Alligators (sorry, this one’s a little long)

‎”When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor had no food, they called me a communist.”– Dom Helder Camara, Archbishop of Sao Paulo

Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you.”  And at the same time that I embrace that reality, I can’t help but ask if we can’t do better at making the Kingdom of God more evident in the here and now.  My mission occupies two spaces, and a part of that mission is trying to bring those two spaces into closer relationship because each space holds the keys to the Kingdom for the other.

In one space, I serve Christ among the poor.  I find the face of Christ among what society considers the least of these every day of the week.  I have very few illusions left about the poor in my mission field.  Not all of them are “victims of the system”.  Many, if not most, are consumed by the demons of addiction and instant gratification.  I say this without judgment because there but by the very grace of God go I.  But these addictions and illusions and irresponsibilities do not occur in a vacuum…they are not learned on a level playing field.  The values that sustain poverty are often self-perpetuating.  When you don’t have enough, and you have no hope for ever having enough, instant gratification makes sense in your paradigm.  When gangs and drugs and teenage pregnancy are three and four generations deep in a family, where are the fruits of an alternative evident enough to be motivation to live differently?  And even in midst of that, I have to ask, why are the poor poor?  Why don’t they have food? If it were so simple as to just work harder, does anyone with a serious mind really think that the problem of poverty wouldn’t already be solved by now?

And in another space, I serve Christ among the most financially-blessed demographic in my area. I find the face of Christ among people of incredible giftedness and blessing who nonetheless humble themselves before God and personally know God’s grace in their lives.   And yet here among the most financially-well off and socially powerful people, there is a poverty, too.  It comes in two forms.  The first comes in the hell that is created when a person doesn’t realize that the only real wealth is in knowing that what you have is enough.  And so there is a constant need to consume and yet a constant and overwhelming hunger for more.  Coupled with the half-truth that you get what you deserve in life, and that the future is in your hands, the door to that hell can be very hard to unlock.  There are more kids in the high school in the suburb that use drugs and alcohol than there are that don’t.  They have never found what is means to have “enough”…enough meaning, gratification, excitement, importance, control, or whatever.  And they have become numb because they have forgotten that what it means to be important has nothing to do with your athletic or intellectual giftedness or who is on your arm come prom night.  It has to do with your connectedness to things at stake in this world that are more important than you are.

The second poverty is a poverty of security – a fear that streams just under the surface of everything.  The fear is that there are “alligators” out there that are hungry and are looking to take what they have worked so hard for.  That fear is a constant hell, a constant fear, a constant insecurity.  Many of these people sit in churches every Sunday thinking that if they get their faith just right, then God will protect them from the alligators.  Most can’t even name what the alligators are, but I think I can name some of them.  Among them are ignorance, violence, unimportance, and poverty.

Many profess a trust in God but are working as hard as they can to feed other people’s children to the alligators in the hopes that the alligators will get full before they get to their children.  We seem to not realize that alligators never get full.  It is their nature to consume and consume and consume.  It is what they do.  Just like literal alligators; ignorance, violence, unimportance, and poverty consume people…it is what they do.  These alligators are real, and they are hungry.  The trouble is that in order to save our own kids, the solution is not to feed other people to them, but rather to kill the alligators.  I watch well-meaning people throw other kids under the bus and feed them to the alligators in order to gain an advantage for their own kids in school, in sports, and even in church youth groups.  It’s insane.  Throwing other kids to the alligators won’t save anyone.  In a way, it just tells the alligators where to come to get fed…like breadcrumbs that lead to the bakery.

The same people who work so hard to make sure that the alligators are fed well enough with other people’s kids to leave their children alone, send their kids to work their first jobs in fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.  Those places are robbed are gunpoint by the very young people who have been thrown to the alligators to keep them at bay.  It is these very suburban kids who are robbed and murdered while buying drugs on the Southside by the kids who were thrown to the alligators and are selling those drugs chasing the very same illusion of what it means to have “enough”.

Until we reduce ignorance to whatever degree we can, the ignorant will seek the blessings of others thinking that that is the path to blessing. They will not know that blessings can only come from God, and that God blesses everyone according to God’s purposes.  Until we deal with the reality that many people do not have enough food to eat or clothes to wear, those that do not have enough will seek to take from people who do have enough…sometimes by violent means.  Until we embrace the Kingdom of God where every single person is important to God, then those that society deems to be unimportant will seek to gain social gratification through destructive behaviors like gang participation and drug dealing.  And, by the way, the drugs that are bought and sold in the suburban school that aren’t stolen from parents who use, are bought and sold on the streets of the inner city where the money goes to support prostitution and gambling and addiction, and to buy bullets that kill kids on our streets nearly every week.  Tragically, and all to often, what connects my two mission fields are the two ends of a gun.  The connection of both mission fields is undeniable, but the only connection that yields life on both ends is God’s Kingdom.

Some of the most spiritually alive and committed people in our missions live and work in the suburbs.  They give from the bounty of their blessing, not just to keep the alligators at bay, but to find creative ways to kill them off.  And yet, in the same breath and moment, a bitter irony of life in my mission field is that many of the people who donate funds and goods to the greatest degree and upon whom we rely in order to do what we do, are giving to our missions as a means of feeding the alligators.  The unspoken motivation is that, “If we just keep them fed for a day, then maybe they’ll stay down in the slum neighborhoods and hell-holes of the inner city and won’t come out to feed on the suburbs”.  I am grateful for the generosity of everyone who gives even a dollar to our missions.  And I, nonetheless, pray for the souls of even huge givers who have missed the point of the present Kingdom of God.  I pray for them because the fear that is always just beneath the surface of every conversation and interaction is still a subtle master in their lives and fear causes tremendous anxiety and suffering.  I pray for them because I love them and God loves them.  It is frustrating, though, that every time I speak to them about addressing the root problems of poverty, homelessness, and real justice; I immediately become suspect to them. It is as if I immediately become a threat.  By simply asking why the poor do not have food, it is as if I become one of the alligators.

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