Toxic Food Boxes

First Posted 16-Jan-2015

2-Feb-2016, Richmond, Va.—It’s a bit curious to be editing this a year after I first posted it. At the time I wrote it I was a month into another job search. As was true last year I was one of those without an income and struggling to find ways to afford myself. It hadn’t yet been a year since I’d moved to my house. The memory of being homeless still loomed. What an awful fear, to have gotten this house and so soon lose it. All those who gave money, time & furniture to helping me make it a home. All that gone. I’ve been in my house for 15 months now. I found a job last May that paid double what I usually make. I finished out the year making significantly more than I averaged annually over the last seven years. I still fear the street. I am encouraged that maybe I can rest in my success and build on it.

Pestele, simbol crestinI read Robert Lupton’s “Toxic Charity” last summer. I’ve taken Lupton’s message to heart. I get it that folk want to help, want to relieve a bit of the misery of some through direct giving of boxes of food. I’ve wanted to do that also. Also, it’s not always a bad thing to give a box of food. It can be helpful.

However . . . I’m after the sick symbiotic relationship that can pervert good intentions and take an act of mercy and turn it into something hurtful. The sort of thing that has 10,000 people show up at the Richmond Convention Center for a Thanksgiving meal every year. The sort of short term missions which stops at giving a box of food, giving a fish. No doubt, some of them wouldn’t eat if there was no meal being served by local charities at the Convention Center today. Still, because of Lupton’s words, I wonder how many of them forgo doing for themselves because there is a free meal to be had. Along with the food boxes we need folk living among those they intend to serve and learning what the gifts are, what ways we can partner with our new neighbors to improve the economy of the neighborhood and create jobs.

As Lupton says, this isn’t a one weekend project. It’s a 10 year plan. You have to invest in the long game. I agree with Lupton and Dr. Moyo (Dead Aid, 2009) that this is the better answer to serving a community. The act that prompted this is a completely benign donation of a box of food to my neighbor. He needs it. He needed a fish. He knows how to fish but lately has had trouble fishing. The sort of longer term project of finding a more stable career for him will happen. But today, a box of food is about right. It’s not an “or”. It’s not give a fish or teach to fish. It’s go fishing and sometimes, give a fish because the fish in the river chose not to be caught. For Lupton, it’s work with the neighbors on buying the pond. My neighbor and I will keep going on the 10 year plan to make a difference here. And probably, he’ll get more donated food. That makes this an “and” instead of a false dichotomy of whether to give a fish or not.

That’s what I said last year. I came home from my driving job last December. I started my job search drill. I had a little money saved. I applied for Unemployment as per usual. Things looked difficult but I’d been through worse. Then my former employer said to the Employment Development Department that I’d been let go for malfeasance. Now, my usual source of income while I looked for work was gone. I had all the bills that come with living in a home and no income. Ruh roh.

It’s been scarier. It has been a scary couple months. My church stepped up and paid my bills for the last couple months. I found a friend whose car broke down and I’ve been giving him rides to work for gas money. I made it. In December I made noise about continuing the Dave Ramsey thing. Today, I have a few dollars cash to spend, I’ve started paying my pledge to the church for 2016, and set aside some cash in an envelope for an emergency fund. This is a break in pattern for me. My usual practice is to indulge in some sort of FUB spending and cry louder about how scary my finances are.

While on the road and making all that money I got to watch my life with double the money. Yes, I tried to do the right thing. At one point I had almost two grand in my money market checking account. Then I relapsed. I bought a printer. That was the first thing. Then the October trip home where I flew my son to Richmond and bought more stuff I’d wanted. All those fine words about living poor when I’m doing well became bumpkiss. I have more cash in the house than in the bank.

Some twelve step cliché’s: it works when you work it. Nothing changes if nothing changes. One day at a time. I have a spending problem, not a revenue problem. Like many addicts, I am really good at words. I promise a lot. The measure of my words is how I deliver on what I say. It’s 10:43am. I haven’t been out of the house to spend money. I still have the cash I’ve set aside. It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve spent money FUB-ishly. One day at a time.

The key takeaways I got from Lupton a year on are that we should focus on funding gifts instead of needs, that we should think in terms of the long game, part of any investment is visible progress on the part of our clients on clearing up their hurts, habits and hangups, and it has to be driven by the client, not by us. Another twelve step thing: we can’t help those who haven’t admitted being powerless. Ouch. Mea culpa. 10:47am. So far, so good.


We Have It Backwards

First Posted 10-Mar-2015

Netflix suggested a documentary about living on $1.00/day. I have it playing in another window behind the one I’m typing this post in. It is two young men, one from New York State and another from Seattle. They are typical for us, for Americans, college age, with all of our first world worries. The thing that struck me, that has me writing another post, is this assumption that curing the poverty of the Guatemalan village where they made the film, would mean transforming their hosts into first world Americans like them. Uhm, no.

I’ll get to answers and more on why I don’t think the answer is to turn this remote village into Seattle or New York City. First, Poverty Facts and Stats–almost half the world, 3 billion people, live on less than $2.50/day. At least 80% live on less than $10.00/day. By comparison, I consider a living wage to be at least $100.00/day, 40 times what most of the world lives on. So, we have it backwards.

The problem isn’t that the majority is poor. The problem is that our idea of not-poor is distorted by our wealth and success. Most of the world lives on very little and survives. We get freaked out if the Internet bill is in peril and we might have to use the Public Library to connect. Tell one of our teenagers that they have to live for a week without a cell phone and you’d think we’d asked that teenager to commit ritual suicide.

We really have to think about our end game. What do we want for these people who we say are poor? Do we want them living in rent-controlled high rise coops paying more per month just for rent than they made in a decade back in the remote village? Is it a fail if they can only afford a candy-bar phone with no data plan? Are they poor because they don’t have smartphones? What are the criteria we will use to say we succeeded? What is our definition of the problem? If the problem is that they don’t have the latest smartphones then a reasonable solution is to install XLTE cell sites and set up a means for them to acquire smartphones at a reasonable price. An iPhone retails here for $600.00. At $2.50/day, that’s 240 days or nearly a year of money to afford one phone. Plus all of the first world infrastructure that goes with maintaining an XLTE cell phone network. Expensive.

Unless . . . the lack of cell phones isn’t the problem. Unless “end poverty” means something else. The thing is, our idea of utopia, of all the technology and mechanical marvel that makes our ideal life possible, of what we would say isn’t impoverished, is not what most of the world would define as non-poor. Most of the world doesn’t have a car. Most of the world doesn’t own a house. Most of the world doesn’t have electricity. Most of the world shops on market day, sometimes each day, for that day because there isn’t refrigeration.

To say that the marker of whether someone is poor is whether they share our lifestyle is arrogant. It also makes a mess of things where it rears its ugly head in the name of good intentions. Our definition of poverty is not always helpful. I think we have to redefine what we mean by “end poverty”. In the example of that remote Guatemalan Village, simple things like access to healthy water, micro-lending to facilitate small business, and artful use of our first world blessings to strengthen the indigenous life are things I can get behind. Christ told us we’d always have the poor with us. For me, that resonates this way, that the task is to improve the opportunity, not the outcome. Where we can do that, cool. We should be careful not to measure the success of our work by whether those we help come closer to living our first world life.


Define Poor

As I sit in the office I set up in the spare bedroom in my house without a job, with less than $40.00 of accessible cash, it’s easy to label myself as poor. If I don’t figure out how to pay my cable TV bill soon I’ll be stuck watching Netflix and will miss the new Season of Mythbusters. Horrible, right?

wretched_man-213x300This still sticks in my head like a stray cocaine addled ex-girlfriend who won’t leave. When we say we want to end poverty, what do we mean? Half of the world lives on less than $2.50/day. I feel impoverished because after I buy my cup of coffee from Starbucks I’ll only have 23¢. Who is really poor? Am I poor because I don’t have enough cash to buy my usual list from our local supermarket? Those people who live on $2.50 a day, are we saying those are the poor folk?

Let’s just make that claim. That for things to be fair everybody has to live on more than $2.50/day. Thus the answer is to dump cash into their country so that everybody can have oh, maybe $10.00/day to live on. We’ll make some sort of UN resolution that imposes sanctions or whatever on nations that we consider wealthy and force them to give their wealth to our designated poor countries so that everyone can have their daily Alexander Hamilton. Good plan, no?

Best Laid Plans

No. The places in the world where we in the first world have diagnosed the problem as a lack of cash and thus the solution is to empty the coffers of the first world into the third are cesspools. The sudden influx of cash breeds crime & corruption. The well meaning, utopian ngo’s & government officials responsible for administering the flood of cash are too easily corrupted. Something like 90% of the money sent is swallowed up in costs and corruption. I know, a rapid fire paragraph of seeming glittering generalities. Don’t believe I’m factual? Check out Dambiza Moyo’s, “Dead Aid”. Go read the old news articles on the Symbionese Liberation Army and their food drop. Ask a local soup kitchen how many of those in line for a meal are regulars the staff suspects are not as down in the mouth as they claim. Redistributing assets to make things fair too often escalates the unfairness.

Lists seem to be a fad among bloggers. They show up well on the little 4.3″ screens of everybody’s iPhones. I am a bit mobile unfriendly on this site. I tend to write long, at least 1,000 words or so. You have to scroll down (so fustrating) to read all of one of my posts. +1 way in which this blog is a pain in the ass. Before I finish this I have a list below for you:

Things Alan Owns
# Item Days to Earn @ $2.50/day
1 1 Can Bustello Coffee 1.5
2 Oscar Meyer Beef Franks 2.0
3 ½ gallon Soy Milk 2.0
4 Whole Chicken 4.0
5 Melita Drip Coffee Maker 5.0
6 Peet’s Coffee Whole Bean Major Dickenson’s Blend 5.2
7 TFal Pot & Pan set 50.0
8 Microwave Oven 36.0
9 Convection Oven 37.0
10 Vacuum Cleaner 40.0

These are just a few small things. I also own a laptop (600 days), a smart phone (160 days) and live in a single family home (240 days for one month’s rent). I drive an old car that by the standards of my friends, is a hoopty. At $2.50/day it would take 14 years to earn enough money to replace it. One mechanic offered to fix everything broken for 2 years wages. I have friends paying a mortgage on $250,000.00 homes. For 80% of the world 100,000 days (274 years, 14 generations) would pass before they could pay that off.

Color Blind Privilege

That’s one aspect of this. What I feel as poverty is wealth by a large percentage of the world’s population. This happens every once in a while and makes the news. Someone from a remote corner of the world where they hunt & gather is flown to a place like New York City and they have a meltdown. Something as simple as a small corner grocery is such an abundance of food at such extraordinary prices that they cannot believe what they are seeing. For most of their lives if they don’t go hunt something today they don’t eat today. And here they are among millions of people staring at the shelves of a small grocer with enough food to feed their village for a long time. And it’s just one small store. Walmart? OMG! Walmart makes them run in tears from the store. Walmart makes their head explode.

Yet these people have lived in hunter-gatherer cultures for thousands of years. They are doing something right. Something else to consider–UN Relief and other foreign aid efforts have sent several trillion dollars to African nations over the last half-century or so. You would think that by now everybody there could be assured of their daily Hamilton and four times the amount of money they live on. Yet, over 50 years the cash has fostered incredible corruption and violence as the money is stolen by those who are able. Those for whom it was intended absorb yet another sandpaper dildo shoved up their dignity. Go read Dambiza Moyo’s, “Dead Aid” if you want to hear more about this. I met someone from Uganda who giggled that when we send cash and food they just eat it and leave us good-hearted folk with nothing to show for our well-intentioned generosity.

I hope none of what I write here is news. If you want to know why I don’t give to UNICEF or respond to those heartbreaking TV ads for various NGO’s feeding the poor it is because mercy is one more thing that scales badly. Once governments get involved and there is substantial cash in play it’s hard for the establishment to be humble and do the right thing. Too often their SumYung HotTea wants a fur coat and gets it for an equivalent price of 20 years salary for a lot of the world. Instead, I’ve advocated working small, in our own neighborhoods, seeking to foster the gifts of my neighbors. Yes, yes, this does come from Robert Lupton’s, “Toxic Charity“. I like the book.

As we sit in our local café and bemoan the miseries of the third world it is easy to take another sip of our doppio-half-caf-soy-hazelnut cappuccino (2 days wages) and accuse the rich of our first world of having too much. I have a suggestion I make frequently. Grab somebody sitting next to you in that café and ask them to hold your table. Go outside and give $20.00 (8 days wages) to somebody who looks like they need it. Each time you feel the urge to shake your fist at the evil rich, do a small act of kindness with great love. Then do another and keep doing them.

Rome was an empire for 1400 years. For the first millennium, it was an invincible force. Then a no account bastard Nazarene son of a carpenter was born in Bethlehem. At about age 30 he was crucified by the Romans at the request of the boy’s church leadership after being accused of blasphemy. Followers of this no-account boy were tormented, murdered, brutalized in the most vicious means imaginable. What could not be done by any in a thousand years was done by a few who sacrificed themselves over 4 centuries. His Way leached its way into the heart of Constantine.

Rome was sacked repeatedly until it fell for the last time around 440AD. You will hear that followers of Jesus of Nazareth were not the ones who brought down the great Empire. It was the Visigoths. Maybe so. Four centuries of speaking to the hearts of those in power, four centuries of asking them to follow the way of a ragamuffin boy from Nazareth, had its effect. The kingdom of Jesus lives in the hearts of millions of followers. Rome is a ruined city tourists visit to eat pizza and stare at fallen sports arenas. I think that carpenter’s boy won.

That’s my answer to those smoking Galious cigarettes, sipping that organic, fair trade latte and eyeing the “kill the 1%” protest sign proudly hung on the café wall above the flyer for river tours of the Douro. Christianity won against Rome by invading its heart. We won by small acts of kindness and uncommon grace.

You can be part of this revolution. No flags or riots needed. You know the drill. No, that old six-word prayer is only a small part of it. I care more about these simple things: Love God with all your heart, mind and strength. Love friends, family and enemies alike. Forgive first, beyond 70 times 7. Wash feet. If you don’t understand what I mean by washing feet, ask one of us who follow Jesus. We invaded Rome’s heart and live in it rent-free. I’ll take that as a win you can be part of for less than a day’s wages.