Yo pastor is so poor… reflections on Lent, poverty and justice

By Sandhya Jha

[Note: This article originally appeared on Sandhya's blog.  Sandhya has graciously allowed us to reprint it here.]

Lent is a season of sacrifice or spiritual renewal in the Christian tradition, 40 days (plus Sundays) leading up to Easter to deeply consider one’s life.

Or Lent is a way of providing a little dignity to really poor people.

That’s how it started out, according to my mother. And this brings me some solace as I find myself completely with an empty bank account, no credit and thousands of dollars of taxes due.

I think my mother told me this story as she explained Shrove Tuesday (better known to many of us as Mardi Gras or Carnival). Pancake suppers are really big at churches the day before Ash Wednesday, the kickoff to Lent, and it’s the last day to binge on whatever it is we’re giving up for the season. (I’ve given up chocolate, cheese, meat, sugar, caffeine and eating out alone on various years; one year I took up the practice of blogging twice a week instead.)

My mother explained that the reason people traditionally ate pancakes on Shrove Tuesday was that all reserves were running low by this time of year for the vast majority of people (the serfs, the peasants, the tenant farmers, anyone who wasn’t part of the aristocracy). By creating a season of fasting for religious reasons, poor people struggling to put a substantive meal on the table didn’t feel shame about it. On Shrove Tuesday, you used up your butter or fat and milk and eggs. You had your last big hurrah. The church gave you a little bit of dignity for a season. And then came Easter and (hopefully) some of the early spring crops to incorporate back into your meal, and the hens would begin to lay again, and the fast would be over.

I’m taking cover behind that spiritual framework for Lent this year. Because I’m broke. I’m so broke I suspect Chris Rock could do a whole routine on how broke I am. And a chunk of it’s my fault. See, I followed a dream, but not a lucrative dream. And I didn’t stop living a middle class life when I stopped earning a middle class salary. You may have noticed over the past two years I’ve posted LESS about coffee shops and good restaurants, but I haven’t stopped completely. When I was working four jobs, I was making ends meet with enough left over to go out for meals. When I was working three, it was tighter, but I had credit. I’m down to two (plus consulting work), one of which does not pay. And the credit just ran out. And the car needed major repairs. I made my home payment this month but I bounced my church pension check. And my dog ran away and my wife left me. (Not really, but since I was already singing a country western song…)

I like to approach social media as a grand experiment in clergy transparency. Don’t bleed on folks, but don’t pretend your life is perfect when it’s not.

That’s been harder to do with my current financial mess. I’ve always known there’s a lot of shame wrapped up with poverty. I know there’s a lot of judgment wrapped up in it. (Don’t tell me there’s not—I’ve seen some of y’all judging.) But wow—it was really hard to practice that clergy transparency when it came to not being able to pay my own bills.

I work with a housing organization, and at my current salary, I qualify for heavily subsidized housing. I’m in between the “low” and “very low income” brackets. (There’s another level below mine: “Extremely low.”) I could qualify to buy a house in northeast Ohio, but here I’m teetering on poverty for now. In fact, it is so hard to survive around here if you earn under $50k a year that our local NPR station is doing a show focused specifically on how on earth do people actually survive on $33,000 or less in the Bay Area? No, really, write in and tell us! We can’t imagine it ourselves!

It’s why I’ve been advocating for a campaign to provide a 12.25/hr minimum wage in Oakland. (That still only comes out to about $25,000 a year. And that means people working full time with no sick days are supporting families on that. No, really. I’ve met them.)

So my political awareness is real and is a little sharper right now, that I chose a life that put me in this place, and it is terrifying, but I know so many people who had no choice in the matter and who work harder than me and care for more people than I do on less money than I do, and we have to do something about that, because if they could take care of their family well on their salary, imagine how liberated they would be to contribute even more to our community than they already do.

 

But this has also been about deep spiritual reflection for me. Like the serfs who precede me, I’m finding opportunities to reflect and meditate on how much unnecessary clutter my middle class life let in. I’m finding that I want to spend more time reflecting on the life of Jesus and maybe imitating it a bit better.

I’ve been reminded of how incredibly blessed I am by phenomenal friends of every culture and ideology and faith tradition who have stepped up. Just today, I have been given or offered: meals out, meals brought to my home, connections to community meals, cash for transportation, a deposit to my PayPal account, the offer of a loan to get me through this period, a fruit basket, the offer to bring me fresh produce, the offer to take me grocery shopping. And prayer and solidarity. I try to build the beloved community, but at moments like this I remember that the beloved community already exists all around me. It’s you.

I’ve been hanging out with some young Gen Y folks lately, activist types—cut from the same cloth, fantastic and kind and giving people. And a lot of them are really committed to working for justice. They are really clear on something, many of them: my twenty-something colleagues will not make the mistake of my generation and the generation above mine of selling themselves cheap. They want to be paid what they deserve. They want to be paid what is just. They will not be used by the nonprofit industrial complex any more than they will be used by the Man.

And I respect that immensely. I don’t usually value myself that much. (And I was shaped by cultures that discourage you from valuing yourself too highly.)

But I wouldn’t have launched the Oakland Peace Center, which does not yet pay me a salary, if I were committed to wage justice.

Last week the Oakland Peace Center had a mixer. About fifteen of our partners came, and they were greeted by 14 people from the youth group of First Christian Church of Albany, Oregon. I watched the OPC partners connect with each other about their work, and I watched them share eye-opening and inspiring stories about their work with the youth.

And I find myself aware that it’s my fault that I’m not just poor, but I’m broke. And I also recognize that to some extent it’s my choice to be earning so little. But I’m picturing an older peace activist explaining to those rapt youth why she’s dedicated to justice for Alan Blueford. I’m thinking about the fact that they would never have met each other if I hadn’t followed a real calling from God to connect peacemakers. And despite the challenges I face and the fear related to it, I am not sorry to have sold myself a little cheap. Moments like that are worth some sacrifice.

And that’s the difference that shows up in the bible over and over, which confuses so many people. Giving sacrificially, gladly, by choice, is something to celebrate and honor. Being forced by others to give sacrificially and to sacrifice the wellbeing of your family for no one’s glory except the wealthy—that is a sin, a sin that destroys community after community throughout the Bible. That’s why I think conversations about wage justice and self-sacrifice are not contradictory for people of faith.

So I am grateful for the dignity of poverty that the church provides still today in this season. And I am grateful to be part of the movement to create a world where all of us can rest assured of today’s daily bread and none of us is hoarding tomorrow’s while others go hungry today. (Although for the next couple of weeks, in my house it will be daily lentils and rice. It’s what’s still in the cupboard.)