The water splashes onto the floor; soap bubbling up inside of it. I take my mop and quickly begin to soak the linoleum floors. They’re grimy and stained to the point of no return, but I try anyway. I have been at the homeless shelter for a week already and this is my family’s chore. Each family gets one and we rotate. Outside I watch the moms with their kids on the playground. There were single moms with six kids. There were families of every color, but even at 14 I noticed they were mostly Black, LatinX, or mixed families. Not white families, like mine. I don’t think it crossed my mind at that point. I just watched them curiously. I wondered how they got there. We both came from vastly different walks of life, yet somehow all ended up here, in the same place. We all ate grits in the morning and took turns mopping the dining room floor. We all frequented the nearest Walgreens and bought junk food with our food stamps. We were all looked down on by society because they didn’t understand.
I’m 23 years old now and I still don’t really understand. My dad was never good with money. My mom isn’t the best with it either. But they both work hard. My dad’s long period of unemployment wasn’t his fault. Sometimes I feel like the people who took us in didn’t really get it. Maybe the church didn’t understand. I think many people blame my parents. They said maybe if they stopped buying so much junk, stopped spending money on cigarettes, stopped just stopped just stopped. It’s easier to think there is a formula for getting out of poverty then to admit that the societal structures we have cultivated are corrupt. It’s easier to blame the homeless for their situation because if we don’t, it means they don’t deserve their suffering. Maybe it means you don’t deserve your wealth.
It makes me think of Parasite, the Korean film directed by the brilliant Bong Joon-ho. When I saw that movie I felt like someone really understood me. There is a scene where Ki-woo looks out at the party happening down below on the lawn where there are happy people, violin players, and an abundance of and he says, “Do I fit in here?” It’s a question I’ve asked myself a million times. As I look around at my classmates who can afford to go to grad school and not work at the same time. For people who get to go on vacations. People with cars. For people who come into my work and spend $600 dollars on Nike apparel “on accident.” Most people have an abundance of wealth that they take for granted because they assume everyone lives like they do; they don’t have wealth. They say they have “enough.” They’re “just comfortable.”
Most of my friends would consider themselves an average American; well off but would never consider themselves to live in excess. But most of my friends never ate bread for dinner at a homeless shelter. Most people I know don’t get overwhelming anxiety when they start to feel a little sick because they can’t afford to take off work. Most people get new IPhones as soon as they come out. Buy themselves new clothes when they like them. Go out to eat as a family. Don’t have to ask for loans or help. Don’t pray asking God where the rent money is going to come from. Haven’t spent the night in a dark house, bundled under layers and layers of blankets to keep the cold out once the electricity got shut off or slept in their vans or had to work two jobs to take care of kids or spent hours waiting in line at the local food pantry. Please, don’t tell me you understand.
Sometimes I get sick to my stomach when I think about it. As I sat in my room staring at the screen watching Parasite for the first time, it made me realize that you can’t make it to the top without exploiting other people. There is no situation in our world where someone isn’t directly suffering as a result of wealth and a life of luxury. As Americans, we are diluted into thinking there are no losers to our self-indulgence. We like to think we are a part of some solution because we haven’t directly inflicted harm on another human being. You can’t see it when you’re on the winning side. Security is a hell of a drug. It blinds us to world of suffering and all the ways it comes from us. We close our eyes. Pretend it isn’t real.
Of course, I type this article from my new laptop. I have name-brand leggings on with the air conditioner blowing to keep me company. I’m in grad school. I used to have to work two jobs but last week I paid for a huge meal for a friend and didn’t think twice about it. I tip well, sometimes it’s enough to make me think that I’m a good person. I’m generous. I love to give but I always need to be comfortable. There is a line. Because I still want what I want. I love people but I would never give money if it meant I couldn’t see a show or a movie or eat out. I love the poor but sometimes not as much as I love myself. I’m so afraid to be poor again. No amount of money hoarding will ever be enough to give me peace of mind. Sometimes, poor people are desperate and desperate people do horrific things. Really, who can blame them?
It’s a sin the way wealth, money, and status operate in our culture and in our churches. God, especially in our churches, because historical Jesus made most of his teachings on our attitude towards those with less. He spent most of his life on earth elevating the poor, the sick, and the widows. But we, as humans and believers, find ways to fit giving into our budget when we really need to start plotting our lives around service. Imagine, if we all gave generously, you would never need to worry because someone was always more generous back. we’d function the way it was supposed to. We could embody a real community and support system; be the images of God on earth we were told to be. We’d live in the Kingdom come; overtaking the god of capitalism and abolishing the lies that tell us security, happiness, and success matters only if it belongs to us; as if those things weren’t a right for all living things; all with imago dei.
When Jesus said, “take up your cross and follow Me,” He meant it. Not in the nice, figurative way. He didn’t mean giving to mean just tithing. Jesus had a radical idea about wealth re-distribution and giving. He didn’t want his disciples to be comfortable; he wanted them to be his hands at feet. Being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world means walking the road alongside your homeless neighbor, holding the idea of “private property” with loose fingers, being more willing to give than receive, and sometimes it means abolishing oppressive systems in our world today. I’m tired of writing and reading pieces on wealth and redistribution; I’m doing more. I have to do more.
Every day I get little flashes of what success would look like for me. One day I want to give TED Talks and be the Brene Brown of my field. I want to have a PhD and do research and maybe even go to seminary. But the longer I live the more I fear success. I fear that I want it too much, that my motives are wrong, and I fear being corrupted by Wealth. She can be so enticing sometimes. She makes promises she cannot keep; she can’t provide security or happiness or belonging, only the false illusions of those things. I think I’m finally understanding the book of Proverbs now. To love money is to become corrupted. And I truly don’t want to gain the world just to give up my soul.
So I pray I never stop shopping at thrift stores or Googling coupons; pray I never go on shopping sprees or buy a brand-new car. I hope I always choose to walk over driving. I hope I never stop tipping more than I need to and I pray that we all learn to live without luxury so that others can live to take a bit bigger of a step out of poverty.