This sermon is representative of my own beliefs on Gun Control. Living in the city of Chicago, it is an issue we cannot afford to ignore.
Sermon by Steve van Kuiken, Lake Street Church of Evanston, Evanston, IL. July 21, 2013.
they sit in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places they murder the innocent.
their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert…
they stoop, they crouch,
and the helpless fall.
Paula Deen is delusional. This isn’t in reference to the obnoxious public apologies (both of them)–begging (quite literally) for forgiveness. Nor is it to the butter-slathered, heavy cream dishes which coat her arteries as she ponders her diabetes and weight issues. Nor is it in reference to her apparent alcoholism, and questionable relationships. I’m talking about the bizarre nostalgia she and others like her hold for the antebellum South: where ‘men’ were white wealthy landowners; women were pale, fragile accouterments; and ‘coloreds’ were friendly, happy helpers on the plantation and in the house, willing to offer hand and heart to anything the landowners desired. But she’s not racist. No. Not at all. She just pictures the ideal wedding reception as the bride and groom in dazzling white, and the wait staff all Black skinned with white gloves (so as not to contaminate the food?). But that’s not racist. That’s nostalgia for a simpler, better time, right? That’s just old school ‘class(ism)’? Right? For a woman who’s made a career on creating food as a key component of hospitality, her life has taken a strange twist–being outed as someone with one of the least possible hospitable mindsets–racism.
Recently a friend I went to high school with brought back some old 8 mm home movies his cousin had taken in the 70s and 80s. His purpose: get these converted into a digital mode to preserve for future generations. A nice idea, indeed, and truly a gift to his family. My father was his pastor in the mid to late 80s, and he invited me over to view some of the films, as I would enjoy seeing folks and reminiscing about old times–even though the films were all of a time before my family lived there.
One set of films was taken was a series of women’s ‘slumber parties’ sponsored by the Nazarene church women. The films depict these holiness women being silly and playful, and it was fun to see this side of them. But on occasion, the men of the church, possibly feeling left out of the ‘fun’, would burst in and surprise the women. They only stayed a short period of time, and usually performed a silly skit and left. All of this was very amusing, and fun to see everyone when they were young. Amusing, that is, until the men ‘busted’ into the slumber party and performed a jamboree in blackface. Horrified, I watched these holiness people play washboards, beat on over turned wash tubs, and act silly. Their audience giggled and danced and delighted in the fun. This film was taken during the Regan era–not the Kennedy era.
I don’t know why I was so shocked. You see, a large portion of that church lived out on a country road that was known commonly “Nigger Lake Road“. Back at the turn of the century, some Black people moved to town and purchased the cheapest land in the area: a place prone to flooding. During flood-times, those good ol’ country folk began calling the road that ran through that area, naturally, “Nigger Lake Road.” Eventually, it was too difficult (socially, financially) for the Blacks to stay in the area, and once they’d abandoned the farm land, the surrounding farmers decided to build a drainage system in order to keep the land usable for farming. But in order to apply for a government grant, it was determined that the name of the road perhaps needed to be a bit more benign: so it was changed to “Sand Lake Road”. The name didn’t change until 1996.
I’m confronted once again with the mental gymnastics required for white holiness church people who proclaim the love and hospitality of Christ, to so very easily dismiss for so long the blatant racism in their midst. And I realize there is a certain form of nostalgia that comes along with privilege: a rose colored lens through which events in the world are seen.
I am so ashamed. We are so delusional.
I got stuck in traffic on Lake Shore Drive Tuesday night, the first night of the Stanley Cup finals between the Bruins and the Blackhawks. My cabbie was visibly frustrated as time passed with little movement. He counts on multiple fares each hour to meet the cost of renting the cab each day, let alone make a profit. Sitting for over an hour in traffic doesn’t bode well for his income for the day. I caught him watching me in the rear view mirror. He’d been pretty quiet thus far in the trip.
I smiled and told him to put me on the clock, instead of charging me by the mile. He smiled REAL big and said “You understand taxi drivers, yes?” I laughed and said, “Well, I understand what it is like to be struggling to make a living wage. And I want to be fair with your time.”
We chatted about the usual ‘stuff’ then, the ice apparently broken by reliving his financial anxiety. We talked about places we’d lived, and about the city of Chicago. I asked him if he was a hockey fan (seeing that night’s traffic was due to the first game of the Stanley Cup finals). He shook his head no, but then said “Wait. That’s not fair. Let me explain…”
“I do not care for the violence, ma’am. I have seen too much violence in my life. But then, it is not any more violent than any other sport, is it? At any rate, it is not a sport I grew up with. But I must confess that I rejoiced when Patrick Kane made that goal last week. That goal paid a million people.”
I looked at him quizzically. He smiled. “You see, he scored that goal, and hotel workers, airline workers, cab drivers, restaurants… all of Chicago benefited. That goal set in motion (like a trigger or a catalyst) a series of events which will ensure that we have plenty of work, and good income. For that goal, I thank Allah.”
And I smiled, pondering the thought that it takes more than a village: it takes a hockey goal.
I’ve an ongoing conversation with a dear friend of mine about the role of the church vs. the state when it comes to the poor. Neither of us belong at all in the category ‘poor’–she is of an upper middle class white family who owns property, and has a graduate level education; I am a single middle class woman with graduate level education and a full time job. We tend to talk past each other when the subject of poverty arises, both getting defensive. We’ve argued our own sides to the point of offending each other, then back off cautiously as neither of us wants to ruin a friendship. At times I suspect we are closer in our opinions than we imagine, but I doubt we’ll ever completely see eye to eye on it. I wonder if my status somehow as a TCK (third culture kid), particularly as one who grew up in the third world, however, colors how I understand the poor, as well as the potential role of government and church.
The fundamental divide, it seems, between her perspective and mine (and if she reads this, and I’m incorrect, she should correct me and help me better understand) is that she tends to think of the poor as ‘individuals in need of help’. I’m uncertain if it is economic status, educational privilege, or mere ‘Americanism’ which posits her in the position of being the benevolent agent in these scenarios. When she describes government subsidies and/or welfare, she regales me with stories of abuse: instances where entitlement is assumed and laziness is writ large. I am unclear as to why it is that I react to her descriptions and responses with defense: as if I’m certain it is against me or my family that she’s making accusations or judgments. Perhaps it is because I spent my childhood accepting handouts and gifts as missionaries, forever relying upon the proverbial kindness of strangers.
What must be equally accounted for is the fact that she accuses me of idealizing the poor. Whereas I hear her complaints against abuse accompanied by a tone of indignation (“the poor are stealing from me”), she hears my defense of the poor as coming through rose-colored lenses (a noble people, struggling in a noble fight). It is likely the case that I do tend to idealize the poor, although I try to guard against it. You be the judge.
John Steinbeck purportedly wrote that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Indeed, it seems that the American dream is alive and well–upward mobility is assumed to be an option, indeed assumed to be a good, and a failure to be poor (our value, intelligence, morals, etc. based on our economic status). Not only is it assumed that we can move up, but it is our responsibility to move up. Kurt Vonnegut commented: “It is a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” ”
I’m unwilling, however, to assume that the American middle class is everyone’s ideal. The underpaid working class seems to be caricatured into either comic ‘redneck’ or as merely unwilling-to-pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps ‘lazy’ (or some mixture of both). Might it be the case that for those able-bodied poor who never shift into the ranks of ‘middle class’, the drummers’ cadence marches them to other ends? Or that they never imagined their world to be otherwise? Or….
I believe the poor have many gifts for those of us who aren’t poor, but only if we are willing to have our eyes opened to critique. What we learn is more often about ourselves than it is about the poor (much in the same way that African-Americans can teach me what it means to be white, because I function within the haze of privilege, oblivious to the graces and opportunities my skin color affords me.) These are a people with feet in both worlds (knowing what it is like to function on very limited resources, but also living within the ubiquitous aspirations and standards of the wealthy.) The media spreads the gospel of the upper middle class, wherein needs are not only met but excess is normative. We are thus trained to accumulate, to stuff our selves and our homes (this coming from an overweight woman just days after thanksgiving!), regardless of economic status or class.
My cab driver this morning was a friendly, talkative Nigerian man. I asked him if he was going to vote tomorrow, and he frowned and shook his head: “I cannot because I won’t get my citizenship until next year. I’m sorry to be missing this election because I believe it to be very important. This country is so divided right now–a house against itself.” I asked him if he had a favorite candidate, and he was quite vocal on which candidate he thought was most trust-worthy, who most clearly is in touch with the poor, and who won’t abuse his power. He went on to express his anticipation of becoming a US citizen, and how excited he’d be to have the privilege to vote in 2016. “I never really understood human advancement until I came to this country. In my country, if there had been this much ideological conflict, there would be bodies everywhere. Corruption is pervasive and death would reign. Here, we argue and fight and then life goes on.”
I quieted as I listened to him speak. I’ll admit that I believe I am lucky to be a citizen of this country, and in large part, what he says is true (at least for me, a white, middle-class woman). But I get antsy and nervous when someone begins declaring this the greatest of all nations, particularly when that someone is from another land. I looked at his face in the rear view mirror and noted the scars running across his dark cheeks: a tribal ritual declaring his manhood.
I hesitated then finally offered this: “You are right: there are some places in the world where political differences end up in a blood bath. Guns run rampant, and disagreements are settled with weapons. But here I think the violence is more insidious. Here, we kill people through neglect by our trickle down theories. We assume that markets will right themselves. We are Darwinian in our handling of social problems–we watch the poor die slow deaths in food deserts: deaths of diabetes and cholesterol related illnesses. We wring our hands in astonishment and murmur to ourselves about the respect for life as we watch folks on the south side kill each other in gun fights, gang fights, and drug deals. Yet we don’t see how our latent racism contributes to the lack of self-respect and respect for others. No sir… we don’t have politicians wielding armies or raising weapons over their heads, but we do have violence in our streets. Violence that is too easy for white middle-class Americans to ignore. And when we vote so that an election only benefits a certain portion of the population, we are killing people slowly, in our own insidious way.”
He took a long look at me in the mirror and said “God knows you speak the truth, sister.”
I overheard the following speculation about the fast-approaching winter weather between two of my colleagues at the office: “One nice thing about winter in Chicago…there aren’t as many homeless around begging for money.” His conversation partner nodded in agreement. They proceeded to discuss how it was hard to walk down the sidewalk at times without being accosted by beggars. The usual “they are just going to buy drugs and alcohol” meme was repeated. These gentlemen parted company as I made my way to the coffee machine. I found myself suddenly conscience about the spare change I was using to get that cup of coffee. I muttered something to the effect that the homeless weren’t migratory birds. That elicited some harsh looks and one colleague said “You know what I mean… the homeless are a pain.”
I was stunned. Yes. I know exactly what he meant. We’ve become so very self-sufficient that we view poverty as a burden upon the wealthy. How’s that for turning economics and logic on its head? It isn’t the poor who are burdened by their poverty: it is the wealthy who are inconvenienced, temporarily made to feel guilty, and are forced into being arbiters of stewardship and grace. The poor just have to be poor. (Read that as lacking agency, autonomy, etc.). It is their ontology.
I said it before but it bears repeating here: When Jesus said in Matt. 26:11 that “the poor will always be among us”, it was not to let us off the hook and give us permission to ignore them because it’s a problem which just won’t go away. It was an instruction that we always have to consider the poor: plan to tend to them, make charity and generosity part of our daily lives.
In this particular season, remembering the words “the poor will always be among us” is to remember that their lack of visibility isn’t an indicator that poverty is being eradicated: to the contrary, the poor are dying to find shelter–quite literally.
To my grousing, nibbling colleagues who are making upwards of $100K, I ask you to learn to unburden yourselves of poverty, and instead embrace the burden of wealth (which is properly yours anyway). Lay aside your claims to self-sufficiency and learn to recognize that the position you are in was not self-made. Be grateful for those who gave you a break: for parents who provided a home, guidance, an education; for health–both mental and physical; for employers who took a risk in hiring you for that first job; for congregations who provide you a spiritual home. Remember that you didn’t earn everything you have. Grace was afforded you when you least deserved it. Be an extension of that grace to others.