NORMAN, Okla. — Pastor Dustin Buff traded in his job, his house and his sense of security for a backpack, a Bible, a sleeping bag, one change of clothes, identification, and a cell phone.
For 10 days, Buff and youth minister Philip Nguyen were intentionally homeless, wandering the streets of Norman in a personal quest to understand the plight of the homeless.
Andrews Park, a mile and a half from the University of Oklahoma, is a temporary home to many of the city's homeless. Buff estimates 300 people live on the street in this city of 113,000. In the park, the homeless gather in gazebos, sleep in faux forts on the playground, and lounge on the steps of the amphitheater.
Buff pointed to the municipal buildings that ring Andrews Park.
“All the city offices are right there,” he said. “Homeless people are sleeping here at night right across the street from the police station. I’ve read government estimates that Norman has 1,700 homeless residents, if you include transient housing, shelters, and the streets.”
Is poverty what it used to be? Or has poverty grown so shameful that we dare not speak its name? So determined are we keep poverty out of view, we erase the presence of the poor from Jesus’ teachings. The widow we encounter in Mark 12:38-44 provides a case study in poverty and oppression. Unable to confront poverty, we have turned her into something safer – an example of generosity.
The election has just passed. As I’m writing this, I don’t know who will win. I do know this: neither presidential candidate could work up the courage to address poverty as a serious issue, at least not directly. If Democrats typically look out for the poor, you wouldn’t know it from President Obama; Mitt Romney mentioned the poor more often than did the president, if only to remind voters that the economy is struggling. For his part, Obama avoided the “p-word,” even if he discussed policies that could remedy the poverty problem. Some of our political leaders do include the poor in their policy work, but they face an uphill struggle.
Most people in America, whether they are religious or not, prefer consistency in the faith community to hypocrisy. One of the reasons the fastest growing demographic in religious affiliation surveys is now “none of the above” is that too many people see more religious hypocrisy than consistency.
Religion is not, at its core, politically partisan. But too often religion becomes a political tool; and we see that on both sides of the aisle. That does not mean people of faith shouldn’t have strong convictions or feelings about political issues or shouldn’t vote one way or another; or that there is a moral equivalency between the political parties and it doesn’t matter which way we vote. Elections are important, and people of faith should be voting as citizens and by their most basic values.
But let’s be clear: On Nov. 6, neither a Republican nor Democratic victory will bring in the Kingdom of God.
Play along with me. If you had $1 million to spend to help stimulate the economy, what would you do? What would I do?
Give the money to a billionaire, in the blind hope that the billionaire will pass along that million to his employees in some form. Or that he’ll spend it on a nice luxury product that (hopefully) will be an American product. Or that he won’t exercise the many loopholes that still exist and he’ll give that whole amount back to the U.S. government to spend. And of course, pray that the money won’t go into an offshore investment account somewhere in the Caribbean or Switzerland.
But what would Jesus do? What investments would Jesus make that I would want to make as well?
Much has been said by politicians and the press in this campaign. In three presidential debates alone, we've heard the two contenders for our nation's highest office speak of tax cuts, deficits, jobs, and the middle class literally hundreds of times.
But much has also been left unsaid. In those same presidential debates, poverty was hardly featured and the word "inequality"didn't appear at all.
How can it be that the Holy Bible refers to helping the poor and vulnerable more than 2,000 times, yet two professing Christians running for president of the United States disregard this unholy scourge?
As we did not hear in the debates, nearly 50 million Americans are currently living in poverty – more than at any other time in our nation's history – and between a third and half of all Americans are within a few lost paychecks of the poverty line. When a quarter of all American jobs pay less than poverty line wages for a family of four, systemic poverty and inequality become more than abstract economics: they are moral and Constitutional concerns.
So they should be treated by the men and women who aspire to lead our country.
As the winds and the rain of Hurricane Sandy settle down, one bit of the aftermath is going to be another round of conversation about how climate change is affecting our world.
It’s not a conversation you have heard much of in the presidential campaign this year. Climate change is one of a quartet of issues that will have a huge impact on the future of this nation that have gotten short shrift by both President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney.
Poverty. Guns. . Drones. Climate change.
Bring up any of those issues and watch the candidates make a quick nod of concern and then scamper away from any specifics. Yet those issues will be with us long after Nov. 6, so it is incumbent on those of us in the faith community to be laying the groundwork now for how we will address them in the coming year.
That work has already begun, of course. The challenge is not to let the post-election exhaustion sweep away those concerns like they were potted palms on a pier in the midst of the hurricane.
When I was a 17-year-old senior in high school, I was in several Advanced Placement courses. As the school year drew to a close, I wanted to take the AP test that would allow me to attain college credit. The AP tests, however, were very, very expensive. I went to my guidance counselor. She said that they could waive the fees for the exams if I qualified for the school’s free lunch program.
I had avoided the free lunch program for years. I had been on the free lunch program in elementary school and middle school but was always embarrassed by it. So when I got to high school, I didn’t apply for it. I picked up a part-time job so I could pay for my own lunch. But now, I wouldn’t be able to take my AP exams if I didn’t fill out the free lunch program form.
So I agreed to fill out the form. Later that day, my guidance counselor sent a student aide with the form to my social studies class room, where in front of the entire class, she declared that I needed to fill out the free lunch form. I remember the shame of not only my classmates laughing at me that day, but my high school teacher bursting out in laughter as well.
On Tuesday, the religion, policy, and politics project at Brookings and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) hosted a forum to release PRRI's fourth American Values Survey (AVS), a large national, multi-issue survey on religion, values, and public policy.
We sent some of our interns to listen in on the findings. Here's what they thought about some of the issues raised by the report.
What do you have to say about "living abundantly"? How do you deal with anxiety when you think about the future of churches?
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
~ John 10:6-10
Editor's Note: This is part two of a three-part series from Dr. Miroslav Volf an a voice instructing us how to involve our values into our present politcal debates. To read part one go HERE. From part one:
6. The Poor
Value: The poor — above all those without adequate food or shelter — deserve our special concern. (“The moral test of government is how it treats people in the dawn of life, the children, in the twilight of life, the aged, and in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped” [Hubert Humphrey].)
Rationale: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 23:22). “There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the LORD is sure to bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a possession to occupy” (Deut. 15:4).
Debate: There should be no debate whether fighting extreme poverty is a top priority of the government. That’s a given. We should debate the following: How should we generate a sense of solidarity with the poor among all citizens? In poverty alleviation, what is the proper role of governments and of individuals, religious communities, and civic organizations? What macroeconomic conditions most favor lifting people out of poverty? What should the minimum wage be?
Questions to Ask: Is overcoming extreme poverty (rather than fostering the wellbeing of the middle class) a priority for the candidate? For what poverty-reducing policies is the candidate prepared to fight?
Peacemaking happens in many forms. Sometimes peace is offered to others, and sometimes given in unexpected ways.
It was early morning. The African sun had yet to rise above the mountains, and the sky was the soft yellow of newly shucked corn.
“Beep, beep,” sounded the horn on the old truck as it rumbled to a stop in front of my house. My old friends – Momadu, Madu, and Balamusa – greeted me with smiles, waves, and morning blessings.
We were on our way from Kenieba, a small town in western Mali, to Sitaxoto, a large village about two hours away over a broken dirt road.
A church was there, a little group of people who met each week outside under a big baobab tree to pray, study the Bible, share their stories and ask, “How do we follow Jesus?”
This morning, Madu walked the one kilometer path from his village to my house. He is married to Sirima and they have two children: four-year-old Sira, who they call Bonnie, and two-year-old Musa, who they call Papa. He told me that Papa had burned his hand and wrist in the morning cooking fire.
Maybe the path to civility and peace can be found somewhere along the path from my house to Madu’s village.
“Do you have any medicine for a burn?” he asked.
There is a hospital in our small town on the southwestern edge of Mali, but its small staff of doctors serve a large population of people without the use of technology, electricity, or even running water. Many times people come to me for help and healing before they go to the hospital because I have free first aid supplies, a generator, and a deep water well. I consulted my ragged copy of Where There Is No Doctor and turned to the section on the treatment of burns.
I’m not sure about you, but I’m incredibly disappointed that our nation’s leaders – from all sectors, all parties, and all levels – continually neglect to take leadership on our climate and energy crisis.
There are many reasons that climate change should be a top election issue, but here are just a handful of the most important ones.
Washing dishes. This is how I remember Momadu.
Washing dishes is a chore, you know. In the pre-dishwasher days in America, my mom put "wash the dishes" on my list of things to do every day. I washed them, obediently though begrudgingly.
In the pre-dishwasher days in Mali, though, we asked Momadu to wash the dishes, and he washed them with joy.
How could he do something as mundane as washing dishes and do it with joy?
Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
~ Proverbs 31:8-9
ADDIS ABABA — These words of King Solomon have been running through my mind since our ONE Moms delegation — 13 mothers from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France — arrived in the Ethiopian capital on Sunday.
I hear these verses as a clarion call to action. As someone who strives humbly to follow the Way of Jesus and be involved in The Work that God is doing in the world, I want to respond and do what these verses command.
And as a believer who also happens to be a mother (a fairly novice one, still learning the ropes, if you will), I must do.
Sunday afternoon, after us ONE Moms dropped our luggage at the hotel, piled into our chartered bus, and drove to the outskirts of the city to the Mary Joy Aid Through Development Association, we met our Ethiopian sisters who are speaking out for those who cannot; who are advocating on behalf of the destitute, judging with righteous wisdom, and defending the rights of the poor and the needy.
Last night millions of Americans watched the first Presidential debate of the 2012 election season. During the 90-minute debate, there were significant policy discussions about a range of issues, deep disagreements between the two candidates, and even a threat to Big Bird’s job security.
Yet despite all the arguing there was much left unsaid by President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney.
Many people in America are poor, due to no fault of their own—and their numbers are growing.
If you really know any poor people, you know that to be true. If you don’t, the first sentence of this post runs against the grain of many cultural assumptions in America that tend to blame people for being poor.
On the eve of the first Presidential debate, Sojourners premiered The Line — a film about the new faces of poverty in America. In this powerful documentary from award-winning filmmaker Linda Midgett, those popular judgmental assumptions against poor people clearly and convincingly are debunked.
The Line, which I am asking everyone who reads this column to watch, deftly dismantles many stereotypes about poverty and shows why a growing number of Americans find themselves falling into it. The film does so by telling the personal stories of people who have fallen beneath “the line.”
My 14-year-old son Luke, watched the story of John: a banker from a failed bank who once made a six-figure salary, but who now finds himself a substitute teacher making $12,000 a year while trying to raise his three kids. John painfully talked about what it feels like to have to go to a food bank because he has no other viable choice.
His story caused Luke to ask his mom after the film, “John said he got straight A’s in school, so could that happen to me?”
[editor's note: This article was originally published in 2012. References to elections or politicians without specific dates attached are in the context of the 2012 election cycle.]
AS I CAREFULLY watched both the Democratic and the Republican conventions this summer, I realized, once again, how challenging and complicated it is to bring faith to politics.
For example, the phrase “middle class” was likely the most repeated phrase at the conventions. And even though both parties are utterly dependent on their wealthy donors (a fact they don’t like to talk about), they know that middle-class voters will determine the outcome of the election. Now, I believe a strong middle class is good for the country, but Jesus didn’t say, “What you have done for the middle class, you have done for me.” Rather, Matthew 25 says, “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.”
When your first principle for politics is what happens to the poor and vulnerable—and I believe that is the first principle for Christians—you keep waiting at conventions for those words and commitments. There were a few moments when the poor were briefly mentioned, but it certainly wasn’t a strong theme in Tampa or Charlotte. “Opportunity” for the middle class was an important word in both conventions this year, but Christians must be clear that creating new opportunities for poor children and low-income families is critical to us.
The conventions also talked a great deal about “success,” but how we define that is very important. Is success mostly about how much money we make, defining the “American Dream” as being able to pass on more riches to our children than what our parents passed on to us? Or is success measured by how we as a nation prioritize, in our spending and political choices, the sick, the vulnerable, the weak, and the elderly? Is it determined more by the values we pass on to our children—evaluating our lives, and theirs, by how much we are able to help others?
America is a nation of immigrants, and how we welcome “the stranger” in our midst is another Christian principle for politics. So is our racial diversity as a nation, where all our citizens must be treated as having equal value. The most inspiring stories at the conventions for me came when that diversity was evidenced on the stage—from a young undocumented “dreamer” and a black first lady on the platform at the Democratic convention to Condoleezza Rice telling her fellow Republicans how a little girl from a segregated Southern city became secretary of state. But little mention was made at either convention of the racial disparities in America’s burgeoning prison industry or voting suppression efforts that most affect minorities and people who are poor.
Tomorrow night is the first presidential debate. It will undoubtedly be an important moment in the campaign for the highest office in the land. But, whose lives will it be important to?
Certainly, there will be a lot for pundits to discuss and dissect. They will analyze phrases and statements, and will compare them to polling data and focus groups in swing states. Super PACs will record gaffes by either candidate, ready to turn them into multi-million dollar commercial buys.
But, as a person of faith, what I want to know is: how will the words that are said and the positions that are staked out affect the 46 million people in our country living in poverty? What does it mean for the hardworking families who can't put food on the table? Or the 1 in 5 children for whom poverty is an everyday reality and opportunity seems to be an illusion?
Tonight is the world premiere of a film that puts those questions front and center. The Line is a new documentary film from Emmy award-winning writer and producer, Linda Midgett. It tells the stories of real people struggling to make ends meet but still falling below the poverty line. These are stories far too common in our country today and should be a central topic of this debate.