All the World's a Classroom
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…
This is the first post of the Understanding Poverty series.
For the past several months, my reading theme has been understanding poverty, particularly poverty in America. Some of the questions that driven me throughout this quest were: What are people’s lives like at the bottom of the market? What are the biggest struggles of their lives? How do they cope? What government policies help people’s lives? What policies worsen their lives? Where did the negative attitudes towards the poor come from (living in America, I sensed this from various sources)? From the religious standpoint, what should the role of religious institutions be? What should the attitude of a Christian be? What are the biblical perspectives on the poor?
Poverty, being such a complex subject, cannot be summarized neatly in a series of books. My quest hasn’t ended and I feel like this reading list has only skimmed the surface lightly. But I decided to begin a series of posts on my reflections throughout this journey to organize my thoughts, share learnings, and begin a conversation with you, readers of the blog. I am very much a blank slate on the topic–I do not know much. So I’m eager to learn.
As the launchpad for the essay series, I’m sharing my Understanding Poverty Reading List, which is likely to evolve further. If you have recommendations to add to my list, let me know!
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.
Desmond’s work has also been spotlighted in the news recently. His Eviction Lab at Princeton University just released a nationwide database on evictions. For the nerds out there, he has made the raw data available for you to crunch and analyze, and share with your communities.
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.
Bryan Stevenson is my modern-day hero. In Just Mercy, poverty intersects criminal justice and race. While Hillbilly Elegy is about a poor white community, Just Mercy sheds lights on those who have historically bore the brunt of injustice in criminal law, the poor blacks. One of Stevenson’s main talking points is that in this country, you get treated better by the law if you were rich and guilty than if you were poor and innocent.
Stevenson’s work with the Equal Justice Initiative has also been spotlighted in the news very recently with the opening of the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice dedicated to African Americans terrorized by lynching in 19th and 20th century America.
Mary Poplin wrote about her experience working with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. This book is not about poverty in America, but it is about poverty and the heart of an immensely influential figure in human history. To me, Poplin becomes a vehicle that carries a common-to-me mindset and attitudes towards this radical social justice work, and how Mother Teresa’s approach challenges these mindset and attitudes.
Similar to Finding Calcutta, Katie Davis’ radical decision to live in Uganda and her mission to love, love, and love the children there is a challenge to a complacent, convenient, and comfortable involvement in social justice work, especially in the Christian context.
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, something I will talk about extensively in the essay series, as it unlocks a profound way of thinking about altruism for me.
See #7 above.
This is Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on the lives of “the other America”, the part where rights are not fully realized. It’s a great reminder that there are lives out there that may be very dissimilar to ours, and we ought not to close out minds and hearts towards those “other people.”
I think this initial reading list gives a glimpse on how complex poverty is. It intersects housing, race, crime, drugs, abuse, and many other big issues that are not easily summarized, let alone solved. But I don’t believe in a fatalistic view that says if you can’t do anything about it, why bother knowing at all. I think there’s value in understanding what’s going on, even if one still doesn’t know what to do with it at the moment.
I fully realize that the point of view I take here is one of privilege–everything about poverty in these books is foreign to me. Each of this book opens up a whole new world that I am not familiar with, or even aware of. But I guess there’s a first step for everyone. And this is mine.