story of his upbringing–but he certainly opened the eyes of many to a specific culture and community that doesn’t really get represented much in most media. I can’t really do it justice in this summary, other than to say, it’s an important read.
Greg Boyle’s work with Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program in Los Angeles that provides gang members with jobs and support, is simply incredible. But this book, and Boyle’s message, stands out to me in that he doesn’t focus much on how to help the poor. His main message is to be with the poor. He calls it kinship. I reflect on his key message in this essay:
I used to pass by Janesville a lot on the way to visit my siblings in Madison, WI, but I had no idea what that town went through. This book tells the stories of several families as they experience the downward slip from the middle class to poverty after GM closed its biggest manufacturing plant in Janesville. The narrative is poignant because it tells what real people go through as a result of macro economic shifts in the world and corporate business decisions. I also think these kinds of ethnographic works should be the textbooks of anyone interested in policies–especially the policy makers–as they depict what happens on the ground. They can show where federal or state-level supports are needed, which programs work and which don’t, and what are the unintended consequences of certain initiatives.
Of all contemporary Christian writers, Tim Keller is the one I respect the most. He is even-toned, nuanced, balanced, and incredibly well-read. What I love most of all is his cultural sensibilities: he understands the different narratives and values of different cultures, and is able to assess them vis-a-vis biblical values. To be more precise, he is not a preacher of Western culture, which I find quite common in American Christianity. Instead, he has the sensibilities to even examine his own culture and see the parts that are not entirely biblical.
These strengths are reflected in this book, where he proposes points to consider to the secular audience as they consider Christianity. If you happen to have been burned by Christian books before, this is a good one to try again, because even if you are skeptical, you will be intellectually nourished.
Amidst a plethora of angry and loud voices in today’s politics, John Lewis’ voice in Across That Bridge is refreshingly calm, full of wisdom, and enlightening. Lewis is someone who has fought for civil rights for decades, has been beaten, jailed, and threatened multiple times, and has continued to serve the public to this day. So the import of his words and counsel is deeply felt in this book. I picked this book up after listening to his interview with Krista Tippett on the spiritual aspect of the Civil Rights Movement. And boy, I did not realize how deep it was. The philosophy of nonviolence and their commitment to it is more than just a means to make social change. They were going for changes in the spiritual nature of society at the time.
For young people who want to make an impact in the world, for those who feel called by activism, this book is like sitting at the feet of your favorite grandfather, receiving wisdom-filled advice on how to move forward from the one person who has gone through it all.
To see the previous best-of lists, check out these links below:
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