Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Deserving Poor

Not long ago, I read a blog that raised an interesting question: why do Christians and churches in North America tend to give more to the poor overseas (especially to Africa and to places where natural disasters have occurred) than to the poor in their own cities?

Robb Davis, the writer of the blog I read, thinks it has very little to do with the fact that overseas poor people are poorer than our poor people.  He thinks it has more to do with the fact that we generally see overseas poor people as deserving, and our own poor people as undeserving, or at least less deserving.  I tend to agree.

Whether or not we care to admit it, I think we all have a subconscious scale of who really deserves our help (money, mission trips, prayers, attention).  It probably looks something like this:


Children born into poverty in third-world countries

Victims of natural disasters
Adults in third-world countries
Prostituted women in other countries, trafficked into North America
Children born into poverty in North America
Adults in North America who have lost their jobs due to the recession
Adults in North America who have never had stable jobs
Prostituted women born in North America
Drug addicts
Drug dealers and other criminals
Sex offenders


Ok, maybe that list is splitting hairs a bit.  But I do think we have this natural tendency to decide who deserves our help based on how much we think their choices led them into their circumstances, that is to say, based on how much we think their poverty is their fault. Children in Africa definitely didn't choose to be born into malnourished, war-torn environments where they will receive little education and few opportunities.  We have no qualms about helping them.  Natural disasters are nobody's fault (or the developed world's fault, if you consider climate change), so we're definitely supposed to help those people.  Trafficked women were kidnapped or tricked into prostitution, so they're deserving - the worst we could accuse them of is naivete.

But prostitutes in my neighbourhood?  The popular opinion is that they're choosing to do that work.  And probably choosing it because they need to fund their drug addictions, and it's their fault that they're addicted.  No one forced them to do drugs.  And look at all the social assistance programs and advantages they have!  They get an education and plenty of opportunities like everyone else in North America.  So if they're still poor, obviously they lack initiative; they're just working the system, choosing to remain poor and taking welfare money from hard-working middle class people.  Why would we enable their bad choices by giving them more hand-outs?

This sounds harsh, and most of us don't go that far in our thinking, but believe me, when I am dumb enough to read the comments on online news articles about the DTES, I see far more scathing opinions about the poor people in my neighbourhood. 

I have begun to learn the real meaning of "choice" in the midst of the oppressive and degrading structural inequity that most people in my neighbourhood face.  Just this week I met a woman, who has likely been prostituted, in recovery for her addiction, using our hard-earned tax dollars.  She shared with me that she had been in twenty-four different foster homes over the course of her life.  Yes, she got an education... in fourteen different schools.  "Never really fit anywhere," she said.  No kidding.  The choices she has had to make and odds she has overcome just to get into recovery far outweigh any of my good life choices as a middle-class, stable-familied Masters-educated white girl.

So in light of this, who deserves our help? Who deserves our love? Who deserves our self-sacrificial giving?

In her book "Jesus Freak," Sara Miles tells a story about hosting a group of grade four kids at her church's food pantry program, and some of the questions they raised. They were concerned that some people who came to get food didn't really need it, or were cheating and taking too much. Like many adults, these kids didn't want anyone to take advantage of the church's generosity. Here's what Sara writes:

      "I talked with the kids about the idea of “taking advantage,” explaining that it was impossible to be taken advantage of as long as you were giving something away without conditions. “If it's a trade, than it's fair or unfair,” I said. “But if I'm going to give it to you anyway, not matter what you do, then you can't take advantage of me.”
     “How many of you have ever taken the best piece for yourself, or stolen something?” I asked, raising my own hand. Slowly, every hand went up.
     “How many of you have ever been generous and given something away?” Every hand went up.
     “Yeah,” I said, “You know, poor people cheat and steal and are really annoying. Just like rich people. Just like you. And poor people are generous and kind and help strangers. Just like rich people. Just like you.... In my church, we say that judgment belongs to God, not to humans. So that makes things a lot easier for us. We don't have to decide who deserves food.” (37)

I think Sarah Miles is on to something here. All of us do beautiful things and awful things, simply by virtue of being human. Yes, poor people in Canada cheat and steal. Poor people in Africa also cheat and steal, as I just confirmed in a conversation with a friend of mine who works in Darfur. Regardless of nationality, people who have been repeatedly abandoned and betrayed by others get used to cheating and stealing to survive. And yes, rich people cheat and steal, in ways that are often rewarded by society. All of us are sinners and letdowns, even the "noble" poor in the World Vision commercials. It's just that we're close enough to the poor in Canada to see their shadow sides. And they're close enough to make us feel very uncomfortable and guilty, and we can't just change the channel to push them out of our view.

Now, I do think we need to think carefully about the ways we try to help the poor, whether they're here or overseas, because our methods can often decrease their dignity and self-worth and increase their predisposition to want to cheat the system. Peter Maurin, a good friend of Dorothy Day's, said that we need to strive to make the kind of society in which it is easier for people to be good. This is a society in which we assume the best of one another, strive to see the image of God in one another, draw out each other's gifts and skills, love each other unconditionally over the long term, and uphold each other's dignity. In that society, no one will want to cheat the system, because they will belong; they will know they are needed, and they will have what they need.

This past Wednesday night at our worship service at Jacob's Well, a friend of mine did something that is really quite strange. She drew a cross on my forehead with ashes and told me that I was made of dust, and that one day I would die. She did the exact same thing to everyone in the circle, all of us, rich and poor... all of us bags of ashes and water, all of us sinners and sinned-against, all of us selfish screw-ups... all of us unable to be good on our own, unable even to sustain our own lives... all of us undeserving...

...all of us created in the image of God, the grateful recipients of unearned and undeserved grace, of each new day and each next breath...all of us empowered and sent to care for one another and to share with one another and to be healed and sanctified together. 

So, all of us - let's share what we have with everyone who needs it, in Africa, in Japan, in Canada, in the DTES, whether or not we think they deserve it.  And let's love each other so much that we want to be better people, in the knowledge that we'll never be good enough to deserve the love and grace God seems to want to keep lavishing on us.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The tale of an up-and-coming fancy dancer

Every Monday night since July, I have been trying out a new activity: First Nations traditional dance classes.

(Well, it hasn't been every Monday night... I took a bit of a break from dance after I stepped on a sea urchin while on vacation, but that's for another blog entry.) 

I will say this up front: I am the whitest regular attender of the drop-in class.  Last Monday, several new people joined us, so we did the customary go-around-the-circle-and-say-your-name thing, but we were also asked to share our tribal background.  There were Miqmaqs and Plains Crees, two Squamish girls, a Haida woman, a Gitxzan, and a few people from Tsawwassen nation.  When it was my turn, I said, "I'm Beth, and I am British/Irish/Swedish/Czech."

I am not only the whitest dancer, but also possibly the dancer with the least natural talent for dance.  Sure, I can move in time with a piece of music, but I have always lacked the confidence required to do it creatively and convincingly.  For much of my life, I have avoided school dances, and have made awkward small talk with other non-dancers during wedding receptions.

My whiteness and my lack of dance training combined to produce a fair amount of anxiety the first night I headed out toward the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre for dance class. As I walked, I rehearsed the reasons why I was going.

I need exercise.
The Friendship Centre is only a fifteen-minute walk from my house.  
The classes are free.

Those reasons were convincing (especially the last one, on a low-income pastor's budget), but they could apply to a lot of other potential activities.  They were not adequate to get me through the doors of the Friendship Centre.

I was invited to the class.  That was a better reason.  The teacher, who was fancy dancing at a National Aboriginal Day celebration put on by a local church, had invited the whole crowd to come to her class.  But I could still rationalize that the invitation wasn't specifically intended for a white non-dancer like me.

I tried to think of another reason.  I love to watch fancy dancing.  Fancy dancing drew me in from the first time I saw it, in Saskatoon, during my undergrad years.  I watched, dumbstruck, as the colorful ribbons of the dancers' shawls spun around them.  They seemed to spend more time in the air than on the ground, traveling by tiptoe, their feet stepping deftly, as though the grass under them were actually a bed of hot coals. Perhaps if I enjoyed watching it, I would also enjoy doing it.  Still, I had little faith I could reproduce such beautiful and free movement.

Thankfully, there was one more reason I had for learning to fancy dance, and this was the reason that pushed me over the edge: I believe I have a responsibility to protect and appreciate the cultures of my brothers and sisters, especially if those cultures have been denigrated, or threatened with assimilation and extinction. 

I co-pastor a predominantly low-income First Nations congregation in a neighbourhood that is home to one of Canada's largest off-reserve Aboriginal populations.  About a century ago, my people tried to take away the dances of their peoples; we called them evil and outlawed them in the name of Jesus.  We tried to rob them of many of the ways they worshiped their Creator and expressed their uniqueness.  We cut their hair, changed their names, and muted their languages.  It was only by their ingenuity and collective memory that they kept these cultural elements alive.  Today, some First Nations languages and practices are still very much in danger of extinction.

I have a responsibility to protect these cultures by virtue of being human, but even more so as a human who claims to follow Christ.  I believe that what my people did was sinful and unjust.  My Creator loves variety and values culture.  His plan for humanity is not for us to merge into a monoculture, but for all the kings and nations of the earth to march (or maybe dance!) into the holy city in our glorious diversity, bringing all our splendor (Rev. 21:24).

I did not think that learning to fancy dance would in any way undo the damage caused by my people.  I did, however, hope that it would take me a few steps closer to appreciating and understanding the beautiful culture I sought to protect in the name of Christ.  Besides, the slight discomfort and embarrassment I might feel as a white girl in dance class would, at most, be a small taste of the many marginalizing experiences most First Nations people face daily.

It turned out that my first dance class wasn't nearly as awkward as I expected.  Rather than explaining the steps, the teacher stood in front of me and demonstrated them over and over, which is a typically First Nations way of teaching.  She told me to keep trying them for the next hour of dancing.  I left exhausted but exhilarated.  It took me a full month to get a feel for the heartbeat of the drum, and many more months before I was able to combine the steps more creatively.  Now, I notice myself loosening up and relaxing.  I am even making a couple of friends. 

I am always ready to share my reasons for learning to fancy dance.  Yet to this day, not a single person at dance class has asked me why a pale-faced redhead would keep showing up.  Maybe in the future they will pop the question, but for now, they simply accept me as a fellow learner, laughing complaining with me during the warm-up abdominal exercises, and poking fun at me when I fail once again to anticipate the ending of a song.  It is a privilege to be so welcomed, and to work with them to preserve and promote something so beautiful.

Watch for me on the pow wow circuit years down the road.  I'll be the one blinding you with my white skin and my boss moves.

A video of one of my teachers fancy dancing.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Remembering Ricky

I don't want all of my blog posts to be about friends who have passed away, but, well, there's been a bunch of them lately.  Tonight, we're having a memorial for Ricky Lavallie.  Ricky was probably the closest and dearest DTES friend I've lost yet.  His death took a whole day to sink in (not to mention we didn't hear about it until 3 weeks after it happened), and I found myself weeping before falling asleep that night, remembering him and wishing we'd had more time together.

photo by Murray Bush - I hope he's ok with me using it everywhere - it's the best one!

I met Ricky a couple of years ago... maybe it wasn't even that long.  He would come into Jacob's Well on Fridays for our coffee hour.  He was a big Cree man, hunched over with his head sunken into his shoulders.  He lumbered slowly along the sidewalk with a bit of a sideways lean.  He always wore a ball cap and a leather jacket and sweatpants, and he never smelled very good. ;)

I remember the first time I really talked to him... he called me over and said I was "the only one who could pray for him."  This happened several times.  While I reassured him that everyone was capable of praying, not just those on staff or those known as pastors, I still enjoyed being chosen to lift up his requests, which were usually related to problems on his reserve back in Manitoba.  He focused particularly on First Nations children and suicide.

Over time, he opened up about his own childhood, and how his brother was killed with a cattle prod when they were both very young, at the residential school they were both forced to attend.  It never made sense to me how someone carrying so much church-inflicted pain could still be so eager to pray to God.  Ricky somehow figured out God was a God of justice, and that this God called him to share his story and fight against continuing injustices.  He lived out at Occupy Vancouver full-time only a month before he died.  He could endear himself to anyone, from anarchists to Christian conservatives.

About a year ago, Ricky started bringing his guitar to coffee time at Jacob's Well.  "His guitar" was always changing - I don't know if I ever saw him with the same guitar twice, and though he'd always say the last one was stolen, I'm pretty sure they were in and out of the pawn shop.  Ricky played with a barred finger in open D, which is easier than learning chords, but his skill came in that he could immediately figure out the chords for almost any song, and he could pick out the melody on the high frets, too.  He'd play with the guitar resting on his big belly, hunched over, eyes often closed.

He would jam with whoever wanted to play with him.  In fact, I think music didn't mean much to him unless it drew people around him.  I can't really picture him playing alone in his room.  He'd play on Commercial Drive, busking for money.  He'd play at all of the DTES Christian gatherings and missions and community centers and protests.  He'd play whatever he thought people would want to hear and sing along to, from worship songs, to gospel, to country, to blues.  His favorite was bluegrass.  He'd often make up songs on the spot, singing about whoever and whatever was near him, working in all sorts of humour and little joking insults.  My favorite songs to do with him were "I'll fly away" and "Ring of Fire" and "Folsom Prison Blues."

I miss you, Ricky.
I miss playing the chords while you riffed on the melody.
I miss tuning my guitar to open D so you could play it.
I miss the way you'd say "Jesus" when you prayed to him.
I miss your banter with Gary.  "Ask Gary..."
I miss you referring to people in the third person even though they were right there. 
I miss you asking "Where's Beth?" when I was in the office, and you wanted me to come to the table.
I miss making you posters to advertise your concerts.
I miss you asking when the next group of "young people" was coming in, so you could come meet them.
I miss the way you gathered people.
I miss your playful teasing.
I miss your threats to "bannock slap" me.  I'm glad I never found out what that felt like.

I wish I could have given you all those guitar picks I'd been collecting for you.  They were still in my pocket the day I found out you'd died.  

I wish we could have found a Santa costume so you could be our Santa at our Christmas tea, like you wanted.  It's ok though, we had a good time with those carols.

Remember the time when you played worship songs with us out on the Hastings sidewalk at the end of our Welfare Wednesday party in August, as the sun set over the old hotels, and the sky turned pink?

Remember when you surprised all of us by joining in on our dance party at Creative World Justice?  You were "party rocking" with the best of us, glowsticks stuck in your ball cap?

Remember playing old worship songs around the campfire at the same festival?  We stayed up until all hours of the night because you wouldn't let any of us leave.  You were in your prime.

Remember when you drew a picture of a buffalo dance, and drew a face in the sun, and told me I was the sun?

Remember when I came to speak at RAW, and I was still recovering from pneumonia, and you wouldn't let me go up and talk until you got a few people I didn't know to pray for me?

Thank you for being my elder and my friend.  
Thank you for sharing yourself with me.  
We will keep fighting your fights and singing your songs.
(We're gonna sing up a storm tonight, in your honour, you'll see!)
We'll see you soon, buddy,
hallelujah by and by.