For you, Ben.

Let’s, first, keep in mind that I was sitting at my booth, minding the business of UrbanSpirit, unable to leave, because, um, it’s my booth and my job to tend to it during this General Synod (and shortly during the DOC General Assembly).

Let’s, second, review UrbanSpirit’s mission. Poverty education. Not just when you pay a fee and sign up for a course or program; generally, anytime I have an opportunity, it is my responsibility to challenge stereotypes, bigotry, ignorance and general misinformation. I take that seriously, and rarely come home from conventions – or the grocery store – without having annoyed someone. It’s not that I look for opportunities, but let’s face it: there’s a lot of ignorance out there.

So, kind convention-going sir of long beach, ca, what was I supposed to do when you approached my booth?

Not the part where you asked in a mock-self-deprecating way whether you were bothering us as you sang loudly some 50 yards away. I had only vaguely noticed the singing, and generally expect joyful noises to arise during church gatherings.

Not the part where you asked what we do. That’s why I come to conventions, to tell folks exactly that. Just as I told you. But then you were moved to share that you KNOW what poverty is like, because you live on SSI. But you also said that you frequently are invited to attend 300-dollar-a-plate fundraising dinners, where you advocate for the rights of those living with disabilities. “I deal with the curbs; others build the buildings,” is the way you put it. Three-hundred-dollar dinners don’t mean wealth, but they do indicate connections to people who can issue invitations. Not wealth necessarily, but not abject nobody-notices-or-gives-a-damn-about-me-poverty, either, which is abundant in America. That’s the poverty we address at UrbanSpirit. You also indicated that you live in a heavily subsidized, two-bedroom apartment which costs you just $200 a month. A $200 apartment in downtown Long Beach, where a 2 bd goes for grand in a less desirable neighborhood, a couple grand — and up —  in more respectable areas, according to my cursory glance at google. You said you got this through your church, and you thanked God for moving you to the top of the waiting list.

That’s it. That’s the part when I wondered what the hell you were expecting me to say.  But I do poverty education, so I really had no choice. I said: “why do you think God moved you to the top of the list instead of the others on the list?” I don’t know how many are waiting in Long Beach, but I know your waiting list is closed. In Louisville, almost 25,000 families are on a list for housing they can afford. So, why did God move you up? (Which begs the question: is “god” the same as “people who can issue $300/plate dinner invitations”?)

You got defensive. I don’t blame you. You launched into a speech about all that your church has done for homeless people, including advocating for affordable housing. I got the feeling you were more accustomed to having people agree with you, shake your hand, thank you for your effort. I did none of those things. Your defensiveness led you to say how youth are changing things, and you recounted the story of a similarly-celebrated 10-year-old who has started a non-profit to raise money for food and backpacks for hungry kids. No doubt he has a good heart – and a family with connections, resources and knowledge – but someone needs to stop him before “mercy” is so ingrained he has no capacity anymore to consider “justice.” You say he has personally made a hundred thousand peanut butter sandwiches, which I’m not sure I believe, but even if he has, it does nothing to end poverty. Plus, he’s TEN. Why are we pointing to a 10-year-old as the quintessence of our faithful response to desperation?? And don’t give me that “little child shall lead them” pablum; we adults have abdicated, because we can’t bear to imagine the ways that ending poverty would be an assault on our own privileged lives.

So, I guess I do know what you expected me to say. You wanted me to celebrate your church, celebrate you. Nope, not doing it. In fact, I may never do that again. I’m tired of churches feeling like they should be applauded for doing the right thing, when they have barely done the minimal thing. Jesus told an unflattering story about a guy expecting to be celebrated and congratulated and praised for just doing his job. Church are SUPPOSED to share. That’s the first thing. But THEN, we’re supposed to work for the reign of God right here, right now, a reign depicted regularly in scripture as a system where every family has what it needs, and no one has to beg (even from a church food pantry), and no one is imprisoned (even by lack of viable options) and no one is exploited (not even 10-year-olds who make us feel good).

I’m glad you have a place to live, and that your church has been supportive of you. But because tens of millions of others don’t, there’s really no time for applause, and I have no patience for sanctimony.

About Deb Conrad
I’m Deb Conrad, pastor, teacher, photographer, writer, antique-lover, cat-mom, wine-drinker and old-house-seeker. I have a bike by Burley and knees by Stryker. I play guitar marginally, bowl when I can. I live in Flint, Michigan, with previous lives in SC, NJ, PA, MD, Washington DC, TX, CA and KY. I founded and still help run UrbanSpirit, a poverty education center in Louisville (link below), where I meet interesting people and try to do what I can to change the world. I'm pastor of Woodside Church in Flint, a groovy place if ever there was one.

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