The Shiny Scare

My junior of high school, I experienced my first history class to move past the American Revolution, Louisiana Purchase, and the 49ers and onto more recent history.

I was fascinated to learn about the red scares, "McCarthyism", the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.  But it wasn't long at all before I heard it.... the word spoken in hushed tones... this c-word seemed mysterious, dangerous, and something that good, Christian girls like me would surely steer clear of.


This history class required me to do some reading.  Suddenly, I was discovering text about the promotion of cooperation and the value that people deserve care regardless of their production in the marketplace.

And the more I thought about it... it actually sounded somewhat Christian to me.

At least.... it seemed to mirror some of the things I’d learned in church.  Put others before yourself. Value comes not from our jobs, savings accounts, or possessions but simply by our creation as sons and daughters of God.

Of course, then I opened my mouth. Sitting among my youth group friends in our class, I expressed my interest in this economic system and questioned its automatic demonization.  Immediately, a friend pointed and simply shouted, “Communist!”  It took two seconds and the group joke was "Sarah is a Communist."

I didn't know a lot, but I definitely knew this label was one I should reject. So I promptly defended myself, saying simply, “It just sounds like a pretty good system.” And then I shrugged and added, “But it’ll never happen this side of heaven.”

Who has the power to oversee the distribution of resources? And how can you trust someone with that much power? If the public owns the means of production, who makes the decisions about them? And if compensation is based on personhood instead of production, how will anyone ever work hard enough to get anything done? The limitations of Communism were clear to me.  And if they aren’t to you, ask most any American, and they will quickly tell you what is wrong with Communism.

But something else has become clear to me over the years, and especially recently... the limitations of Capitalism.

If profits are the only goal, what will happen to workers in an increasingly technological and global society? When companies can save money by damaging the environment or placing employees in dangerous situations, how can we trust them not to? If basic necessities (food, health care, housing, etc.) are for-profit entities, what happens to those who can’t afford them? And if an industry vital to the public is owned by individuals, does the public have to bail it out if the individuals make unwise, greedy decisions?

In short, what I’ve realized is that Capitalism has strengths as a system. It’ll just never work right this side of heaven.

So where does that leave me? Disillusioned with all economic structures? No, I don’t think so. I feel that I can evaluate, critique, and then support legislation that accounts for the limitations of the particular economic structure in place. To accept any system without accounting for the inevitable weaknesses of it only leads to many of the abuses that have come to be associated with it.

As a Christian, I don’t feel any requirement to pledge my allegiance to any economic system. When economics contribute to oppressive leadership, Christians must stand against it. And when economics promote a message that you must always chase the next shiny thing no matter what the cost, then I believe Christians must call out for simplicity over materialism, value for human workers, and care for the vulnerable.

At least as long as we’re on this side of heaven.

Why I Hate Homelessness

My reasons for hating homelessness might be different than you think.

It's not because I think homeless people are lazy or annoying or smelly or anything like that. Not even because I think it’s such a huge injustice or an indictment of society (even if it is). 

I don’t like homelessness because I can’t understand it, because I have no idea how to solve it, and because I absolutely never know how to respond to it.  

For these reasons, I sometimes find myself envying my suburban counterparts who rarely have to deal with this particular social issue. While I appreciate Christians’ good-hearted solutions to take folks out for a meal rather than giving money or ignoring people, I encounter the homeless every day…several times a day. 

It can be exhausting. 

Whether walking for lunch at work or leaving the grocery store, it seems like every time I eat, I am visible reminded of others who cannot. And I don’t know what to do.

So sometimes I wish I could live far away from the city, far from all the tiresome issues – higher taxes, sirens and car alarms, air pollution, the inability to walk around at night, and the list goes on. And then you think about having a child or buying a home, and you think to yourself, “Really? Is this where I’m going to settle? What if my kid ends up joining a gang? What if he gets bullied by a gang? Could a baby sleep through the night with all that racket? Could I ever have any re-sale value in my house?”  

And suddenly, I realize why people used to look at me with those eyes that said, “Ah, Sarah…this living in the city thing is a phase. Wait till you get married. Wait till you want to have a family. Wait till you ‘grow up’.” And one day I found myself agreeing with them. I was tired. I wanted to settle down, and apparently when I thought of settling, I thought about leaving the city.

I was mulling over these kinds of thoughts when I went grocery shopping one evening last fall. Now one of my “rants” over the last year or so has surrounded the high-priced, low-quality food at my local urban grocery stores, so imagine my delight when I walked into the newly remodeled Ralph’s near my house and was overwhelmed by the vegetarian and organic options, the salad bar, the sprawling colorful produce, and the deli. I think I actually felt a tear or two in my eyes.  

Yep, I distinctly remember feeling embarrassed and hoping no one noticed.

Since our kitchen was pretty much stocked, I was thrilled at the prospect of using our weekly grocery money to “splurge” on some edible treats. I bought ripe fruit, hummus, fresh bread, and other “delicacies” I hadn’t seen since I left Kentucky. I happily checked out and bounced towards the exit.  

That’s when I saw her… a thin, frail woman sitting on the wall outside of the door, legs crossed and Styrofoam cup extending towards each person who left the Ralph’s. Quite frankly, I just wanted to go home. I hate turning people down and I hate feeling guilty (and giving money doesn’t necessarily make me not feel guilty). But as I moved closer, I recognized this woman.

“Hey, Kate! I’m Stephanie’s friend,” I reminded her. She has known my former roommate for a long time, and I actually met Kate when she showed up and joined us for dinner one night.

She nodded. “Yeah. How are you?”

“Good. How are you?” I asked her.

She launched into a story about a hospital visit that didn’t make much sense. Then turned her attention to me. “Didn’t you marry that boy?”

“Yes, I did,”

She looked at my fifteen pounds of marriage weight. “You pregnant?”

“No, just fat. But thanks.”

She passed over my joke and stuck out the cup. “Can you help me out?”  Of course I’m not going to say ‘no’ to a woman I know, so I dig in my pocket. I had $2.50. I gave her $1.25.  

We said our good-byes, and I went to my car and loaded my groceries into the car. Sitting inside with the heater running, my mind swirls. Why didn’t I give her all the cash I had? Should I have given her the food from my cart? I just bought food we didn’t need. “Edible treats” you’ll remember. Should I have invited her home for dinner? Should I go back? Should I take her in to get some groceries she would want? I hesitated. I thought. And then I drove home. But I continued to feel conflicted, confused, and unsure of my role the right response to Kate and her situation.

A few weeks later, during the weekend of Thanksgiving, I would see Kate again... this time on a stretcher being loaded into an ambulance. A few weeks after that, there she was in front of Ralph’s as we went in. I asked about the ambulance, and she told another confusing story about the hospital. We brought her out a warm rotisserie chicken before driving off to a church Christmas potluck.

It may sound heartless, and I’ll accept your judgment. I’m not saying I make the right decisions. The reality is I don’t know what the right decision is.  

Sometimes I feel better that I gave her a warm chicken instead of $1.25, but then I’m reminded I didn’t invite her into my home on a cold night. Throw in the “What Would Jesus Do?” question, and I’m still baffled. What I know of his life makes me think he’d skip the church potluck to visit with this woman on the margins. But can I do that when I’m encounter marginalized people all the time? 

I recently had to hurry away from another homeless man in the grocery store parking lot because I was responsible for delivering snacks for our church’s youth group and I was running late. It felt so modern day "guy-from-the-Good-Samaritan-story" I had to go back after I dropped off the snacks and buy another chicken (apparently that’s what following God means to me – handing out chickens).

So why I am telling you all this? Because in these situations, no matter how much I question my decisions, feel inadequate in the living out of my faith, feel connected to Christ through sharing a moment with a homeless person, or feel tired of having to figure it out at all, I am grateful. 

I realized through this experience with Kate that I am thankful I am forced to wrestle with these questions of my faith and life. Yes, I could live in a neighborhood where a grocery stop on the way to a church potluck doesn’t force me to question if I’m really following Jesus…. But that’s the beauty of living here.  

I can’t coast. I am forced to confront my selfishness, my greed, my lack of compassion. I also have opportunities to know God’s grace in my weakness and to share that grace with others, whether I always do it in the best way or not.

And this is the kind of community where I want to raise my kids. I want my kids to know people who are homeless, who are undocumented, who are of different ethnicities. I want my kids to ask questions about society, about Christ, and about their faith and role in the world.  

Many have heard the phrase “Bloom where you are planted.” Someone once told me the same and added, “And consider where you plant yourself.” Bob Lupton, a well-known author and urban ministry leader spoke to a group I was in and said, “Always place yourself in the eyesight of need.”

I pass this advice along to others as we all try to find our way. It’s not a legalistic mandate and it doesn’t mean that all must live in the city. It just means to consider where you settle carefully – don’t just fall into it. 

And I deeply hope that all of us are in places where our encounters push us closer to Christ and help us ask the big questions and continue seeking truth and authenticity.

What experiences cause you to wrestle with your responses and your faith? 
A Life with Subtitles. All rights reserved. © Maira Gall.