Downward Mobility

By Joe May

Let me begin with a story. It involves a beautiful wool pillowcase hand-woven in Greece in the late 1930s. Both the pillowcase and the story come from my mother, who was born and lived in the village of Agios Germanos, in Macedonia. During the German occupation, around 1941, much of Greece suffered from food shortages, due to the fighting and the fact that the Germans took whatever they needed. My grandmother was running the household while my grandfather was working in the United States.

One day a woman from Epiros walked into the village and passed out on my grandmother’s doorstep. My grandmother took the woman into the house and gave her food and water. The woman revived and told her story. She had walked for four days in search of food for her starving children. Could my grandmother spare some flour? Now, there wasn’t much food for her own children in my grandmother’s pantry. Food was hard to find and the world had been turned upside-down by the Italian invasion followed by the German invasion.

What would have been an easy decision in normal times in this situation could mean hunger for her own children. My grandmother agonized over it, but she gave the woman all the flour she could spare. In gratitude, the woman gave my grandmother this pillowcase. They cried together and embraced, said goodbye, and then the Epirote woman went on her way back home.

The pillowcase has remained a symbol in my family of the sacredness of the moment of extreme need. When my mom told me the story of the pillowcase, I was stunned. It was not about doing a good deed; it was about entering into the mystery that we are all sisters and brothers in Christ. My mom gave me the pillowcase when I opened Matthew 25 House.

I am neither a scholar nor a theologian. I am a student of our faith and I am working on being a disciple of Christ. I graduated with a Master of Divinity from Holy Cross, worked for three years with non-profit ministries in poverty settings, lived and worked for seven years with the Catholic Workers, five of those years running Matthew 25 House.

What I bring is not so much the “what” of the Gospel, but the “how” of it. How do we work this Gospel out within community, especially the poor community? In our neighborhood there are run-down houses. Broken cement and broken glass are everywhere. Some go to work – some have no work. Addiction, violence and crime hold on tight as a glove to our neighborhood. Yet there is also beauty. Beautiful children play outside. Families go about their lives and have porch parties and barbeques.

Last month our house was shot at. Earlier the house across the street was shot at. Two weeks ago five cars on our street were shot at – we found ourselves after midnight, with our neighbors, sweeping broken glass out of our cars and off the streets. Most of the neighbors were sitting silently on their porches. Like me, they felt fear, powerlessness and anger for the danger to children.

I was talking with a neighbor, Shirley, about the recent gunfire. I said, “May God protect our families…” and she finished it with “from things seen and unseen.” I pray for God’s protection, but I know that God’s protection is not magical. We could be shot. But our neighbors cannot leave. They have no choice but to stay, so we also must stay.

Earlier that evening, three guests from Mexico showed up exhausted and desperate for a place to stay. This happens a lot with us – usually when we’re least prepared to take guests. They had been victims of a slave ring. Somehow they made it to us. We had no free beds, but we managed to make space.

This is the way Christ is with us. We try to understand the poverty around us and we try to live in poverty. For us, this is where the Gospel is: being hammered out in our poor neighborhood, not in an air-conditioned office.

The Gospel is clear. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Great Teacher of poverty, has called on us to live in voluntary simplicity.

We are all disciples of Jesus Christ. What does Jesus say about wealth and poverty? Jesus says that to be rich is a problem. We all have heard his teachings about the rich. Again and again we have heard them in church as the Gospel readings. They are so hard for us to hear because we are rich.

In the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), the rich man shows not a bit of mercy to poor Lazarus and is condemned while Lazarus goes to Paradise to be in the bosom of Abraham.

There is the story of Jesus and the Rich Young Man (Luke 18:18-30) who asked Jesus what he needed to do to reach perfection. Jesus told him to sell everything, give it to the poor and follow Him. The young man could not do it and left feeling sad. Jesus then told His disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven. I love the way so many preachers get around this. I am sure you have heard it: that in Jerusalem there was a gate called the “Eye of the Needle” – if the camel crouched down carefully, it could get through. A reading from St. John Chrysostom is more challenging: “What then did Christ say? ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into the kingdom of Heaven!,’ blaming not riches but them that are held in subjection by them.”

Jesus says His message is good news to the poor. In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus is asked if he is the Messiah who is to come, he answers: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”

The poor are the people at the bottom, those reduced to begging, who have no money, influence, power, honor or respect. They are the lowly, diseased, afflicted, the helpless, the needy. At Matthew 25 House we find them as the people with nothing who come to live with us. We supply food, shelter, socks and underwear for them. These have the good news brought to them.

Jesus calls His disciples “little ones.” In Matthew, Jesus says: “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Mt 10:42)

Jesus’ disciples are “little ones”! Jesus gives us a picture of what it means to be a disciple who is a “little one” in Matthew 20:25. Jesus said: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Remember how He taught the disciples at the Last Supper that the mark of a disciple is servanthood by washing their feet? And when James and John wished to sit at His right and left, Jesus taught them that they would in fact share in His cup, which was the cross and death! This is why during the Bridegroom Service of Holy Week, Jesus is called the Great Teacher of Poverty! The cross is the ultimate form of poverty.

What we need to ask ourselves is: where do we see ourselves in all this? I am wondering: as American Christians, have we become too big to receive the Gospel message as Good News? Can we honestly call ourselves the “little ones”? I don’t think we look like little ones. We certainly aren’t poor.

I believe we need to use brutal honesty and look at ourselves:

Tonight as we sit here at St. Vladimir’s investigating wealth and poverty, there are 6.39 billion children of God sharing this planet with us. We in the United States make up about 5 percent of the world population, but we use up about 25 percent of its resources.

In 2001, median household income in the U.S. was $42,228. Among the poorer countries in the world, half of the world population lives on less than $2 per day, and worse, more than 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 per day.

While we in America spend $43 billion on weight loss and throw away 48 million tons of food every year, 852 million of our sisters and brothers across the world go hungry, which is ten million more than one year ago. In the underdeveloped world eleven million children younger than five die every year, most from hunger-related diseases. So while we eat hamburgers by the billions, most of the rest of God’s children are trying to find food just to survive. (These numbers come mostly from the United Nations World Health Organization.)

In my home, in Summit County, Ohio, one out of five children lives below the poverty line and experiences hunger – about in line with the national figures.

I am not saying anything new. These figures are presented over and over. What amazes me is how routinely these numbers just pass by us.

In America we have the biggest GDP, the biggest military (and we use it). We are the world’s largest arms manufacturer and seller. We drive the most and the biggest automobiles, take the most airplane flights, throw away the most clothing and buy more to replace them, and we have the most plastic surgery. Americans have the most cell phones, TVs, DVDs and video games.

Meanwhile, sisters and brothers are dying trying to cross the border into the United States from Mexico and Latin America so that they can have a chance to work and live just like us. It embarrasses us. We often call these children of God “boat people” and “wetbacks” and “illegals.” We incarcerate and kill them for trying to come here. And many of us claim to be followers of Jesus Christ.

The same is happening all over the European news as desperate people from Africa die trying to cross into Spain and Italy. The Western European nations are setting up holding areas in Libya and elsewhere and are scrambling to stop the influx of the poor. It embarrasses them, too.

Can we really claim “little one” status? “Little” isn’t an America trait. As American Orthodox we participate in that “bigness.” Don’t we celebrate wealth in our churches? Be honest! The wealthy make a splash whenever they make big contributions; we celebrate the erection of new and beautiful edifices, the purchase of Summer Camps, and so on. This all has to do with wealth.

So, who cares? Why should we care about the fact that we have far too much when the majority of others have so little? We care because God cares, and because in Matthew chapter 25, God says that we must care, too.

Wealth brings inevitable changes. Wealth inebriates our minds, and causes us to get our thinking completely backwards. As disciples of Christ we cannot afford this. We should take a look at our wealthy-person way of thinking. I offer what I call “four vulgarities” that I think are forged from wealthy living:

Vulgarity One

A few years ago in Akron there was a conference on poverty with many experts in social work and urban issues. There was much talk about improving legislation and better funding for social programs. (These are not bad in themselves, but not the ultimate answers.) During the presentations I had a nagging feeling that something was inside out about their understanding of poverty, but I couldn’t say exactly what it was. The presenters were great people doing great work. At one point in the discussions an African American woman from my neighborhood stood up and asked the moderator, “How is it that you are here teaching us about poverty when you are all wearing expensive suits and watches and I have no money to get clothing for myself and my children?” I heard anguish in her voice. The pundits sat expressionless for a long time. I thought of a line said by Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire: “Sometimes so suddenly there is God.”

It dawned on me what was bothering me about the conference. In the presentation there was an implicit understanding that the real task with poverty was cleaning up those dirty poor people and giving them the skills and opportunities to become good middle-class consumers like us. Then everything would be okay. All of the changes would have to be made with the poor; we the rich would not be required to change. To me this was completely backwards. We are the ones who need to simplify and more closely resemble the poor, as Jesus told us.

Vulgarity Two

I have heard people from all walks of life debate the vexing question: “Should I give the beggar on the street the dollar in my wallet?” What usually comes next is the decision that this is not effective; therefore don’t give. Tolstoy asked the same question in What Then Must We Do? Tolstoy went to a poor neighborhood in Moscow and handed out money to the people he found there. Of course he ran out of pocket money long before he ran out of poor people. On reflection, he came to the conclusion that the question was wrong. It was not about giving money to beggars. It was far worse than that! He realized we have to change ourselves. We needed to live in a way that doesn’t exploit people – that doesn’t create a stratum of people at the bottom. We need to live with only what we need, not with the luxuries that we don’t need.

Vulgarity Three

Perhaps you have heard this before: “When you think about it, you know, it is actually the rich who are the impoverished ones.” I am never sure what I am supposed to make of this statement, other than it being some kind of escape hatch from responsibility to change our lives. It leaves us feeling as though we can live as usual in our wealth. I guess the phrase is true in a philosophical sense, but how does that help us to live as disciples of Christ? Imagine telling someone who is starving in Somalia that, “You know, when you think about it, it is actually the rich who are the impoverished ones.”

Vulgarity Four

Four goes like this: “Voluntary poverty may be your gift, your vocation, but it’s not mine.” This is another escape hatch. The unspoken part of this statement is that God has gifted me with the particular burden and the task of being the custodian and guardian of the wealth I possess. Others are gifted with the vocation of poverty and hunger and suffering. It is all God’s will.

In addition to such backward thinking, wealth causes separation. We have to protect our wealth. Tolstoy wrote that we have a built-in system of separating ourselves from the poor by means of our clothing, education, mannerisms and the way we speak. Any of these things give us away immediately as belonging either to one situation or another, to wealth or to poverty. Have you ever seen this? A poor person entering an expensive shop or restaurant sticks out and is made silently unwelcome. The reverse is true when the wealthy person tries not to stick out at a bus stop in a poor neighborhood. I have seen this over and over again in my way of acting in my neighborhood. Do I put people off? Am I welcoming of all people? I struggle to relate to people in a way that Jesus prefers for me – in a way that sees people as God does.

We separate ourselves with our choices: our automobiles, the neighborhoods we choose to live in, the schools that we choose, the careers we pick. We don’t act like “little ones.”

Even the way in which we talk about doing God’s work among the poor separates us. We use words like “philanthropy” and “missions” and “ministry” that place us over the people whom we are helping. I think that it is really about communion and relationship and not about helping and good deeds. What it should be about is that we live as family, God’s family. Living in voluntary poverty then means putting things back into a humble relationship with God and with each other. Christ brought communion, not separation. At least not separation from the poor! The poor are the ones Jesus chose to live with.

Wealth becomes idol worship. Jesus told us that we couldn’t serve both God and mammon. In this country we celebrate technology because it brings us wealth. We live in a dream that technological advancement will keep progressing toward greater material gain and more comfortable lives.

But technology does not bring holiness. While science has made incredible leaps, has our love for one another done the same? Has our love for God improved with technology? I don’t think we use our technology eucharistically, meaning offered in thanksgiving to God.

Take the Terri Schiavo case (God rest her soul). While we struggled with the ethical issues of the case, the vast majority of people around the world will never enjoy the safety net of medical care that she had for fifteen years. Millions in this rich country live without any health insurance or access to health care whatsoever. I haven’t heard many express any remorse about that fact, nothing like the emotions that surrounded the Terri Schiavo case. The fact is that we don’t share our technological gifts. We don’t use them eucharistically.

Another example: our nuclear weapons technology. We are co-author with the Soviets of the biggest monster known to the world: the nuclear standoff involving over 5,000 nuclear weapons on each side – a fraction of which, if used, would destroy all life on this planet. We’ve used it to destroy two cities, killing hundreds of thousands of people. The fate of the world rests in our hands. This is a beast rising out of the sea. There is no putting it back into the sea for there is no going back from having the knowledge of nuclear weapons, and now this knowledge proliferates to more and more nations.

Technology has become a false god. We lean on it for comfort and it changes us. Every Great Vespers we sing Phos Ilaron, O Joyful Light: “O joyful light of the holy glory of the immortal Father, the heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ. Now that we have reached the setting of the sun and behold the evening light, we sing to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is fitting at all times to praise you with cheerful voices, O Son of God, the Giver of life. Behold, the entire world sings your glory.” Up against the real dilemma of nightfall, we turn to God – Jesus is our undying Light. But wait a minute… we don’t have real nightfall – we live in the perpetual daylight of electrical light. I never knew how much is lost by having this comfort until I went on a mission team to Uganda. When the sun went down in Uganda, you were done for the day! Everything stopped. We sat around the fire and talked. We became more interdependent.

Through technology we have rescinded God’s command in Genesis 3. God said that in great toil and by the sweat of our brow shall we eat. Not us. We produce our food mostly by machines doing the planting. Migrant workers, the “little ones,” who are paid next to nothing are picking the produce that we eat. We don’t make our clothing, either. “Little ones” in China, Indonesia, Nicaragua, and all over the poor parts of the world work in horrifying conditions and are paid pennies for the clothes and shoes that we wear.

The result of technology is not improvement for everyone, not communion with God or man. It has brought a chasm between the rich and the poor. The differences between Christian Orthodoxy and the Christian West pale in comparison with the abyss that has opened up between a self-contained wealthy world and the vast majority of people living in poverty.

Wealth married to technology is destroying God’s creation. We have polluted the air, water and land. We destroy trees and animals. The ice caps are melting and this summer the shrinking glaciers of Switzerland were being wrapped in PVC so that the wealthy can continue to ski this winter. This way of using resources is theft. We have learned not only to steal from the rest of the world today, but also from our grandchildren and all future generations. Patriarch Bartholomeos has urged us to reflect on the connection between our consumption and the destruction God’s beautiful creation, the ecosystem.

Wealth is sly and numbing. Kierkegaard called wealth a sleeping potion. Chrysostom tells us that wealth is a trap. Both writers are referring to the parable of the Sower of the Seed, where Jesus teaches His disciples that the seed that falls among the weeds and thorns gets choked off by the cares and pleasures and riches of the world. The result is no fruit for the Gospel.

Wealth has given us a false sense of what is real, normative, and appropriate for Christian life. It is like a horizon forever moving out ahead of us. We cannot see the sin in our waste and consumption. The chasm between the wealth and extreme poverty in the world is our only alarm clock to wake us from the sleeping potion of wealth. We may be able to dismiss poverty when we go to liturgy, when we hear the Gospel, when we interact with other wealthy people. But we are not able to dismiss it when we dare to enter the world of the poor.

I think of it as though I am on a train, looking at the train platform, seeing motion, but not knowing if it is the train that is moving, or the platform. Everyone on the train is telling me that it is the platform that is moving, but then I look over to see an apple rolling on a tray next to me and I realize that it is the train that is moving. We are wrong in our wealth. We need to be sure of our point of reference. As disciples of Jesus Christ the point of reference is the Gospel, not the American Dream. There is so much at stake.

I still fall asleep under the spell of wealth. The moving apple for me is the poor. It nudges me to wake up and concentrate again on God and on my neighbors in need and to live in communion – in voluntary poverty.

None of us finds it easy to let go of what we have. It is the most uphill, tiresome and impossible thing. What makes for a voluntary simplicity that is worthy of a disciple of Christ is not any effort immanent in ourselves, but that which is wholly outside ourselves: the grace of God. Chrysostom says this in his homily on the story of Jesus and the Rich man in Matthew: “Whence it is shown, that there is no ordinary reward for them that are rich, and are able to practice self command. Wherefore also He affirmed it to be a work of God, that He might show that great grace is needed for him who is to achieve this.”

The impossible becomes possible only through God. So we are not even allowed to boast or take credit, for it is God’s doing – He gives us the grace.

Our faith gives us tools to help us on our road to poverty. We have repentance, a complete turning around toward God. Reread every word of the Bridegroom Service of Holy Week! Poverty only makes sense in light of the loving anticipation of the arrival of Christ the Bridegroom. Within the prayers and hymns of the Bridegroom Service, we hear of shaking off our indolence, of the martyria of the Three Youths in the Furnace and of the Ten Virgins.

Now would be a good time to listen with fresh ears to the teachings of the monks on asceticism. Why did monks fled to the desert? Sin, corruption, wealth, and power. We have the lives of saints like Nektarios and Maria Skobtsova to light our path toward imitating Christ the Teacher of Poverty. Poverty is transformed into radiance in the saints.

We’ve got to put the collision back into the Gospel. Kierkegaard said: “Christianity is the profoundest wound that can be inflicted upon a man, calculated on the most dreadful scale to collide with everything…”

The scandal of the Cross does this. When the Gospel of Jesus hits you, your life must change radically. There is no”life as usual.” Life-as-usual allows us to sit on our wealth. The road to poverty places you in jeopardy. It puts you at risk. But it is the same risk for the vast majority of the world, and it is a cross.

How do we put the “collision of the gospel” back into our lives? Let’s think for a moment. The Cross explodes politics. What would happen if a candidate for the presidency proposed an economic slow-down on behalf of the people of the world and the health of the earth? What if they called for voluntary simplicity from the citizens of this country, turning our direction toward God instead of Mammon?

How about in the church? What if a bishop or your parish priest called for the emptying of the coffers and a sale of the church’s non-liturgical valu ables in order to share with the poor? That is exactly what Chrysostom did, didn’t he? What happens when a parish board member suggests that outreach to the poor should take priority over a building project, or that the poor should stay in their facility for warmth in the winter? Is anyone uncomfortable yet?

Let’s move closer to home. What if a family decided, on the basis of the Gospel, to sell their expensive home and buy a modest home in a poor neighborhood? What if parents encouraged their child to pass up college and become a missionary (a life of poverty and hardship)? What if a child announced to his or her parents the intention to do so? What would happen? This is the collision I am talking about.

How do we use our money and our time and our talent? How do we love each other? The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the car we drive and how much we drive it, the house we buy, the mortgage we accrue, the neighborhood we live in – all of these things have something to say about whether or not we are disciples of Jesus Christ, the Teacher of Poverty.

Could the poor teach us how to do without luxuries? We could learn loads by living with the poor. I wish that each parish would have a house of hospitality for the homeless, the sick, the people fresh out of prison, teen mothers, the mentally ill, refugees.

Discipleship means giving witness as a “little one” in this life. Who do we testify that Jesus is? The ancient Roman World was not turned upside down by glossy magazines or magnificant mosaics. The Gospel spread because the disciples of Jesus gave up their lives. The Great Commission that Jesus gives us means proclaiming the Good News and pouring ourselves out for it. Chrysostom said that making the sacrifice to live in poverty is hard, but the cross may be required of us – we may have to die, to spill our blood for our witness to Jesus. Compared to that, the road of poverty is easy.

We need to simplify. It won’t happen all at once. I look at myself and daily I think… failure! But we have to try. That way, if we are faithful with the things on this earth, maybe we will be entrusted with the true riches.

I pray for the conversation about living in poverty to start. Begin with people in your parish, the people around you. Bring up voluntary poverty for the sake of Jesus who was born poor, had nowhere to lay his head, was buried in someone else’s grave and who rose from the dead on the third day so that we may have eternal life. Bring it up and mean it! Get it in your gut and be on fire for it. They may throw buckets of water on you in order to put out your fire.

Let them. Do it anyway.

Joe May’s text was one of the two keynote addresses at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship conference held at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in July. Joe May founded Matthew 25 House in 2001. Visit the web site: www.mattthew25.org.