What I learned from being poor for a month

Right now I’m blogging about my El Camino experience. If you want to see David’s take, the link to his blog is here.

Traditionally, the pilgrim went on a pilgrimage with just his cloak on his back and lots of faith that churches and kind people along the way would provide for his every material need until he reached Santiago. (And yes, I specifically used “he” because there were virtually no female pilgrims back in the day, because of the bandits and sickness and extreme cold and maybe death).

We did not go with only our cloaks. As much as we liked to feel self-righteous about our “real pilgrim” poverty, we had warm sleeping bags, hiking boots that cost hundreds of dollars and enough money to eat pretty much every day. We even had sleeping pads for the three times we slept outside. If one of us got seriously sick, we could have bailed.

We were not poor. But at the same time, we were the poorest I’ve ever been. David and I had a set budget we had for the trip, and, yeah, we had emergency money, but when you’re coming from South Africa where one of you has been a teacher and the other a volunteer, and the exchange rate is R13 for one Euro… we really didn’t have money.

I’m a bit of a control freak. I like to know how much I have, and where it’s all going, and what the plan is going to be. When I’m in my normal life, I read that verse about not worrying about life, or what I’ll eat or drink, and I say, “Fine, then I’ll just worry about my masters thesis and my job and the whole world instead of food and drink.”

But on Camino, life was stripped down to eating, sleeping and walking. Only three things to worry about. Piece of cake.

Ah, but I was quite good at worrying. The whole first three days I was calculating and re-calculating what we had spent, and berating David for not keeping track of the receipts, and living with a spirit of scarcity. On the occasion we would splurge on chocolate or spend a whole euro on a packet of chocowheel biscuits, I would want to sneak off and eat them alone instead of in the communal kitchen where I’d have to share. Shameful, but true. I’m okay sharing when I know I have enough. But hello, these are my chocowheels, and I can’t just be extravagant with them and share them willy-nilly with those undeserving people who probably can afford to go buy coffee whenever they want.

I’m into controlling and managing and planning.

Something I’m learning is the Christian life is not just abstract pieces of truth for us to think about. It’s lived, and it takes practice. This is the joy of spiritual disciplines–you actually do something in order to reshape the way you think and act and live life. So for a month, I practiced the spiritual discipline of being poor.

And I began to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, and really mean it.

I began to be amazed that the words of Jesus, “Look, the birds don’t worry because my heavenly father feeds them. You don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink” really are true. Day after day after day, I saw how God did provide. Sometimes not exactly what I wanted (a picnic area we could sleep in rather than a cheap albergue), and sometimes not when I wanted. But it was enough.

I began to open my hands a little. I began to share. I began to look for people we could invite to share our spaghetti with us in the evenings, and when they wanted to chip in to the cost say, “No, don’t bother. There’s more than enough.” There was. There was always enough. There was even more than enough.

That was the lesson that pounded through my feet and into my heart over that month. There’s enough.

The massive table at Granon

The massive table at Granon

“Where in the States are you going?” asked the albergue volunteer at Granon. “I’ve been to the States and I loved it!”

“Where did you go?” David and I asked.

“Detroit. I was there in 2008.”

David and I looked at each other.  “And you loved it?!” we said. “Sorry, that’s just not usually what people say about Detroit, especially in 2008.”

“Well,” she said, “It reminded me of Camino. People were losing their jobs left and right, and no one had anything, but they just shared what they had, and there was so much joy and generosity.”

There is enough.

In South Africa, we live in this guilt-ridden “middle-class” space, where compared to the average person in the community of Sweetwaters we’re stinking rich, but compared to David’s co-workers at school and our friends at church we’re kind of poor. And in South Africa we’re always awkwardly wondering how much to spend, and on what. Like church friends inviting us out to do somekind of expensive social thing, and thinking, “No ways do we want to spend that much money on that,” but then feeling bad about saying no, and then when people press and say, “Is it a money thing? We can cover for you,” feeling even more awkward. Because we have money. We just don’t want to spend it all on movies or lattes or wine-tastings. And so then we have to wrestle with what we should spend our money on, and every time people offer us money to join them in some social activity, having that internal debate, “Should we? Shouldn’t we? Are we being selfish if we accept the money? Are we being selfish party-poopers if we don’t?” Welcome to the guilt-ridden middle-class life.

On Camino, I was free of any of those qualms. And it was wonderful. It was so freeing to be poor. I could just accept things, and I didn’t have to sort through guilt, or make decisions, or wonder if I was taking advantage of someone’s kindness. I needed it, I couldn’t pay it back, and I knew it.

When our recently retired Korean American friends invited us to go grocery shopping with them and then completely covered the bill, we just praised God and said thank you. And they didn’t do it just once, but several times, and not just for us, but for many pilgrims.

At Logrono.

At Logrono.

At Logrono, when the volunteers served us meat and potato stew, with piles of fresh bread and salad, and took us in an underground tunnel to the cathedral to pray, the volunteer host said, “Thank you for blessing us by coming. This is what we live for, when you come, you give us a great, great privilege. A privilege one that many people in their lives never have: the privilege of getting to serve and get nothing back. It is our joy to serve you here.” And I received.

When our Florida-Venezuelan friend Jesus saw me hobbling on my wooden hiking sticks and he flung them out of my hands and gave me brand-new, high-tech hiking poles (that we could never afford), all I could do was receive.


Jesus & me

When we met up with him at Santiago, and had bear-hugs and laughter outside the cathedral, and I tried to thank him, he said in his thick Spanish accent, “Ah, you know, after Granon, when everyone went around and shared why they were really on the Camino, and you said that you had been working in South Africa and that all you wanted was to just see Christ on this trip, it really touched me and I had been looking for a person to bless, and then I knew it was going to be you. So then when I saw you walking along with those terrible sticks, I was just so happy, because I saw exactly how I could help you. So thanks, man. You gave me a chance to give.” So I received.

When in albergue after albergue, communal suppers and breakfasts were set out for us to eat as much as we could, we dropped in our coins, but we knew that they could not cover the real cost of the meal, the hot shower, and the bed. The churches and volunteers running the albergues bore the real costs. We just received.

The amazing vegan meal.

The amazing vegan meal.

When we stayed at a cheap hostel and walked over to visit our friends at their hippy-commune hostel, the hosts said, “Oh, please stay for supper, it’s just donativo and we’d love to have you eat with us.” We stayed. And we ate curried cumin carrot soup, and home-made rye bread, and salad with avocado and home-made coriander lime dressing, and Japanese style eggplant, and vegan carrot cake, and a choice of oolong or jasmine or rooibos tea to finish it all off . And at every point, the volunteers wouldn’t let us leave our seats, “It’s our joy to serve you,” they said. So we received.

A volunteer at one albergue pressed a 30 Euro note into my hand and said, “My husband and I just wanted to bless you with this.” And I received.

And then I thought of how hard it is for me to accept things in normal life. And how hard it is for me to accept not just physical gifts, but spiritual gifts as well.

It’s hard for me to accept grace. I know in my head God loves me and has freely given himself to me. But in the middle-class morality of my Christian upbringing, I’m the rich man.

It’s hard for me to get into the kingdom because I think I’ve got something to offer. Thanks for this grace, God, but, you know, I have actually got something here for you, too. I’m a pretty good girl. Look at all these amazing things I’ve done for you. And then I get critical and judgmental with myself for not doing enough, and I get critical and judgmental of other people who are not doing enough. I’m not free to receive from God because my hands are full. It’s difficult for me to receive the way I received when I was poor—joyfully, and full of relief, and thankfulness, and with both hands outstretched.

These are two things I want to carry with me from Camino. Now that we’re looking for jobs, and it’s not just tomorrow I’m trying not to worry about, but all the days after that as well… I’m trying to cling to the truths that God pounded into my soul through the soles of my feet:

There will always be enough.

And blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Or, as Eugene Peterson says, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.

With less of you there is more of God and his rule”.

Side note for the literalists: So, I’m not saying with this post that life is just one big party of seeing God’s provision every day for people who live their whole lives in material poverty. We weren’t actually poor on this trip– we were materially poor for a short period of time. Material poverty leads to (& is part and parcel of) other kinds of poverty that are deeply dehumanizing, like shame and inadequacy, and lack of opportunity, and of course we should do all we can to break people out of the cycle of poverty. And we don’t do that just by giving hand-outs. If you’re confused, watch this video. End of sermon. 

The State of Western Missions, talking donkeys and a video

I am now an avid fan of the Phil Vischer podcast (creator of Veggie Tales and What’s in the Bible). I’m a fan for many reasons, especially because he mentioned Taylor University by name in his most recent podcast. He also talked about his uncle who left (abandoned??!) his wife and kids for three years to minister to cannibals in the middle of nowhere. And then this guy showed up again after three years, and his child didn’t even know who he was. Um, how is that ever okay?

So then that got me kind of depressed, thinking about all the missionary screw-ups there have been in the history of western missionaries. Like, the whole preach Jesus and not western culture we kind of mess up a lot, I think. And we try not to be too obnoxioulsy rich and white, but too often we are without even realizing it. (Read more on Between Worlds and Djabouti Jones. Yes, read them.)

And then there’s that whole actually listening to people, and honoring people thing that is a little hard.

And there’s so many things in the community development world, like TOMS shoes, that seemed like such a good idea at the time but actually turn out to be really un-helpful for so many people.

So then part of me thinks, why did we ever think this was a good idea in the first place?? People have so many good intentions, but good intentions aren’t enough, and we can cause more harm than good, so why do we rush around headlong into these things anyway?

BUT… then I think of those old men telling William Carey (one of the first Western missionaries to India) to “sit back down” because God could convert the heathen in India without his help… and how that’s also not okay.

And I think of the German church who didn’t do ANYTHING about Hilter because they were so paranoid of doing the wrong thing. So they debated and debated instead of taking a stand. Bonhoffer said “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” He chose to be a part of a plot to kill Hiter, and he believed in the radical grace of God that would cover his sin if he was wrong. It was better to act and “sin boldly” than to pussy-foot around and then miss out on doing something that could make a difference.

And then I think of the fact that God used a donkey speak to Balaam. A donkey*.

And he used Peter, who was constantly putting his foot in his mouth, and didn’t always get things right.

And he’s used my parents, who (I can attest!) don’t always do everything right but (I can also attest!) have done lots of things right.

It’s so crazy that God would chose to use people to accomplish his mission of reconciliation and redemption here on earth, when he knows that we’ll screw up and not get it right all the time. But his grace that covers the brokenness we are trying to fix in the world is the same grace that covers our brokenness. The only thing we really know for sure is that whatever “good thing” we’re doing in the world, we’re doing it wrong. Or perhaps imperfectly is a better word. But God can and does still use us. He chooses to.

So I don’t think we should just run out there and go try to save the world…but I also don’t think we can hesitate and nibble our fingers and debate best pratice for years. I think maybe we just need to be a little more humble. And not always assume that our ideas are invincible..they most probably are wrong. This position is called “intellectual honesty” in the academic world. It’s saying “After examining all the data, it  seems to be saying this….but I understand that I don’t see perfectly and I could be wrong.”  And I guess when we’re in that position, we’re quicker to listen to other people and change our pratices when they’re wrong. Which is basically humility.

And so, that is why I am going to share this video with you. I could stick my nose in the air and make comments about Western neo-colonialism and how even in trying to communicate the dignity and humanity of cultures we still have to use Western culture as a medium…but I won’t.

Because this video made me SMILE. And the concept (and the organization’s philosophy of community engagement) are pretty cool. So I’m just going to take it in the spirit it was intended and sing along. 

I hope you do, too!

(Click through and watch this, you people who get this in email)

(*also, talking donkeys were mentioned in the same light on the Phil Vischer podcast. Go listen). 

On Being Needy


Some of the cute kiddos I need to start learning from. :)

Some of the cute kiddos I need to start learning from. 🙂

I’ve been reading Kenneth Bailey’s “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes”. One of the things I’ve been struck with again and again is how humble Jesus is. Not just the whole incarnation God humbling himself to become a man thing. That was amazing. 

But even the kind of man that Jesus was is amazing. He was incredibly humble. 

 In the gospels we see again and again how Jesus puts himself in the position where he needs other people. He doesn’t barge in and fix everything (which, as God, he has the right and the power to do). He doesn’t snap his fingers and heal everyone. He asks the blind man, “What can I do for you?” He asks the crippled man, “Do you want to be healed?” He doesn’t impose his will on others (his good, pleasing and perfect will, I might add). 

He asks. 

 He also puts himself in positions where he genuinely needs other people. By doing so, he affirms their dignity. He asks Peter, “Can I borrow your boat to preach from? And can you keep it close to shore for me while I speak?” He asks the woman at the well  “Can you give me something to drink?” He’s tired and thirsty.  And he doesn’t have a bucket. He needs her help. It’s not some artificial ruse to get her to listen to his message. He’s actually tired and thirsty and he actually needs some water. 

Bailey quotes Daniel T. Niles, a great Sri Lankan theologian who says Jesus was “a true servant, because he was at the mercy of those he came to serve…This weakness of Jesus, we his disciples must share. To serve from a position of power is not true service but beneficence.”

This is a bit uncomfortable for someone like me who loves fixing things. I like being smart. I love having the answer. I love sharing my opinions. I hate needing help from people. I like doing things myself. Even when I’m in positions where I would genuinely need other people, I’d rather try it myself than have to ask someone for help–which basically is another way of saying I’m proud. 

It’s scary to think about in terms of missions, and community development. In both cases, we tend to think that the whole reason we are here is because we have something that other people don’t have. We have something they need (skills, education, the gospel, technology). We tell ourselves, “Oh, we’re learning things from the people in the community every day!” 

But… really? Do we really, truly think that way? Or do we just say that? Do we really, truly think that the people we’ve come to serve have something that we really need? And do we put ourselves in positions where we really need that from them?

Niles goes on to talk about how Christian missionaries and development workers have often gone “in strength”– with medicines, or new technology, or education– and in doing have stripped the gospel of it’s greatest power– it’s weakness and foolishness. (Not to “cultural-type”, but I think this is one example of why we need to hear the voices of the global body of Christ, since the point this Sri Lankan theologian makes is one I don’t often hear Western theologians making.)

As community development workers and missionaries, we’re pretty confident the things we’re offering will help people (otherwise I don’t think we’d be offering them). But if Jesus, who certainly had the best thing in the world on offer, could come in a position of weakness and service, could ask for real help from other people– we certainly should do the same.

So this is what I’m thinking about this week: 

  • What does the community of Sweetwaters have to offer me that I need to put myself in a position to receive? 
  • What can my friends offer me, that I have been too proud to place myself in need of? 
  • In what ways am I (or my mission’s agency, or my organization) insulating ourselves from needing the people we’ve come to work with? How are we supplying all our own needs rather than depending on the community?
  • What do my friends who don’t know Jesus have that I need? How am I unconsciously being proud in my emphasis on their “lostness” or “sinfulness” instead of humbly receiving from them?