today’s word at church was called the mystery of poverty. i grew up in poverty so it’s no mystery to me. i can tell you exactly what it’s like to go to bed hungry. i know all about not having lights, or water or gas. i was the kid with the stinky egg sandwich at lunch who would rather say i forgot my lunch and go hungry than show the entire class what was in my recylced-before-recylcing-was-chic brown paper bag. i can tell you stories of hating christmas because i had to watch my cousins open presents while my brothers and i had none. and then i went back to school where i listened to my classmates list off their abundance of gifts. i learned to lie. yep, i got a ton of stuff, too.
there were lots of tears. tears of pain because i was constantly teased for not having the latest clothes or being able to get my hair done. and there were the years when it fell out completely because well-meaning family members damaged it beyond repair. there were tears for being called ugly or feeling invisible because i was one of the dark kids in a family of mostly light skinned people. i cried because i watched my mother struggle constantly and i was embarrassed. i cried because sometimes my dad was there but mostly he wasn’t despite me growing up almost exclusively with his family. i cried because we couldn’t afford things that everyone else could and i knew my tears wouldn’t change anything but i still felt awful because i had to accept that reality.
most of my friends from church and school came from two-parent homes. after a while, i noticed that other kids really didn’t want to be my friend. they laughed at me and they would invite me to stuff out of sympathy, but i knew i wasn’t welcomed. there was one time when a friend invited me over for a sleepover and the girls took turns hitting me in the dark and laughing until i went to the bathroom and cried. i slept in the kitchen far away from them but i never told anyone why.
after a while i got tired of crying. i learned to fight back. i was super smart and many of the people who picked on me lacked the intelligence to go toe-to-toe with my intellectually. i could make a person feel really stupid really fast, and when they got ready to fight me, well, i could fight too. i didn’t get beat up anymore. but it hurt every time one of my friends abandoned me because i wasn’t cool enough for their other friends. it hurt every time i was reminded of how much i didn’t belong. i hurt every time i was reminded of just how poor i was.
the crazy thing is that although there were years and years of lack, i have a lot of great memories of my childhood. i enjoyed girl scouts, and played sports and participated in arts and did all kinds of things because my mom knew that exposure was key to us being able to see beyond our current reality. she taught me to dream big and believe that not only could i achieve it, i could conquer it. the only thing holding me back was me.
a lot has changed in my life since my childhood. like i said, i was smart so of course i went to college and grad school. so did my mom and she became a teacher. i’m super proud of her. i no longer live in poverty. i have been blessed beyond measure and i’m thankful to God for every single thing i have. but i’m also no longer ashamed of growing up poor. poverty sucks, but i might not have ever known God the way i do, had things be different. people are always telling me that i have a pureness of joy and i seem genuinely happy with life. they say they can’t believe that i grew up the way i did. man. you don’t know the cost of the oil in my alabaster box.
the truth about poverty is that it is almost impossible to survive without pain and shame because everyone reminds you of your place. they will quickly dismiss you like you have no humanity, no worth. you are to blame for your plight in life. you’re poor because you’re lazy. you’re poor because you don’t take responsibility for your actions. you’re poor because you made bad choices in life. i have no words for those self-righteous people but thankfully, God does. so i will leave you with the scripture for today’s sermon, and the inspiration for this journey through my psyche.
Isaiah 58:6 “This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. 58:7 What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. 58:8 Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. 58:9
if your attitude toward the poor doesn’t look like this, you aren’t representing the heart of God. i read posts from people all the time where they enthusiastically blame the victims of exploitation and oppression from the comfort of their lovely, suburban homes. it breaks my heart because they were the same people who dismissed me as worthless as a child. they are the same people who excluded me from parties and denied me friendship. hmm. Jesus said, “as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
God i ask for forgiveness for not being concerned about the things that concern you. i got comfortable. but i accept the correction and will seek to get to work to live out isaiah 58: 6-9. thank you for loving me enough to open my eyes.