A Circle with No Outsider

A Circle with No Outsider

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.

 

What relief.

 

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.”

 

Boyle continues,

 

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

Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

 

Kinship: A Better Model for Altruism

Kinship: A Better Model for Altruism

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.”

 

Shared Brokenness

 

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…

Photo by Nathaniel Tetteh on Unsplash

Understanding Poverty: The Reading List

Understanding Poverty: The Reading List

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!

 

1. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

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.

 

2. $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America

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.

 

3. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

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.

 

4. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

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.

 

5. Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service

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.

 

6. Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption

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.

 

7. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

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.

 

8. Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship

See #7 above.

 

9. The Other America – A Speech from The Radical King (Free)

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.”

 

To read

 

10. The Other America: Poverty in the United States

 

11. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

 

12. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

 

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.

 

Life Lessons: How To Be More Resilient

Life Lessons: How To Be More Resilient

Sometimes life throws something unexpected that requires you to be more resilient, more pliable, and tensile. It calls you to come up higher, and you just have to figure out how to.

 

I had one of these recently. I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, requiring me to transform life habits and diet overnight. It’s not an uncommon complication—many people have gone through it—and by no means the hardest thing someone could ever face in a pregnancy, though severe consequences are possible.

 

Since living with the diagnosis, the number of internal dialogues in my mind has gone up. It goes from being fine, feeling guilty, discouraged, hopeful… all cycling multiple times a day. It seems to me like something that needs resilience, a virtue that combines patience and endurance, as opposed to a one-time event that I can get over. There’s a time element to it, and the way to face it requires small forms of courage every day.

 

I’d be remiss to not learn something about resilience from this experience. So here are some of the things I’m learning, and have to tell myself often, on how to be more resilient.

 

1. Resilience Requires Obstacles

 

No strength can be built without resistance. This is true in every realm of life: physical, emotional, mental, intellectual, spiritual, professional. We grow because we face challenges. There is a desired amount of misery that is good for our life education.

 

So the first step to resilience is to realize the necessity of difficult situations and obstacles, to not resist but embrace them.

 

Sure, the diagnosis sucks, and it may take some time to accept your given situation. But as a student of Tim Ferriss, I have to believe—and I am, in fact, convinced—that every disadvantage can be turned into an advantage. I’ve read all these books and blogs. Now it’s time to practice them.

 

The obstacle becomes the teacher, the tool, the stepping-stone to go higher. They’re not necessary evil. They’re just necessary.

 

2. Keep Your Eyes Forward

 

Keep your eyes and mind on the thing you need to overcome. Resist the temptation to look around.

 

It’s easy to compare yourself with others and with you didn’t have to go through this challenge, envying what others have instead. This is not helpful and it doesn’t change reality one bit. It will weaken your spirit instead. Focus on the path forward and embrace its uniqueness.

 

3. Take Time to be Quiet

 

Another temptation is to multiply the company for your misery and complain to every ear in sight. Resist this impulse too. There’s strength to be gained by simply being quiet. Keep some of your challenges to yourself. Don’t cheapen the experience by complaining or over-sharing. Sure, talk to your trusted few, but no one’s really entitled to know every single thought and feeling that you have. They probably don’t want to know. Too much talking may weaken your resilience. So don’t discourage yourself by your words.

 

4. Be Open to Advice…with Limits

 

Those with whom you share will undoubtedly have an infinite amount of advice. And the probability of all of that advice being correct is a big fat zero. They mean well, of course, or they just want to self-affirm.

 

Regardless, be open to what people say. It’s going to be tempting to be defiant: “You don’t know what it’s like.” But don’t do yourself a disservice by being too stubborn. Listen, take what you can, and discard the rest. Don’t fight advice, but don’t accept everything. Receive help, as long as it is helpful.

 

5. Your Path is Yours Alone

 

Ultimately, you are on the path to resilience alone. No one else can strengthen your muscles. You may have company and others’ support, but our human experience is ours along to bear. No one else will understand completely your thoughts, feelings, and motives. And that is how it should be.

 

If you were to be more resilient, you alone are responsible in developing that strength.

 

6. Ask the What-If Question

 

Because resilience is about strength over time, it’s not a bad exercise to ask the what-if question. What if this challenge persists forever, if things won’t ever change? What if I can never eat a Nutella crepe ever again?

 

Sometimes we can develop strength momentarily, when we know a certain situation is finite. But sometimes, there is no guarantee that it will be over. What then?

 

If we could make peace with a persistent condition, then maybe we would have learned something about true resilience.

 

How Pregnancy Changed My Writing

How Pregnancy Changed My Writing

Writing is always a function of life. Whatever inputs received, whether through reading or experiences, eventually get out on paper, or digital paper. When something as big, literally, as pregnancy happens, it is inevitable that my writing would be influenced by it. These are the 3 ways that pregnancy has changed my writing.

 

1. The Setback

 

Unfortunately, the first change it brought was a setback. During the beginning of pregnancy, writing essentially halted because I was too busy barfing to form coherent sentences. I had a good momentum beforehand too, so I had to re-build it after that season passed.

 

2. Thinking about Home

 

As evident in recent posts, the experience of witnessing another identity forming inside me makes me think about my own identity and the idea of home. I am a host, a landlord or some sort, to someone else. I’m very involved, yet the process is still distinct from me. This other identity is intimately connected to me, yet also foreign.

 

Obviously, this other identity is unconscious of this whole process. In a way, he is so much at home that he’s not aware that he’s a guest.

 

In the U.S., recent events and political discourse have made me feel more aware of being a foreigner than ever before, even though I’ve lived here for a long time. Do I even have a home anymore?

 

I know that these sentiments are not unique, because the posts on Home-Longing and Home in Language have brought upon conversations with friends, especially fellow Indonesians, who resonate with these thoughts.

 

Perhaps as adults, or displaced adults, home is less about geography and more about the relationships we form. A friend told me that he doesn’t feel at home anywhere anymore, but he said, “When I look at my son, though, I feel home. I feel I belong.” He assured me that I would feel the same way too, and I look forward to that.

 

3. Letters to My Unborn Child

 

I was stuck, writing-wise, for a while. Not because there was nothing to write about, but because the thoughts were too private, emotional, and raw. In other words, not blogging material. So I started to write privately to my unborn child about the thoughts, feelings, and confusions that I have at this moment of time. I’m no Ta-Nehisi Coates or Omar Saif Ghobash, but I would assume my reflections would be most relevant to my own child.

 

It’s not so much for the baby as it is for me, though, to record feelings and hopes contemporarily, as evidence of a thinking and conscious being in 2017. Writing for a specific audience just makes the process easier.

 

But, also, if the said child were ever curious about me, he would at least have some data. After all, there’s no guarantee I will be around when that happens, or have the chance to have these conversations with him someday. You never know. I may be an emotionally inaccessible Asian parent in the future. If these writings remain, then at least there would be some breadcrumbs that he can track.

 

We are all influenced by our parents’ identity, in good and bad ways. Sometimes there are things about ourselves that we can’t explain simply because we inherit them. And we may never understand these cause and effects because we don’t know much about our lineage. Hopefully, these letters can help my future progeny discover who they are and explain their own identities one day.

 

 

Some songs that connect with me these days.