Approximately 5 months ago, my wife and I moved into an apartment complex where our church has been ministering for many years. The church rents an apartment in the complex and uses it as a site for programs such as after-school tutoring, English as a Second Language classes, and summer neighborhood BBQs. This new experience of living within the community in which we serve has changed our lives and altered our perceptions. Early in the move, Melanie shared this journal entry with me and I encouraged her to share it with others. -Emmanuel
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother."
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
In a span of two weeks, I have become the richest person in my neighborhood.
That’s not because I have any more money in my savings account or got a pay raise, I simply moved to a new neighborhood. I’ve never really thought of myself as a rich person. In fact, Emmanuel and I have deliberately attempted to live simply. When we got married, we didn’t register for china or crème brule dishes or fancy appliances. We haven’t bought any new furniture. We don’t have a living room set that matches or a headboard on our bed. We’re eagerly looking for used things for our baby. We don’t own a home, we have no credit card debt and we paid for our car in cash. We’re trying to live simply.
And, in comparison to the people living next door to us on 105 Hill Avenue or couples our age who have recently gotten married and had huge gift registries or purchased a new home and car immediately, I’ve felt like we were doing a good job at the whole simple living thing. But then we moved…and all of a sudden I’m not so sure about all of that.
I’ve been made aware of my riches in many different ways in the past two weeks. Perhaps most significant was a conversation with my neighbor Manuela, whom I met last week. I introduced myself to her as she was coming back from the Fresh Market with the groceries still in her cart and told her that my husband and I had just moved in to the apartment upstairs. Her response was, it’s just you and your husband? You don’t have any other family living with you? Which, when I stop to think about it, is a very valid question since I don’t know of any other apartments in this complex that only have two people living in them. In fact, families of six seem to be the norm. But here I am, complaining about what I consider to be tiny bedrooms and trying to figure out how to cram everything in when to most of my neighbors, two people in a two bedroom apartment is quite the luxury.
Then there was a conversation with my next door neighbor, Beatriz. She asked me if we were all settled and when I explained that we still had a lot of unpacking to do, her response was: When my family moved in all we had was clothes and that was hard enough…I can’t imagine what it would be like to move in with furniture and everything. They moved in with clothes, we moved in with a 14 ft. moving van and two vans crammed full of things…an awful lot of stuff for two people deliberately trying to live simply.
Then there was Wednesday morning when Emmanuel went outside ready for work only to find that neither one of our cars was in the parking lot. It turns out that they had both gotten towed for not having parking stickers and it was going to cost $340 dollars to get them out. We went to Chase an hour later, got the money from our savings account and got our cars. As frustrating as it was to get charged a lot for something that we could have avoided (the parking stickers were in my purse), I couldn’t help but think about our neighbors, the ones living paycheck to paycheck, the ones barely making enough money to pay their monthly rent and bills, the ones who don’t have the luxury of pulling $340 out of a savings account and getting their cars back within an hour.
Then there was Friday when Freddy, Lupita, Manuel and Jose came to hang-out. Freddy’s birthday was on Thursday and when I asked what they did to celebrate, Lupita said, we decorated his room with stars. Manuel later told me that it was the glow in the dark stars that I had given them a few days before, the ones that had been on the ceiling of our bedroom when we moved in to the apartment. I had taken those stars off of our ceiling and was about to throw them away but then thought that they might like them. My trash had become Freddy’s only birthday present.
It’s interesting because Mulberry is not a new place for me. I’ve been coming here for three years, have spent time with the kids, have participated in BBQs and have developed close relationships with some of the people that live here. Yet somehow, visiting and living here have been vastly different experiences for me. Perhaps that’s because it wasn’t until we moved here that I became the richest person in my neighborhood. And, to be quite honest, I’ve found that position to be very uncomfortable. It was much easier to feel like I was obeying Christ’s commandment to love my neighbor as myself when my neighbor didn’t have material needs, when I wasn’t the richest person on the block.
Shane Claiborne says in his book, The Irresistible Revolution, “I’m convinced that God did not mess up and make too many people and not enough stuff. Poverty was created not by God but by you and me, because we have not learned to love our neighbors as ourselves.” He goes on to quote Gandhi who once said, “There is enough for everyone’s need, but there is not enough for everyone’s greed.” And, to be quite honest, I have to fight that greed in me every single day. I have to fight the desire for a home that looks like it came out of an IKEA magazine with matching furniture and cool lamps (I had to leave IKEA last week for that very reason). I have to fight against the temptation to buy new clothes when I already have a closet full of clothes. I have to fight the urge to not want to have a nursery full of brand new furniture and clothes for our baby. It’s hard because there are many voices around me, even within the church, that say those things are ok and even necessary. But when I take a long hard look at my neighbors, I see my wealth and realize that the story in Matthew about the rich man is directed at me and that Christ’s words were said to me, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
In his book, Shane Claiborne says that a proper response to poverty does not involve taking a “vow of poverty” because to do so reeks of privilege. Who, having experienced poverty, would willfully put themselves in that position? Instead, Claiborne suggests another way of responding, rooted in Biblical study, which he calls the theology of enough. In Exodus, after God brings His people out of Egypt, he provides food for them by giving them manna and tells Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for the day.” (Ex. 16:4) Those people who chose to take more than their share for the day found that it was full of maggots by the next day. God did not allow for abundance, He only allowed enough for the day.
While we are no longer fed with manna, God provides for us in many other ways and calls us to be satisfied with enough. I’ll be the first to admit that this is challenging, in a culture permeated by advertising where more, bigger and better is the norm. We are constantly told that that we deserve more and with that often feel like we never have enough. But I pray that God would help me to set aside the voices of our culture, recognize what is enough and make me uncomfortable until He does. That is my prayer for the Church too, for as Shane Claiborne puts it, “Over and over, when I ask God why all of these injustices are allowed to exist in the world, I can feel the Spirit whisper to me, ‘You tell me why we allow this to happen. You are my body, my hands, my feet.’” In the end, perhaps Proverbs 30:8-9 says it best, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’”
Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do. Teach us to be satisfied with enough.