All the World's a Classroom
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.
Other best books lists
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Welcome to the Reading Interview Series, where I chat with bookworms, avid readers and learners, to unpack their reading habits and philosophy. Anthony Bosman is my guest in this episode, a mathematician, professor, and a self-proclaimed, unashamed geek!
This is the second post of the Understanding Poverty series.
“I do what I do because I’m broken too.”
Coming from Bryan Stevenson, lawyer, civil-rights activist, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a MacArthur Fellow, renowned speaker and social justice leader, those words, I must confess, are perplexing.
Is it sympathy? Empathy? Some poetic pathos? It sounds so very virtuous, yet I don’t really understand what he means.
In this New Yorker profile, Stevenson tells the story of Jimmy Dill, his client whose execution he tried, unsuccessfully, to overturn. Just before Dill was executed in 2009, he spoke to Stevenson.
“I’ve been in that setting before, but there was something different about this, because the man had this speech impediment,” Stevenson said. “He couldn’t get the words out, and he was going to use the last few minutes of his life—his last struggle was going to be devoted to saying to me, ‘Thank you’ and ‘I love you for what you’re trying to do.’ I think that’s what got to me in a way that few things had. And I, for the first time in my career, just thought, Is there an emotional cost, is there some toll connected to being proximate to all this suffering? I think that’s when I realized that my motivation to help condemned people—it’s not like I’m some whole person trying to help the broken people that I see along the road. I think I am broken by the injustice that I see.”
As he stands with the condemned, marginalized, and “broken,” Stevenson becomes broken too. His humanity is altered as a result of his proximity to those who suffer.
In my reading, I’ve come across this sentiment multiple times. In Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service, Mary Poplin writes about Mother Teresa’s journal entry in December 1948, where she says,
What poverty. What actual suffering. I gave something that will help her to sleep—but the woman longs to have some care… confession and holy Communion.—I felt my own poverty there too—for I had nothing to give that poor woman.
In standing with the poor, Mother Teresa came to a realization of her own poverty too.
The Missionaries of Charity, in fact, commit themselves to four vows, namely poverty, chastity, obedience, and free service to the poorest of the poor. They want to be one with those they serve, for how could they understand the poor if they are not living as they live.
What Stevenson, Mother Teresa, and the Missionaries of Charity have, to me, is more than just a feeling bad about the poor. It’s way beyond sentimentalism. It’s even deeper than feeling bad enough to do something about the poor. It’s more like entering into the experience of the poor and the marginalized, and being one with them.
Kinship, Our Mutuality
I found the expression of this shared brokenness most eloquently articulated by Gregory Boyle, in his books Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion and Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, where he shares stories and lessons from his work with Homeboy Industries, a rehab and re-entry program for gang members in Los Angeles.
In Tattoos on the Heart, he quotes Elaine Roulette:
Sr. Elaine Roulette, the founder of My Mother’s House in New York, was asked, “How do you work with the poor?” She answered, “You don’t. You share your life with the poor.” It’s as basic as crying together. It is about “casting your lot” before it ever becomes about “changing their lot.”
Kinship is more than doing things for others. It’s more than the “power dynamics” between the service provider and the service recipient. It’s about mutuality—a changing of both parties as a result of being proximate with each other.
Often we strike the high moral distance that separates “us” from “them,” and yet it is God’s dream come true when we recognize that there exists no daylight between us. Serving others is good. It’s a start. But it’s just the hallway that leads to the Grand Ballroom.
Kinship—not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not “a man for others”; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that.
I think Stevenson finds kinship with his clients. I think Mother Teresa finds kinship with Calcutta’s poor. I think Boyle finds kinship with the “homies.”
In this kinship, what they feel is not wholeness or some self-fulfillment from doing something altruistic. Rather, a mutual brokenness, but also awe and dignity in those who are demonized by society.
In the Christian context, I can’t help but think of Jesus. Could it be that He experiences kinship with us?
Jesus’ strategy is a simple one: He eats with them. Precisely to those paralyzed in this toxic shame, Jesus says, “I will eat with you.” He goes where love has not yet arrived, and he “gets his grub on.” Eating with outcasts rendered them acceptable.
What would it be like to feel the kinship of God?
To be continued…