Where Are Your Poor? (Poem)

“Where are your poor?” our Honduran guest said.
I was humbled by his words.
His eyes had observed that our country is rich,
Richer even than what he had heard.

In his country many are poor,
Much more than we’ll ever see.
His church gives away what little it has
Trying to meet their needs.

We give a little while they give a lot
(Seems like the reverse should be true).
Forgive us, Lord, for failing to see
How many times we ignore You.

Give us hearts to see You, Lord,
In the hungry, poor and cold.
Give us hearts to gladly share
Our lives and the things we hold…
To value our brother more than our comfort.
To know when we give, we receive,
And that we can never out-give Your provision—
Help us live what we say we believe!

Teresa Norman , July 2000

The View from the Front

This article yesterday in the Seattle times tells about the struggle refugees are having making ends meet in the recession economy and how the budget cuts are impacting them here in Washington State.  I took some time to read the comments that followed the article, and was made aware of how great some of the hostility is that people hold towards not just illegal immigrants, but also towards those our government has invited to be here.  While I understand their financial frustration, and fear that their piece of an ever-shrinking pie will somehow disappear, I am also aware that my friends who are refugees have faced things beyond my comprehension.  The link here is to an article from the Bangkok Post, written by a friend of a friend, highlighting the situation these folks needed a refuge from.

Wandering between worlds….(poem)

(working in a job that helps connect people with semi-affordable dental care…..)

Each day is a study in contrasts….
The poor coming seeking treatment,
The rich come seeking a deal.
Under the different designer labels
(Or lack thereof)
The human thing still goes on….
Each person in need of love,
Of being seen and listened to.
Each person wanting to not be turned away.
A study in contrasts-
Money not making you a better person-
Just giving you better choices.
Those who offensively demand their own way
Thrown in with those who just hope someone will make a way….
Each of them, in Mother Teresa’s word “Jesus in disguise”
Can I see Him in them? Can they see Him in me?
God, give me your eyes, and your kindness
To meet the day, and be a bearer of light….

Good Life in the Midst of Bad Circumstances

At first glance it might seem a little incongruous to have a “Good Life Club” in the middle of a war zone, but the name comes from John 10:10 where Jesus promises abundant life. This project, started by our friend, Karen, gives those of us living in safety and prosperity something practical we can do to contribute to the lives of internally displaced mothers and children on the run from the Burma Army. For details of how you can help, click here

For more pictures of the Good Life Club in action….click here.  (This is  a project of Partners Relief & Development and their friends at Free Burma Rangers).  The Good Life Club packs are carried in by the relief teams going into Burma and delivered to the moms and kids who need them.

Uncle Ralph….and the politics of nothing new

Amazing what you can find out about your family (and politics) when you start sorting and shredding the collected documents of the last 50 years….

When I was a kid, I knew Uncle Ralph had died in a logging accident. When I was a teenager, I found out he had had the audacity to run for governor. I also knew this was not looked at as a good thing in the 1950’s-people from our side of the tracks weren’t supposed to dream that big or do anything that noticeable. I was very surprised when my brother told me Uncle Ralph had actually gotten 3000 votes. (Judging by the level of family embarassment, I had expected it to be 3 or 30 votes-not 3000). But it wasn’t until today (stumbling across a couple of articles from the Seattle Times) that I found out why he ran, what he was about, and why there really is, like Ecclesiastes says “nothing new under the sun.”

Uncle Ralph had concluded elections were mainly popularity contests and that the party who wants to get elected makes extragant promises to get elected, then when they’re in office, finds they can’t deliver what they promised without raising taxes, even if they meant to. Then, according to him, the party who’s not currently in power does the same thing and this goes on, and on and on and now it’s 60 years later and it still goes on……

My uncle had some unique ideas….having been really really poor, he was sympathetic to poor people. He thought there should be surplus stores (food banks?) where poor people who needed food could get food and pay whatever they could afford (even if that was nothing) and that they should also be able to get help heating their homes. He thought some of the things being wasted should be turned into other things (recycled?) so people who needed them could use them ….. he thought there should be a limit on campaign expenditures ($1000 tops) so rich guys couldn’t just buy the office.

Uncle Ralph paid his whole life savings ($200) to file as a candidate because he thought doing something was better than just complaining about what wasn’t being done….

Not sure what Uncle Ralph would say about today’s political insanity-my guess is he would probably say taking care of the poor is important and remind me of the words in James 1:27 “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” God, please help us be the change we want to see!

Poverty’s Stereotypes

The healthcare debate opens up all kinds of cans of worms.  It challenges our politics, our pocketbooks, our stereotypes of those people on public assistance or those who are “choosing to go naked” (not buying health insurance, which of course they could afford).  It challenges our view of poverty American style.

Poverty comes with many names and faces.  I have the privilege of seeing some of them each day at work, as people seek “affordable” dental care.  As I screen calls and try to steer people towards the most effective solution to their need, I hear all kinds of stories, and get all kinds of responses.  Some people thank me for the information or the connection, and others occasionally cuss me out for not having an easier path to point them towards.  Sometimes in mutual frustration, I acknowledge that the system is imperfect and broken, and if they want to fix it, suggest talking to their Congressperson.

This opinion piece from the New York Times talks about the power and limitations of community during personal or national economic downturns…all too true!  And we are all elgible.  It’s not just those other people who can get in a bad spot.  Many of us may not be that many steps from the wrong dominos lining up and flattening us.

Welcoming Strangers

…A newly arrived local refugee’s 16 year old  friend used her less than perfect English skills and took him to school herself  and registered him after he had waited a month for the caseworker to do it…. there are many of these stories across the country. 
Resettlement agencies have a government contract to do a checklist of things for a limited time (90 days) for the people they resettle.  That’s their job.  They get a contract (and money) to do these things.  Some of those things include:
  1. Meet people at the airport
  2. Finding appropriate housing
  3. Provide furniture
  4. Sign up for Medicaid  & food stamps 
  5. Refer to ESL classes
  6. Obtain Social Security cards
  7. Registering kids for school
  8. Health screenings
  9. Employment referral

 If, due to caseworker overload, complexity of some cases, how long even making a medical appointment at a public clinic can take, or some other reason, it doesn’t get done, people suffer.  I see two approaches to take to this problem-for someone to hold agencies accountable to do what they contract to do, or, maybe, for the rest of us to accept the fact that it doesn’t ALWAYS get done, won’t get done if something doesn’t change and move on to How Can It Get Done and What Can We Do To Help?!  

Churches are the great untapped resource here.  We are called and commanded to love people.  This doesn’t require a great mind or a theological education.  It requires investing some time, patience, energy and creativity.  (Sometimes it’s easier to just give money).  But it’s a long-term investment that pays off no matter what the economy does or doesn’t do:) .

I found an article in the Covenant Companion this morning on creative ways for churches to welcome newcomers to their lives, their churches, and their communities (see the link). Some of her great ideas included: 

  1. Visit a refugee church (you may not understand the language, but you may recognize some of the melodies and sing along)
  2. Ask them how you can help.  Listen for answers
  3. Read to young kids in a refugee family as English practice
  4. Invite their congregation to join you for a potluck meals together
  5. Invite kids to your youth group
  6. Invite women to your women’s group
  7. Pair families by ages of children and make friends in spite of language barriers (kids will figure it out first!)
  8. Take an ESL tutoring class and tutor a family or help with homework
  9. Practice English speaking with people who don’t speak English
  10. Volunteer to take people to doctors and dentists and agency appointments (make the appointments, help with transportation-someone else may have to interpret)
  11. Help fill out forms for jobs
  12. Invite them to your holiday gatherings, go to theirs
  13. Teach computer skills (donate your used computers)
  14. Help people learn to drive and pass the driving test
  15. Help them understand budgeting in the US
  16. Host a refugee congregation in your building (thanks to Kent Covenant Church for renting space to the Karen Community and several other refugee communities!)

In summary: treat other people the way you would want to be treated if you were the newcomer.

Jesus said….”I was a stranger and you took Me in….” (Mt. 25)


Who am I?

I don’t remember  the purpose of the meeting, but several hundred of us were gathered in the meeting hall at  Langley United Methodist Church, during the days when Tom & Claudia Walker were pastoring there.  Different now forgotten things went on during the meeting, but then Tom and Claudia got up to sing one of their songs, “Child of God.”  This was probably 15 years ago, but my life has never been the same. 

“I am a child of God-nothing can shake my confidence.

I am a child of God….no one can take my inheritance.

Never alone I’ll stand, strengthened by God’s own hand.

I am a child.  I am a child, a child of God.

My name is Marie, now I can see

What this relationship’s doing to me

Last night he hit me, I fell on the floor–

Just like he’s hit me so often before.

He says he’s sorry.  He brings me flowers…

Things will go fine for a couple of hours…

He says I’m nothing.  He says I’m scum.

Then he hits me because that’s what he does.

I am a child of God-nothing can shake my confidence.

I am a child of God….no one can take my inheritance.

Never alone I’ll stand, strengthened by God’s own hand.

I am a child.  I am a child, a child of God.

My name is Manuel.  My hands can tell

The story of how you’re living so well.

I work every day but my family is poor

So you can have coffee bananas and more.

The landowners say if I don’t mind my ways

They can find substitute workers to pay.

They say my soul will only be free

In heaven some day, that’s what they say.

 I am a child of God-nothing can shake my confidence.

I am a child of God….no one can take my inheritance.

Never alone I’ll stand, strengthened by God’s own hand.

I am a child.  I am a child, a child of God.”

There were at least three of us who wept and wept, even after the song  and the beautiful, worshipful, expressive  dance Carol did during it were over.  Something had happened….in this song, by the grace of God, we saw a new reality for how God sees us, even in our brokenness.  He loves us all, even in our failures, poverty, isolation, differentness, or in other groups excluded in their society.  He sees us not as life’s incidences and conflicts had taught us to view ourselves, but with through the lens of the dignity He created us for. 

(Sorry I have lost the third verse (the story of a man being disowned by his family for admitting he was gay-very powerful! ), or the music to share with you (it was beautiful).

Thank you Tom & Claudia for sharing your gifts.  Wherever you are, hope you are well and blessed with the kind of grace you have shared with others.

“U.S. Good, Burma Not Good…”

It’s amazing what can be communicated with limited English.  I sat with a Burmese friend tonight practicing English and looking at a map of Burma and trying to ask what part he was from.  He pointed to Rangoon and said, “Good.”  Then he pointed to the Chin, Karen and other ethnic areas and said, “Not good,” then pantomined people shooting at each other, and trying to eat while looking over your shoulder ready to flee. “U.S. good.  Burma not good.” 

I know the political issues are “complicated” and there is debate over the best ways accomplish the goal of democracy, freedom, and functioning legal government in Burma and life without fear for the people who live there.   There is debate among some here over whether refugee resettlement is a good idea, or should even be happening with the economic challenges our country currently faces.  That’s someone else’s post.  For me, I hope I don’t forget my friend’s statement, or what he so effectively acted out.  It frames the debate completely out of the theoretical, philosophical, political arena.  This is a human thing.

Welfare, Community Development and the Golden Rule

 How do we walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? It’s not easy. They don’t always fit well. Sometimes we don’t like the style, the material they’re made from, or the way they pinch. Other times, we wouldn’t be caught dead in them–it would ruin our fashion image. What if you were in a part of the world where you couldn’t afford shoes in the first place and just getting food for your family was enough of a challenge? We want the power to choose our shoes, (and everything else in our lives), and we don’t want to be in a position where we have to take whatever shoes we can get. But what if it doesn’t work out that way? If you need help, how would you want to be treated? What kind of help would help you?

In English class I read a story called “Is There Life After Welfare?” written by a former welfare mom. In her story, we met a news story, a faceless statistic, and a self-described “hussy.” But that’s not all. We met a resilient woman who is an author, a college graduate, and someone who can teach us about helping. We need to see through her eyes and try to walk for a morning in her shoes. Many who have much to say about “those ‘tramps’ just using the system” have no idea what it’s like to work for minimum wage for long hours and still be looked at as a bum; to be treated like dirt because the only insurance you can get is medical coupons, or because food stamps help you feed your children. They haven’t been nameless faceless nobodies to a stranger with power to approve or disapprove the paperwork that either helps provide a house for your kids or leaves you homeless. This woman’s story provides a different view than we normally get from our self-righteous high horses and comfortably distanced lives.

Many of us have never had to live without choice. Many of us have never really been poor.  I have never been poor. I have always lived in the wealthiest country in the world and had access to plenty of food, to transportation, to a dry place to live, and  skills to get some kind of job.   If  I want to pay the price in money, energy, commitment, paperwork and homework, I have the choice to get an education. I’m not only white–I’m a white American, so there’s a whole system that supports my success, unlike that of others with richer skin tones.  Unfair? Yes.

Although I have wealthy friends who have at times been appalled at the so called “poverty” evidenced by the cars we drove (or push started at times:), the outhouse we used while we waited to afford indoor plumbing (while we were building a home), or the fact that we are currently in a functional rental triplex and not the owners of our own palatial dwelling space at the moment, my life is blessed. I am privileged and grateful. 

My husband and I are on the board of a local non-profit that provides help to internally displaced people in Burma, among other things.  As a non-profit, we wrestle with how to best give without demeaning those on the receiving end; how to give ownership and empowerment, while maintaining stewardship of the resources we are responsible for. The IRS and the donors need one thing. Those on the receiving end of the gift need something else. In America, agencies proudly put their name on projects….”brought to you by______,” or “your tax dollars at work.” We “give,” but too often it’s still all about us.

We have tried to go a different path in this, following the example of friends who have worked overseas with community development for many years. They have seen the problems that occur when the giving takes away from those receiving and demeans (like welfare) those we are attempting to empower. So, if you look for “World Aid projects” overseas to be identified by big plaques or banners with our name on it, you won’t find them. You’ll find schools, clinics, orphanages, and food supplies under the name and management of the communities who benefit from them. Our job isn’t to make OUR name known; it’s to build up the communities we serve. While it is necessary for to be able to demonstrate to donors and the IRS here in the US and elsewhere what their generosity has accomplished, and so to be able to say “what World Aid did this year….”, on the receiving end, it is not necessary or helpful for it to continue to be “our project.” Our side of the accounting/giving equation needs to demonstrate our stewardship and accountability, but on the receiving end, those we serve need ownership and power of their own lives and over the resources we have been blessed to be able to give them. It wasn’t ours in the first place (it’s been given to us to us to give), and after we give it, it’s theirs, not ours.

It all seems to go back to the golden rule—treating other people the way we want to be treated. Community development and human development….do they have to be that different? Is there a way to help empower people without making them nameless and faceless? Can we learn to listen to each other’s story?  Can we discover what makes the difference between those who rise above their circumstances and those who don’t? Is it luck? Character? Attitude? Or is it realizing how much power and choice they do have to make things happen, like Annie Downey?

America is not the center of the world, but only a part of it. There is great poverty of many kinds here, as well as in the countries my heart is attached to in Southeast Asia. Americans have much to teach, but also much to learn from our sisters and brothers in places we can’t pronounce, and in the houses next door. Everyone has a story and a dream. 

All of us can change the part of the world we are responsible for, if we’re willing to pay the price. For some, the path to dignity means long hours, faceless interviews and menial tasks for low wages.  For refugee friends, it means leaving the familiar and taking a risk that the promise of America is real, and that if you work hard and listen well you can learn to survive in a place where the government might not be the enemy, you can be free, and your kids can get an education. For us at World Aid, it means listening to the hopes and needs of the communities we work with. They already have the culture, the language and the heart. We can help provide funding and help share their stories with the rest of the world. One of their fears is being forgotten….that no one knows their story, their reality, or their dreams. If we listen to each other, and learn from each other, treat other people the way we want to be treated, that can be changed. The Golden Rule still works.

Starfish tossing

I don’t know where the story originally came from, but most of you have probably heard it….the one where the guy is running along a beach in the morning and he comes to part of the beach that’s covered with beached starfish.  There’s a little girl there picking up starfish and tossing them back in the sea.  The man questions her on what she’s doing, and tries to tell her she can’t save all of them-asks what difference she can make.  The little girl responds, as she throws in another one, “Made a difference to that one…..”  Being unqualified, uneducated, inexperienced, and doing too little, too late, with not enough, for too few seems a lot like that sometimes.  But to the one (or more!) that you do get to encourage, bless, walk beside, befriend, help feed, house, care for or educate by the actions you do, I got to believe it makes some kind of difference!  

In the words of St. Francis, “Preach the gospel.  If necessary, use words.”

What can be done for Burma?

 Benedict Rogers of CSW visited Seattle recently and spoke about what can be done  about the problems of Burma.  He listed ways for people to campaign for meaningful change in Burma:

  1. Advocate for a universal arms embargo to go through the United Nations (US Campaign for Burma)
  2. Advocate  referral of the SPDC (illegal government of Burma) by the United Nations to the International Criminal Court to bring the generals to justice for crimes against humanity
  3. Support the democracy movement’s current campaign for a credential’s challenge in the United Nations to challenge the idea that this illegal regime has the right to represent the people of Burma (UN Credentials)
  4. Campaign for increased humanitarian aid to Burma, particularly to the areas where hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people are struggling with very little humanitarian assistance (Free Burma Rangers)
  5. Increased awareness and international response to the famine in Chin state caused by a plague of rats which have destroyed the food supply of 200 villages leaving at least 100,000 people close to starvation (Chin Relief)

The Change for Burma Campaign is run by Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Partners Relief & Development UK.

Jesus is a refugee (poem)

See the mother in the jungle, tiny baby in her arms,
Running from the soldiers who’ve come to rape and kill
She’s tired from the running, desperate, hungry, full of fear—
How can she know God loves her, and that He walks beside her there?

He is there beside her in the dark and in the cold.
He knows what she is feeling, in the Bible it is told
That He was once a refugee. His parents ran to save His life
From the soldiers sent to kill him in Herod’s infanticide.

The way that God has chosen to loose the bands of wickedness
To give bread to the hungry and to help free the oppressed
Calls us to walk beside her in our prayers and in our hearts:
As the body of Christ, the servant king, it makes her burden ours.

But words and prayers are not enough, no matter how well spoken
God’s love requires our presence so He can walk beside His children.
Even though we’re broken, we are His feet and hands.
We stand in need of grace to obey His commands.

Though she sits in darkness, He came to be the light.
Though she now is hungry, He is the bread of life.
Though we turn aside sometimes or don’t know what to do,
We are all called in some way to help her make it through.

He chose to entrust us with His reputation
And to make us His body throughout every nation
As a king become baby, He risked everything
Calling us to embody the love that He brings….

“I was hungry and you gave me bread
Thirsty and you gave me drink
A stranger and you took me in
In prison and you came to me….”
Lord, when did this happen?
His answer is quite clear
“When you did it for the least of these
It was for me, for I am there….”