When I packed up after my freshman year of college and moved to the neglected core of the city, I stepped into a whole new world. I had expected differences, of course, but none like what I experienced.
I watched mothers and sons cram into tiny, one-room dwellings where they shared a bed and had a refrigerator for a night stand. I bundled up in my own, unbearably cold house and listened to the rings as our landlord refused to answer his phone. I waited on unreliable public transit that too often dropped me off late for work at the local middle school, where I tutored 6th graders who hadn’t yet learned to read. I answered police officers when they demanded me to show an ID for walking down the street and when they said “hello” sauntering out of drug houses.
I felt lied to. This was not the America I had known and loved.
Suddenly, injustice, racism, and poverty were all there before my eyes. I didn’t want to believe it, but I couldn't ignore it. While all men may be created equal, it was clear their experiences in this country were most certainly impacted by race, zip code, and socioeconomic status.
Do you know this moment? When the pain and injustice of the world is so overwhelming you feel almost like you can’t breathe? You don’t want to believe it’s possible. That racism and exclusion and factionism of all kinds could be so real? It breaks your heart.
In recent months, I’ve heard more and more people lamenting these difficult truths. And watched many of us suffocating under the weight of them. But I’m sorry to say that what is true today was true when I was 19 and was still true before I recognized the reality of brokenness in our country as well. Injustice is not new.
And believe it or not, I don’t say this to be pessimistic. Nor do I say it to dismiss some of the genuinely disturbing things happening in this moment in history. We are right to be watchful and prayerful and to act.
I actually tell you this to offer hope. Because many, many resilient people have walked faithfully in the midst of suffering and persecution and injustice for generations. And they have much to teach us.
Sitting in a small house in New Orleans post-Katrina, my friend and mentor Leroy Barber encouraged a small group of volunteers to learn from the poor. If we have not grown up poor, too often the lessons we cite are post-missions trips cliches: “I’m so thankful for all my blessings.” Or more crassly, “Thank God my life is not like theirs.”
No, the poor have much more to teach us than shallow gratefulness for material things. They can teach us how to hope. They can teach us how to wait for justice while maintaining our dignity. They can teach us how to fight. And they can teach us how to celebrate and truly live in the midst of unspeakable suffering.
I have witnessed this truth many times. In the faces of undocumented immigrants bringing cake to celebrate my husband’s promotion and playing guitar and singing in our dining room. In the words of spiritual songs from historically oppressed groups that celebrate the goodness and joy of the Lord. In the block parties and birthday parties that meander into the night with grown-ups and kids doing the Cupid Shuffle and feasting on pretzels and hot wings.
Perhaps it is helpful to consider what is true blessing. The Messages says it like this:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom” (Matthew 5:3-10).
There is a place and a time to mourn injustice. Absolutely. But that space cannot be the end of the journey. We must learn to pray and hope and fight and celebrate with dignity and delight. And in these moments, the poor can teach us what it truly means to be blessed. They can teach us how to hope.