Poverty

When Doing the 'Christian Thing' Isn’t the Right Thing

Pedestrians passing by homeless person, uros1210 / Shutterstock.com

Pedestrians passing by homeless person on the street, uros1210 / Shutterstock.com

I used to be a Bible study leader.

And per the undergraduate campus fellowship tradition, it kept me busy: Sunday brunch community building, Monday night small groups, Tuesday leadership meetings, and Wednesday training sessions. Discipleship, one-on-ones, social activities, all-campus worship, weekend retreats, week-long retreats, all-day retreats, evangelism workshops, work day, capture the flag, scavenger hunts, and prayer meetings.

But what I remember most vividly are Thursdays.

Every Thursday. The evening walk through campus, past bars and restaurants beginning to fill with my peers, through a door almost hidden to the unaware, flanked by a man sitting on the ground. The man is dirty and unkempt. Sometimes he’s panhandling. Sometimes he’s asleep. On one occasion, he eats, still alone, from a small bag of popcorn one of my fellow Bible study leaders had brought to him.

The man catches my attention, yet I don’t show it. I don’t ask his name, or where he goes when he doesn’t sit by the door, or how he manages to stay warm through Midwestern winters. Thursdays are obligatory for Bible study leaders, so maybe that’s why I try to ignore the man. Maybe that’s why I feel I can’t stop to ask him his name. Or maybe being a Bible study leader is just a convenient excuse to keep walking.

So every Thursday I climb the stairs behind that door, leaving the man below, allowing him to fade into the background until he is just another distant person, indistinguishable from those filling the pub across the street or sleeping on their textbooks in the library across the quad. Suddenly the band is on stage, the rhythm of worship distracts me, channeling an energy that gives way to reflection, to reverence, to calm. Every Thursday.

And then it’s over. And like all good Bible study leaders, I greet friends, practice fellowship, welcome newcomers. We leave in groups to study or socialize. I don’t notice if the man is still there when we leave.

This man has come to represent many things to me in my faith journey, and something I’ve encountered this week brings my thoughts back to him.

A Simple Fix to Reduce Poverty and Encourage Work

Photo courtesy Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com.

Man holding coins, close-up of his hands. Photo courtesy Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com.

Jesus calls us to help the poor. That is a point that few would debate. One key indicator of our obedience is how we treat the poor and vulnerable among us. Where we fall into debate is how to do it the most effectively.

One thing that gets lost in the rhetoric is that many of the solutions we have are already effective — they just need to be improved. And we have plenty of ideas that already help lift families out of poverty while encouraging them to work. Sounds perfect, right?

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is one such program. It provides a tax credit based on how much income a worker takes in — the more income they take in, the more benefit they get, up to a maximum point when it starts to phase out. This gives working people incentive to keep working rather than rely on assistance alone.

Moral Mondays

Protestors gather for Moral Mondays in North Carolina. Photo by yashmori / flick

Protestors gather for Moral Mondays in North Carolina. Photo by yashmori / flickr.com

Once we have decided to follow Jesus, we cannot help but live out our personal beliefs in public ways. The demands of the Gospel refuse us the option of a purely inward spirituality.

While there are times when those in power listen to the guidance of moral and religious leaders, far too often we’re asked to be prophets. In the face of opposition, we pick up our crosses and lift up our voices on behalf of the disadvantaged.

In North Carolina, pastors and civil rights leaders, along with thousands of others, have been living out their personal faith in a very public way. Since late April, dozens of faith leaders and hundreds of others have been arrested at the state capitol as part of an ongoing protest call “Moral Mondays.” What would motivate these leaders to take such a strong stand at such a personal cost?

Finding Joy in a Place of Need

Rev. James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest, in Peru

Rev. James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest, in Peru

Go Here to read the second in this series, Competing for the Greater Good

Peru is a land of extremes, especially for a motorcycle pilgrimage. Our journey from Lima to the orphanage in Moquegua took us through some of the most severe riding conditions imaginable. Storms of Peru, the second segment in the Neale Bayly Rides series, provided a glimpse into the challenges we faced, as Peru would not give up her beauty easily.

Our ride began in the congested, chaotic streets of Lima — a thriving metropolis of 16 million people — where an aggressive riding posture is your only chance for survival. It’s not that the Peruvians are bad drivers; it’s just that traffic laws don’t seem to be a concern for any of them. Riding through the boiling cauldron of cars felt like a massive vehicular free-for-all. Lima provided a baptism by fire for our adventure and, exciting though it was, we were glad to leave the haphazard traffic behind us.  

We rode south toward the beautiful but haunting desert of Ica. The life-smothering heat and blowing sands sweep across the land and stop abruptly at the Pacific Ocean. Riding through the rugged terrain of crushed rock, sugar sand, and loose gravel was even more challenging than it appeared on television. I was glad the production team didn’t show everything. I bit the dust more times than I care to admit.

The country is amazingly beautiful, as are the people. There's a crazy juxtaposition of things you have to see to believe — poverty mixed with joy, beauty and brokenness in the very same face, a fierce gratitude in the meanest of circumstances.

Protest Songs, Revisited: New Campaign from ONE Features Mumford & Sons, U2, and More

U2 performs in Milan, Italy. Photo courtesy Valeria73/shutterstock.com

The ONE Campaign, co-founded by music legend Bono of U2, has launched a new platform to promote global messages of social justice, women’s rights, and putting an end to apartheid, war and poverty — just to name a few.

The campaign, agit8, features new covers of famous protest songs throughout history by contemporary musicians ranging from Mumford & Sons to Greenday.

With the stated goal of ending poverty by 2030, agit8 is timed to coincide with the upcoming G8 summit next week. Noting the impact protest music has had on American history, agit8 encourages artists to “get on their soapbox” and amplify “the voices of those who spoke up for social change throughout history.”

10 POLITICAL Things You Can't Do While Following Jesus

Jesus at church across from the Alfred P Murrah Memorial by tonystl / Flickr.com

Jesus at church across from the Alfred P Murrah Memorial by tonystl / Flickr.com

In response to my last article, “10 Things You Can't Do While Following Jesus,” I was accused multiple times of being political. All I was trying to do was follow Jesus. So, I thought it'd be interesting (and generate tons more hate mail) to show what a list would actually look like if I were being political intentionally. Like the first list, this is not a complete list but it's a pretty good place to start.

There will be those who comment and send me messages berating me for “making Jesus political.” It's okay. Fire away. Jesus didn't worry much about stepping on political toes, and the Bible insists that governments be just toward the least of these (the books of the prophets alone make this point very clear). Frequently, people who are the most vocal about not making Jesus political are the same people who want prayer in school and laws based on their own religious perspectives. By a happy little circumstance that brings us to my list:

10) Force your religious beliefs and practices on others.

One of the strengths of the faith Jesus taught was in its meekness. The faith he taught valued free will over compulsion – because that's how love works. Compelling people to follow any religion, more or less your personal religion, stands over and against the way Jesus practiced his faith. If you are using the government to compel people to practice your spiritual beliefs, you might be the reason baby Jesus is crying. This does get tricky. There is a difference in letting your beliefs inform your political choices and letting your politics enforce your religion. This article is about the first part.

Pope Francis: Wasting Food is Like Stealing from the Poor

RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini.

Pope Francis at the Vatican in March.

Pope Francis on Wednesday denounced consumerism and what he called the “culture of waste” of modern economies, especially when it comes to food.

“Throwing away food is like stealing from the table of those who are poor and hungry,” he said during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square.

His words came on the day the United Nations launched an anti-food waste campaign to mark World Environment Day.

'There Should Be No Poor Among You'

Homeless, Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.com

Homeless, Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.com

There should be no poor among you - Deuteronomy 15:4

This is one of the few commands virtually all religious people easily – even eagerly – follow.

We just do it our own way.

The biblical and cultural context and overriding assumption is that those of us with means should contribute – willingly and without conditions – to those among us who, for whatever reason, are needy.

We are not to judge – or distance ourselves – from those who have little – or cannot pay us back. In fact these are the ones Jesus commands that we – and by extension he – should invite to a banquet (Luke 14:12-14).

But we seem to have ‘no poor among us’ – we do our best to exclude, ignore, or even ban them when we do see them.

Half of Americans Below or Near Poverty Line

Although the Census Bureau has reported that 15 percent of Americans live in poverty, when assets and wages are factored in half of Americans are below or near poverty line. Alternet has compiled a list of five reasons poverty affects so many Americans.

1. Almost half of Americans had NO assets in 2009 - In 2009 47% of Americans has more debt than assets.

2. It’s Even Worse 3 Years Later - An  OECD report states that “inequality has increased by more over the past three years to the end of 2010 than in the previous twelve,” with the U.S. experiencing one of the widest gaps among OECD countries.

3. Based on wage figures, half of Americans are in or near poverty - The highest wage in the bottom half of earners is about $34,000. To be eligible for food assistance, a family can earn up to about $30,000 for a family of four.

4. Based on household expense totals, poverty is creeping into the top half of America - After taxes and expenses, a family making $60,000 a year is left with nothing except debt.

5. Putting it in Perspective -  While food support was being targeted for cuts, just 20 rich Americans made as much from their 2012 investments as the entire  2012 SNAP (food assistance) budget, which serves 47 million people.

Read more here.

Finding Hope and Wholeness in My Son’s Return to Africa

RNS photo by Cathleen Falsani/Orange County Register

Cathleen Falsani’s son, Vasco, left, and his half-brother, Juma, in Malawi. RNS photo by Cathleen Falsani/Orange County Register

Look for a billboard on the right and a sign on your left. There’s a dirt road. Turn there.

In this part of the world, most of the streets have no names. So the directions we were given to find the new compound where my son’s Malawian relatives relocated a few months earlier were pretty specific given the circumstances.

We had hoped to be able to visit with Vasco’s 16-year-old half-brother, Juma, his Aunt Esme, and a handful of cousins and other relations for a couple of hours. By the time we found the family’s new compound, we had less than an hour before we had to get back on the road, meet the rest of our traveling companions, and head north before the sun fell.

I was heartbroken. But when we pulled up in our van, Vasco’s relatives were so happy to see us (and vice versa) that even the woefully short visit felt richly blessed. It had been three years since we’d seen each other. The last time was in May 2010 when Vasco, my husband, and I traveled from California to Blantyre for our adoption hearing. We spent a month in Blantyre and were able to get to know Vasco’s extended family (or, sadly, what remains of it) and begin piecing together our son’s complicated biography.

Since our last visit, Vasco, now 13, has grown about a foot and then some. He’s also traded his close-cropped “Obama cut” for Bob Marley-esque locks. Vasco wasn’t the only one who’d changed – visibly and otherwise.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries on the planet, with more than 9 million people living on about $1.25 a day. HIV/AIDS, which we believe claimed the lives of Vasco’s birth parents before he would have entered kindergarten, remains a critical health issue. Among 15- to 49-year-olds, the HIV/AIDS rate hovers above 10 percent despite widespread efforts to combat the fully preventable disease.

Malaria, tuberculosis, and diarrhea-related fatalities remain high in Malawi. So does unemployment, particularly among younger workers in urban areas such as Blantyre, where it is approximately 70 percent.

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