Micah 6:8

"...do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God." - Micah 6:8

Friday, November 30, 2007

Christmas in Kibera

Tomorrow it will be December. Four months have passed since we walked the muddy streets of Kibera with the members of KISCODEP (Kibera Slums Community Development Project) Christmas is coming now. I wonder what Christmas in Kibera is like. It makes me feel ashamed to think about the comparison. There. Here. It's obscene. Like Lazarus dying at the doorstep of the rich man.

The whole experience is beginning to feel a little bit like a dream. Like something I saw in a movie theatre or on a picture postcard. The distance of time and space have made it dangerously possible for me to doubt Kibera's existence. It's a coping mechanism. A strategy. Because when I remember Kibera, really remember it, things begin to fall apart again. My view of myself. My church. My government. My world. And maybe even my God.

Yesterday I started packing our things into boxes to get ready for our coming move. As I emptied our shelves this wave of panic swept over me. I don't really know where it came from. I've been looking forward to this downsize for a long time, but suddenly I was feeling really, really sad about giving up my house. I had this sense of loss that I wasn't expecting. I guess material things have tighter grip on me than I realized. That realization was uncomfortable and embarrassing. It made me want to get rid of my things. The thought of how many boxes it would take to hold all our possessions was making me sick. All I wanted to do was get rid of some of that weight -- some of that burden. So I could breath again.

I'm not sure exactly what Jesus imagined when he dreamed up the Church, but the easy tolerance we have for this kind of ridiculous disparity cannot be part of it. I feel like something inside me is screaming, but when I open my mouth there is only silence. Maybe because I'm not brave enough to ever really say something that would make people mad. Or more more likely because I'm not brave enough to ever really do something to that would really make my own life uncomfortable. Maybe if I saw Kibera everyday it would be harder for me to ignore. Maybe if it was my own children sniffing glue to avoid feeling hungry.

I listened to a clip of a Jim Wallis speech at Wheaton College today. He talked about Jesus' first public preaching as recorded in the book of Luke. Jesus said, (quoting the prophecy) "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. . ." Wallis said, "A Gospel that is not good news to the poor, no matter what else it does to change our lives and help our families, is just not the Gospel of Jesus." To speak frankly, I don't care how relevant one church or another is to my life, if they're not preaching the full Gospel of Jesus (good news to the poor) I'm just not interested. In fact I can't stomach it anymore. It leaves me hungry and makes me sick. And it keeps the kids in Kibera hungry and sick. It makes goats of us all.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Moving in the right direction.

Rick and I have spent the last five days getting this brick two-flat in Aurora move-in ready by pulling up old carpets and refinishing the hardwood floors ourselves. My head still hurts from the varnish stripping fumes and the sound of the industrial floor sander, but soon we hope that our efforts will pay off in multiple ways. The bottom floor apartment will be for Rick's Mom and the top floor will be for us. The idea is downsizing. Shared space means shared expenses and shared expenses means that we need less to meet our bills, so we can give away more to help other people meet their bills. Redistribution just as Paul envisioned it in 2 Corinthians 8. "He who gathered much did not have to much and he who gathered little did not have too little." Downsizing is good stewardship and that's the direction we'd like to go. Moving in the right direction -- for those of us who have gathered too much -- means moving on down. There are definitely some things I will miss about my three bedroom house with the nice big kitchen, finished basement, and great backyard, but it's much more than we need. And there is something really freeing about letting go of it. Don't get me wrong, we're no where near where we'd like to be in terms of simple living, but it feels good to be taking some steps in the right direction. I pray that this move will only be the first step in our journey of figuring out what practicing redistribution really looks like. Even as I'm writing this I recognize in myself a kind of arrogance in announcing this to the world -- or at least the handful of people who read this blog. Taking the Gospel seriously is so hard! A person definitely needs some good partners to even attempt it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Yasmin's Eyes

The little girl who belongs to these beautiful eyes is Yasmin Diallo. She was born in the US, but her family came as refugees from Mauritania, Africa in 2000. They were the first refugee family we ever met and they changed everything!

In two weeks Rick and I are moving out of our house and into a brick two-flat with Rick's Mom. The goal is to downsize and to be able to put more money into helping refugee families. Some friends will be renting our house for a year or so, and then we are hoping to be able to help Yasmin's family to sell the very small house they have and to help them buy our house, which has plenty of room for everyone and even a separate living space for Yasmin's older sister Kadiata who got married this past summer. I like the idea of keeping our house in the family, and the Diallos are definitely our family. Please pray for Yasmin's Dad, Yero who fell at work a few weeks ago and broke his hip.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

African Proverb

Until the lion has his own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best parts of the story.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A fence between us and them...

I think affluent churches in America should tithe their budgets to care for the poor. Ten percent that goes directly to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, visiting the imprisoned, caring for the alien. Sometimes people ask me to show them where in the Bible such a step is required. But I say, "Tell me why Jesus wouldn't want us to do it." There is a fence between the rich and the poor. The poor peer in at our luxury and excess, while they starve. The job of the church should be tearing down that fence. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Are we living like true citizens of the Kingdom?

2 Corinthians 8

Now, friends, I want to report on the surprising and generous ways in which God is working in the churches in Macedonia province. Fierce troubles came down on the people of those churches, pushing them to the very limit. The trial exposed their true colors: They were incredibly happy, though desperately poor. The pressure triggered something totally unexpected: an outpouring of pure and generous gifts. I was there and saw it for myself. They gave offerings of whatever they could—far more than they could afford!—pleading for the privilege of helping out in the relief of poor Christians.

This was totally spontaneous, entirely their own idea, and caught us completely off guard. What explains it was that they had first given themselves unreservedly to God and to us. The other giving simply flowed out of the purposes of God working in their lives. That's what prompted us to ask Titus to bring the relief offering to your attention, so that what was so well begun could be finished up. You do so well in so many things—you trust God, you're articulate, you're insightful, you're passionate, you love us—now, do your best in this, too.

I'm not trying to order you around against your will. But by bringing in the Macedonians' enthusiasm as a stimulus to your love, I am hoping to bring the best out of you. You are familiar with the generosity of our Master, Jesus Christ. Rich as he was, he gave it all away for us—in one stroke he became poor and we became rich.

So here's what I think: The best thing you can do right now is to finish what you started last year and not let those good intentions grow stale. Your heart's been in the right place all along. You've got what it takes to finish it up, so go to it. Once the commitment is clear, you do what you can, not what you can't. The heart regulates the hands. This isn't so others can take it easy while you sweat it out. No, you're shoulder to shoulder with them all the way, your surplus matching their deficit, their surplus matching your deficit. In the end you come out even. As it is written,

Nothing left over to the one with the most,
Nothing lacking to the one with the least.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Legacy of Governor Ryan

No matter what you think about former Governor George Ryan, today is a sad day. Your reasons for sorrow might be very different from mine, but sorrow is in order none-the-less. Time has run out. Today the former Governor must report to Oxford Federal Prison in Wisconsin before 5PM. He must say goodbye to his wife and his children and grandchildren for the next six years. The only legal recourse left to him is the US Supreme Court, and that is probably a long shot. Whether you think Ryan is guilty or not guilty -- whether you think he is a saint or the devil incarnate, today is a sad day. It is either a day to mourn the brokenness of our corrupt system of government that cannot seem to succeed at producing any politicians with truly clean hands or a day to mourn with the Ryan family for their heart breaking and devastating loss. And if we can dare to be people who recognize that real truth usually lies somewhere in the midst of paradox, then perhaps we can manage to be sad for both reasons.

I'm not writing this blog to start any kind of argument for or against George Ryan, or for or against the verdict, or for or against his work on the death penalty. I'm not really interested in that. What I am interested in is how we all tend to see shades of the truth, but how difficult it is for us to get a grip around whole truth. Whole truth is prickly. It's messy. It doesn't fit together neatly. Somehow the full truth has to include statements like these side by side:

1. White collar crime and blue collar crime should have equal consequences. Money and privilege should not earn you a "Get out of Jail Free" card. Public officials should be held accountable for their crimes like everybody else.

2. It's sad when anyone's husband, father, grandfather goes to jail. Since George Ryan holds no public office and is seeking no public office, it's hard to see what locking him up will accomplish in terms of protecting the public. Seventy-three is old for going to jail.

Today I'm trying to hold both of these things in my mind at the same time. Today I'm trying to at least brush up against a fuller expression of the truth. Newspaper editorials always have to take a side, but sometimes we don't. Sometimes we can feel two things at once and actually be closer to the truth.

George Ryan was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. George Ryan was convicted on federal fraud charges. George Ryan had the moral courage to do the unpopular thing by showing mercy to the most hated criminals in our state. George Ryan probably had mixed motivations for his actions around the death penalty. George Ryan is a husband, a father, a grandfather. George Ryan is a convicted criminal. George Ryan has a mixed legacy. George Ryan is not a saint. George Ryan is not the devil. George Ryan is human. Flawed. Like all of us.

My heart goes out to Lura Lynn and family today. And to those who have suffered from our corrupt government.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

African Proverb

When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Babies or Money?

Almost from the very day that we got married our refugee friends (particularly our friends from Africa) have been asking us when we would have babies. It started as light teasing and prodding in the beginning. Rick would always say, "In five years." He never changed the answer even though years were passing by. Many African women clicked their tongues at him and scolded him as they laughed. I think they just regarded us as "those odd" Americans who do things differently. But I'm starting to think that the laughing has stopped. I feel like we may be teetering on the edge of "odd Americans" into the pit of "down right wrong" in their eyes.

The other day my Somali Bantu friend, Jahora, asked me yet again when we were going to have babies. And I explained for the millionth time that Rick is a full time law student and that I have to work to pay our bills, so we can't have any babies until he finishes school, which won't be until the spring of 2009. She said to me, quite seriously, "You don't love babies. You love money." She wasn't teasing me. She wasn't laughing or clicking her tongue. She was just looking at me. She was making a cultural observation about me as an American. And she was as bothered about my decisions as I sometimes am about hers. In her culture babies and family are the most important thing, so she could not imagine waiting to have a baby for any reason. (Which is why she is 23 and has five kids.) After all these years of asking me when I was going to have a baby and getting no where, she had finally come to a conclusion about me and the conclusion was that I love money more than I love babies.

Now, I don't think that's a fair characterization of me, but on some level she's right. Probably not about money exactly, but more about freedom and accomplishments. So far we have put our freedom to travel, to pursue education, and to accomplish our goals over and above having our own babies. And looking through her cultural lense there is something terribly wrong about that.

Right now it seems like everyone I know has just had or is having a baby. Here is my list of refugee women in that category: Jahora, Halima, Rukia, Didacienne. I'm trying hard to get my young friend, Lulay, to graduate from high school before she gets married and has a baby. I have offered her my wedding dress for her wedding if she waits. We will see if the lure of the dress will be enough to help her resist all the cultural forces shoving her towards early marriage and early motherhood. Culture is a funny thing. It impacts how we see and experience everything. It is deep, deep inside us in ways we don't even realize.

I have often told refugees when they asked me why I didn't have babies, "If I had babies of my own right now I wouldn't have anytime to be with you and your babies." I do want to be a mother one day. And I'm starting to feel my age and the ticking of the clock. But I don't think I regret the life that I have had without babies so far. The places I've seen. The things I've studied. The refugee babies that I've held and loved and watched come into the world. Still, I think the time is coming for us to answer the question differently. But before that happens I wish that Jahora could understand that we do already love babies more than money. It's just that the babies we've loved haven't been our own. And in some ways I think that love has required something even deeper in us than just the regular race to the coveted suburban life with a two car garage and 2.5 kids. As the saying goes, "It takes a village to raise a child." As many of our refugee friends have lost their villages, we've tried to build a new ones with them. And I am so grateful to all of them for letting me love their babies so, so much more than money.