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.
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.
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.
This article is the third of an essay series on engineering, titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first here and the second here.
“I can’t just work with mice!” Billy told me after not seeing each other for 8 years. “I need people, human interaction.” I knew Billy in Boston when he was a biomedical engineering student. Between then and now, he switched to anthropology and went on to do humanitarian work around the world, places like South Sudan and Nepal. He glowed when he said, “I love it.”
I admired his courage to make the turn to his very fascinating, and important, current work.
In describing his human-deprived environment, Billy hit on a distinct aspect of technical work, especially in a research setting. Mental activity—reasoning, analyzing, experimenting—is on overdrive while social needs remain starved. While we’re at it, let’s just be honest here and admit that it puts physical activity in expense too. Who’s got time for the treadmill when you need results? I’ll do it next month. Or year.
The nature of engineering work often requires isolation. Quite a number of us can get away from not talking to anybody in a given day, if we want to (and sometimes I do). This caveman-like behavior becomes a problem, though, when it is elongated, because, well, breaking news, engineers are humans too. And humans need other humans [citation not needed].
As such, engineers then are not exempt from the regular laws that govern normal, daily humanness. Like eating, breathing, and… oh yeah, interacting with other people.
Ever heard someone say, “I wish people are more like machines, give an input and you know what the output will be”? Maybe you heard it from me. Surprise, surprise, humans are nonlinear, unpredictable, and non-formulaic. And we engineers ought to know how to be human too.
What Gives Work Meaning
Why am I making such a big fuss about this? It’s because of this notion of a fulfilled life, which I want and cannot buy. Can I, engineer, have a fulfilled life and glow like Billy when he talked about his work? Can I do engineering with some soul?
I should note that many scientists and engineers glow when they talk about their work, because they just love science. For many, this love is enough to fulfill their lives.
But what I’m seeking for myself is the type of glow from knowing that my work helps another person. It’s the element of service that gives meaning to my existence. I won’t pretend that doing engineering in an office can be as noble as empowering communities out of poverty. They are incomparable. But, can I, in some degree, bring this type of soul work into my daily life?
To me, being an engineer is part of my identity, but not its totality. It’s deeper than a mere role, but there are other things that make up who I am as well. Who I am, in total, is a human being, with a body, mind, and soul.
The Soul Dimension
I wrote before about the segmentation of knowledge, how our education is classified into silos that are often tangential to each other. Here, I’m questioning the segmentation of the things that make us human: the body, mind, and soul.
Of all three, the soul seems to be the most optional in modern, Western society. The body commands greater interests now as health trends occupy media attention. But our greatest preoccupation, though, is mental. Our schools and employers are less concerned with people having good health, good character, and fulfilled lives than with their brains’ outputs. In the race towards prosperity and paid bills, we pursue education to get a job, and work, work, work. Exercising, eating well, thinking about the purpose of work, loving what you do, and giving back to others are luxuries that many can’t afford.
This arena of the soul covers a wide field (or, I’m recasting it as a wide field). It is the sphere where we have human connections, compassion, and appreciation for beauty, wonder, and fulfillment. It is something that is beyond physical or mental, but rather a spiritual aspect being human. By spiritual, I’m not talking about religious experiences exclusively, but a soul component to life that reaches beyond our own selves. I believe all of us seek something spiritual.
Abraham J. Heschel says,
Human is he who is concerned with other selves. Man is a being that can never be self-sufficient, not only by what he must take in but also by what he must give out. A stone is self-sufficient, man is self-surpassing. Always in need of other beings to give himself to, man cannot even be in accord with his own self unless he serves something beyond himself. Man is Not Alone, p 138.
I think Heschel is on to something here, because there’s evidence of this need to give. We admire individuals who are not only smart and good-looking, but who also invest themselves in the good of the world. The ones that can combine the body, mind, and soul command our greatest respect, perhaps because they have something that we ourselves seek.
[True education] has to do with the whole being… It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers. – Ellen White, Education.
Whoever came up with the idea that any one of the body-mind-soul triads can be neglected without consequences? When I first encountered this quote, it was groundbreaking, because it sounded foreign. I thought education only had to do with the mind.
I began to understand the interaction of the three when I started taking stocks of my days. The best days at work for me are those when I feel useful to other people, when my work directly helps another person and makes their lives easier, even in a small way. I now understand this as the spiritual aspect of my work, and though anticlimactic from the grand ideas above, it is a start of a journey.
I think, whatever field one may be in, these body-mind-soul combo needs to be fulfilled. For an engineer, the soul aspect is probably the one more lacking. But other profession fields may suffer in a different way, maybe too much soul or too physical, but not enough mind, or too much soul and mind yet very sedentary.
This balanced development though will not be given to us on a platter. We must seek it and pursue it actively into becoming a whole, holistic human being.
I’ve been an attendee. I’ve been a volunteer. Now I reflect on another role: a seminar presenter.
But before that, some other highlights from GYC:
Star struck… by Dr. Hasel | Adam Ramdin’s Sabbath sermon – simply awesome | David Shin’s last evening devotion – de-romanticizing revolution | Sam Bonello’s plenary session – Sam and Katie have got to live one of the most interesting lives in present-day Adventism | Team Revolution’s 5k | Networking with Adventist engineers.
1. Size Matters
I had never in my life felt so short as when I stood in front of a long and full room for my first seminar. Some 230+ people came, most likely because of Adam Ramdin’s—with whom I co-presented the seminar—fantastic sermon earlier that day (but they saw me instead, ha!). Perhaps also, the topic of the seminar—Knowing and Living God’s Will for My Life—simply scratched where it itched, especially for this teenagers-to-young-adults age group.
I felt a little overwhelmed during the first session, since I imagined there would only be a few rows of people. I prepared materials for that audience size, which was what I was used to with ANEW or other ministry events. It ended up being more serious than I thought it would be, and upon reflection that day, I had to change certain things for the 2nd and 3rd seminars to make them more conversational.
I couldn’t really articulate why, but basically with the size of the audience and the layout of the room, I, as a speaker, needed to adjust the content of my presentation, delivery, posture, and voice, to engage the audience effectively (measured somewhat by gut feeling). I don’t think I could’ve realized that had I not been in this situation. Lesson learned.
2. A Piece of Me
I was debating whether or not to include a personal life experience for the last seminar to illustrate a point. I did, and I think it helped make the point. I learned that as a speaker, it wasn’t enough to present materials; I had to give something of myself to the presentation.
The personal touch, the personal signature, is something that makes a presentation different because it is person A who gives it instead of person B. It’s not a matter of originality or of the vanity of being different, but it’s a matter of God’s individualized calling: there’s a reason why God calls A for a specific task.
The giving of oneself is a hard thing to do. It takes vulnerability, a little courage, and lots of prayer. But ministry is about being vulnerable, and I love this quote:
Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it… Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 190.
3. Give What You Can Give
I’m not a seasoned speaker. I didn’t have much material that I could pull out from to talk about following God’s will. In fact I had never spoken on the subject before. Preparing a 3-part seminar was already a stretch, and I recycled some materials too.
It’s hard to answer the question, How did the seminars go? I honestly don’t know. I hope they helped some. I hope that the seminars provided a venue where the Holy Spirit could speak to people. It was not so much what I said, but how the Holy Spirit made application to the hearts.
Coming out of the last seminar, I had this thought: I gave what I could give. It’s up to God what He would do with it, but I offered these presentations as my offering to Him.
When I first started coming to GYC, I would remember every message, every speaker, and every conviction felt during each session. I would even remember who sang which special music for which evening. I learned so many new things, heard so many fresh thoughts that I had never heard before. My hungry and ignorant soul needed those sermons.
But if you’re like me and will be attending your n-th GYC conference this year, you may have more difficulty in remembering the messages you heard in previous GYCs. It takes me a few minutes now to distinguish between GYC 2008 and 2009, and I honestly can’t remember what happened in 2010. The conferences, plenary sessions, and workshops blend together in this one big blob of memory where I picture multitudes of people entering and exiting the auditorium.
If that is so, I want to suggest that listening to 7 sermons straight each day may not be your greatest need in coming to GYC. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t come, though. I’d like to submit that your greatest need may be to serve others at the conference and volunteer.
Early this year I wrote about my volunteering experience at GYC 2011, about how much fun it was. As a result, I couldn’t attend most of the sessions and seminars, and I remember almost nothing from last year. But I assure you, I was spiritually fed and refreshed.
If you have never volunteered at GYC, here’s my attempt to canvass you to do it this year.
First, you get to work with people who are like-minded and passionately determined to give the best for God. The resonance in thought, feeling, and mission is at a level you will rarely see elsewhere (and if you’re in a secular environment – never). As a result, the kind of synergy in teamwork that takes place is simply invigorating.
Second, you get to be involved in a short-term project that will very likely end well, and with low chance of interpersonal conflicts because everyone is so nice. Even if there’s conflict, the prevailing custom is to be Christ-like. Basically, a happy ending is guaranteed and you will gain that rewarding feeling from a job well done.
Third, you get to appreciate the complicated orchestra that is GYC. The details that go into actualizing an event for 7000 people are simply astounding, and not one person involved in the project has superpowers. Have you thought about what goes into moving 7000 people from the auditorium to the dining hall without confusion? GYC happens because of individual contributions from young men and women whose lives have been touched by the Gospel. And THAT is simply amazing.
Fourth, you get to see how God covers glitches. Because there are so many pieces that need to come together, mistakes happen. And you get to practice that Christian love and humility you hear about in the seminars, because it may be that God covers some of the glitches through you. What about practicing patience during complaints when registration is down? These things do happen, because we’re imperfect human beings in an imperfect world.
The machinery that makes the conference happen is not faultless, but it so happens that God’s grace is enough to cover our–yes, all 7000 of us–shortcomings and weaknesses.
You may get sore leg muscles from running back and forth delivering water bottles. Or you may get blisters from rushing to print handouts for speakers. But there’s a storehouse of blessings that will not be unlocked until you are engaged in service.
“in our life here, earthly, sin-restricted though it is, the greatest joy andthe highest education are in service”(Education, p. 309)
So, volunteer! Just remember to do stretches each night and that blisters heal. But that joy of service will do something more lasting to your soul. See you in Seattle!
Once upon a time ago, I was taught not to leave any spiritual event/conference/retreat without reflection. Here are my reflections from the ANEW Fall Conference 2012: “Rise Up and Build.”
1. The Personal Call
For Peter, the miracle by the sea was a personal call to a non-partial, entire-life commitment to Jesus Christ (Mark 5). To him who knew the coming and going of fish, the miracle said, this Man had authority even over fish! A farmer would think the miracle was awesome, but wouldn’t impress his heart as it did to the fisherman’s. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, Peter knew Jesus was divine.
God has a way of convincing each person of His divinity that is especially customized for that person. It will be distinct than the next person’s experience. The call to discipleship comes to each of us in a deeply personal way, that there will be no shadow of a doubt in our hearts that it is indeed the voice of Jesus calling me to be His disciple.
Have I not been convinced? Have I not heard His call? Answer: Yes, I have. Through the story of Peter, Jesus said to me, “Then stay with me.”
The disciples left Jesus to fish because they were disappointed with Him (Mark 4-5). His ministry seemed fickle, success was not consistent, and visible results were discouraging. They thought of John the Baptist in prison.
Disappointed with Jesus? Sounds almost sacrilegious, but the experience is real in our walk with Jesus. The great news is that God too is real in mending the wounds of disappointment. To the disciples, He went to them again, called them again, and showed them they could trust Him with all their cares.
168 years ago today, a multitude was disappointed with God. He did not show up. Many hardened their hearts and left God, because they feared of getting hurt again. But those whose hearts stayed soft and mendable found not just healing, but a new song to sing, a deeper understanding, a greater cause to fight for.
Don’t be afraid of disappointment. God knows how to heal.
3. An Education Highest in All Schools
There are a few men and women whom I long to study under, sit at their feet, and say, “Pleeeaasseee, teach me…” What would I give to shadow them for a day, a week, or a month?
“If men will endure the necessary discipline, without complaining or fainting by the way, God will teach them hour by hour, and day by day.” (Desire of Ages, 250) Hour by hour! To be taught by God, to have that “contact of mind with mind, and soul with soul” (Desire of Ages, 250) with God! What craziness, what privilege! And this is actually reality! God wants to teach me… Woh. No tuition involved, just patience endurance, shutting those murmurs up, and yielding to the teaching. This is the highest education in all of the schools, taught by Him of whom it was said, “Never had the world’s great men such a teacher.” (Desire of Ages, 250)
What an awesome privilege it was to have Elder Geoffrey Mbwana spend the weekend with us. I was blown away by the wisdom that emanated from him, the dignified manner in which he carried himself, and the pointed way he answered questions. Such are the things learned in the school of Christ. I want to be like Elder Mbwana when I grow up.
5. I Am the Church
Oftentimes it is the trendy thing to do amongst young people to express skepticism and criticism toward the church, as if the church is a separate entity from us, from me. But the church is the people. I am the church; you are the church. And so every problem the church has is not their problem (whoever they may be), but my problem. And I can engage and be a solution, instead of a source of discouragement.
No matter how many faults there are, the church is still God’s appointed agent of salvation, and it is still the object of God’s affection. “Enfeebled and defective as it may appear, the church is the one object upon which God bestows in a special sense His supreme regard. It is the theater of His grace, in which He delights to reveal His power to transform hearts.” (Act of the Apostles, 12)
6. I Love My Church
One evident thing from Elder Mbwana’s enlightening seminar and Q&A session was how ignorant I am about my church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 150 years of church growth experience and history is a treasure house of knowledge and wisdom. “We have nothing to fear for the future except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history.” (Life Sketches, 196).
Young people, we cannot be laissez-faire about how our church operates. We don’t do campus ministry in vacuum or in isolation from it, and it’s time we take responsibilities as members of the Adventist church. I love my church; I care about my church. Would I make plans to attend the 60th General Conference Session in 2015? You bet. It’ll be in San Antonio, Texas. Who’s with me?
7. A Place for Everyone
In Isaiah 56 God says that in His house, there will be no strangers, no one who has no name, family, or inheritance. There will be no outcast, because God will give them a name and they will rejoice. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.”
One occasion in the Gospel accounts, Jesus quoted this phrase from Isaiah when He kicked out those who turned the temple into a marketplace, those who made merchandise out of salvation, forgiveness, and grace. The fact that Jesus was livid at this reveals how serious God is about making His church a place for everyone. There is a breach between heaven and earth, and the church is called to be repairers of that breach.
When I came to Princeton 4 years ago, I found it a desert (c.f. Acts 8). Seeing that I was coming from a place that was, how should I say, a “spring of waters”, it was rough. Princeton isn’t a desert anymore, but for a while I found myself praying, “Please, God, don’t let me go through that again. Don’t send me to another desert.” But Philip, when the call came to leave a thriving place to go to a desert, rose up and went.
I cannot be marveled by the story without making the link to my life. So this weekend, in the context of considering post-grad school options, I said once again to God, I’ll go where You want me to go.
“Our heavenly Father has a thousand ways to provide for us of which we know nothing. Those who accept the one principle of making the service of God supreme, will find perplexities vanish, and a plain path before their feet.” (Ministry of Healing, 481)
9. Get In the Acts
Pr. Israel Ramos’ testimonies were crazy. No other way to describe them. They were the stuffs of the book of Acts. So what did those testimonies tell me? First, the book of Acts continues today. Second, you won’t see miracles if you just sit in your room. If you want to see God in action, you gotta go where the actions take place.
10. Five Years
I’ve had the privilege of serving with ANEW for five years now, having a glimpse of what it means to “Rise Up and Build.” We are far away from being done. There’s so much more to build. But meeting each person who joins in the network every year, I wish everyone could see what I see, the way God had orchestrated a movement and how each person is weaved into this awesome story. One of these days I’ll complete the writing of the ANEW story, for this reason.
I’ve tasted the stress and joys of service (more joys than stress, though, trust me) in this Mid-Atlantic part of God’s vineyard. Would you believe me if I say it’s really fun? It is. And whatever’s next, I’m definitely not giving this fun up. Not ever.
“He is the Christ of God, and I will devote my life to His service.” (Desire of Ages, 163).