Sunday, July 19, 2015

Am I willing to hug "poverty"?

Yesterday I had a chance to join a friend here in Portland who goes out every Saturday with a homemade lunch and feeds some of the many homeless in Portland. His operation is mobile, they go where some of the more destitute and immobile are encamped in parks, on sidewalks, in cul-de-sacs. Some would say that simply giving food to the homeless perpetuates and creates dependency. In general I agree with this view.

However, I saw how homemade sloppy joes, chips, oranges, cookies, and water can create and sustain connection. These are people who have lost all connection with the mainstream world, and the connections that are nurtured with food and drink are life sustaining and generative (for both the "givers" and the "receivers"). In some cases these relationships have developed to the point of walking alongside people into rehab and church.

I was most struck by seeing my friend vigorously hug some of the folks that he's seen for many, many months. Not an awkward handshake or man-hug, but a full on hug of joy at seeing one another. I'm reminded of Jesus who also was not afraid to touch and reach out to people, even those with horrible skin diseases. I was ashamed.

I'm willing to serve the poor, and study poverty, and work on dismantling systems of oppression, but am I willing to HUG?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Second Half Pursuit

I decided to resurrect this blog not because I've taken a hiatus from caring about poverty for the past 5 years and suddenly care again. I still care, and am excited for this next leg in the journey. This post will be a little more personal than most of my posts and I don't expect too many people will be THAT interested, but I want to share it nonetheless and hope that some of you will be inspired to start in on your own journey of personal transformation and change. 

I've been wrestling for the past 5 - 10  years with a fundamental question: "What the heck am I doing with this life God has given me?" Back when I graduated from University of Michigan and moved out to Portland to start my career in the software industry, life was simple: get a good paying job, buy things, pursue a family (I really struck a gold mine there with my wife and kids), be a general good-guy-Christian-type, give some money away (but not too much so as to alter our lifestyle), lather, rinse and repeat for 5 decades until you die. 

About 2 decades in, God had mercy on my pathetic suburban-drenched soul that had up till then espoused a theology of "The American Dream + Conservative Politics = The Way of Jesus". Without going into details on all the theological, spiritual, and political twists and turns that resulted from God's work on my heart, I entered a time of "wrestling". I suppose some call this phase a mid-life crisis, but I hate that terminology. It shouldn't be a crisis. Especially for Christians, it is our "mid-life opportunity", a time of pruning and discernment that may last months, or in my case years. During this time I was blessed with a very patient wife to float hair brained ideas by (thank you Elaine), and Christian friends to discern with who spurred me on to more consistent prayer and Bible reading and an active pursuit of God. 

A particularly important book I read during this time was Half Time by Bob Buford. One of the things the book asks is what epitaph (10 words or less) you'd like written on your tombstone (or rather, if you didn't prescribe one ahead of time, what would others write for you based on what they observed in your life). My current hoped-for epitaph is "Loved God and others with everything he had". Still working on it. Another tool in the book is to develop a set of commitments for your second half -- not goals or objectives, but things that you are committed to standing by and that will shape your goals and objectives from here on out. I share mine here as an example:

  1. To accelerate in following Jesus, loving him and being transformed by Him more and more each day.
  2.  To be faithful to Elaine in actions and thoughts; to love her more than myself.
  3.  To support and inspire my kids to center their lives around God.
  4.  To continually learn and be willing to change, adapt; be humble in my beliefs and methods.  To not be judgmental towards others.
  5.  To interact with others such that they feel more empowered, more confident, more successful, more interested in Jesus after spending time with me and my work.
  6.  To be joyful in the Lord, regardless of circumstances.
  7.  To devote a substantial portion of my time and resources to address issues of poverty, developmental compassion, community development.
  8.  To be engaged with the local and global Church; energize believers to be on mission for God.
  9.  To seek out mentors  not like me (people of color, of a different economic/social background).

I've experienced a real struggle during this time of transition with my career goals and a feeling that  I was called to something different. I knew that maintaining the status quo was not an option. Miraculously, God has slowly shifted what is important to me. Promotions, raises, financial security, and the size of my house (The American Dream) has started to fade in importance. I still fight these changes and sometimes think I can still pursue these things and God's call on my life at the same time. Maybe that works for others, but not me.  I left the software world behind about 5 years ago and have since then been working for a non-profit that encourages energy efficiency in the Northwest. A very noble and good cause, and indeed one that some Christians (too few!) have committed their lives to. But I continued to feel that this was only a partial turn, and that a more complete turn was still ahead. 

I've been angry at times that God has not made it clearer to me what my second half should look like and what he was actually calling me to. I've also struggled with feelings of doubt about the value and validity of the first 25 years of my working life. Marketing, business plan development, project management, product management, investor readiness, program evaluation, field research design, and more. But God has shown me that all my diverse experiences are being woven together by him for his purposes. 

During this time of change and discernment, I've continued to be an avid reader. But my reading has evolved and shifted to include topics such as the nature of poverty, international development, theory of social stratification, social justice and sprawl, uneven development, suburbanization, affordable housing, Christian community development, economic development and theory, post-colonialism, social gospel, and more. I began to think about what was going on around me (poverty, immigration, etc) less with a political party lens and with more of a "Jesus lens".  I've been impacted by books such as When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity that call into question standard practices of charity. I have also been honored to volunteer on the board of Love INC of Beaverton which is a non-profit focused on mobilizing and energizing the Church towards its community, especially towards the vulnerable. 

I've always be a learner, and started thinking about pursuing another graduate degree (when you're not sure what to do, go to school, right?) I stumbled upon the field of Urban Studies and started taking classes last year at Portland State University. Throughout this past year, God has continued to paint my picture for the future. Through Love INC, I have seen first-hand how faith-based communities (FBCs) are attempting to serve the poor, and how leaders are struggling to understand the changes going on in the communities around them. While there is a renewed sense of mission to the city and a rediscovery of the importance of social justice, the reality is that FBCs often do more harm than good in terms of sustainable, systemic outcomes. I believe I can have a significant impact at the local and national level helping churches and faith-based non-profits“serve their cities” by coupling their passion and calling with insights and methods from Urban Studies. This is the picture God is slowly painting in my life and as a result I've decided to pursue a doctorate in Urban Studies, and hope to be done with coursework in 2 years followed by research and a dissertation. 

The picture is getting clearer, but questions remain. How will I make a living? How can I best position myself to have the greatest impact? Once I'm done with my studies, I hope to lead a program or organization, writing, speaking, training, and consulting, to challenge and change thinking and practice. While I will no doubt adjust my research focus during the course of my studies, I am interested in the intersection of FBCs and inequality, poverty alleviation, and social stratification.  For example, how have FBCs, and specifically Christian churches, reinforced social stratification, particularly with the insidiousness of the “suburban captivity of churches”[1]? An emerging research question that I’ve developed during this past year of study is “How do causal poverty trees (developed in a participatory manner) vary spatially between cities and suburbs?” I want to find out if the poverty alleviation methods employed across metro regions (central cities and suburbs) are effective, in order to understand how to best design programs that are matched to the unique resources of FBCs and the specific nature of poverty in their communities. 

Thanks to the three of you that made it this far. 

More to come...

[1] See Winter, Gibson. “The Suburban Captivity of the Churches” (1961).