Sunday, February 27, 2011

Porsches, Pearls, and Prejudices

A few years ago I showed up to a Rascal Flatts concert in a porsche. Surrounded by giant trucks and honky tonk tailgate parties, I distinctly remember blushing as I got out of the sports car, wishing that I had insisted on driving my car. My Nissan 240 FX would have been much more appropriate, would have earned us much fewer stares. But my dear friend had offered to drive and though she shares my love of country music, she also loves flashy cars. She later traded in her porsche for a prowler which, if you're like me and know nothing about fancy cars, is a tad bit nicer than my Nissan and earned us even more stares. I love this friend to death but I was always a bit embarrassed when she drove us places, especially when she drove us to country concerts. I felt smug and pretentious and was awkward and uncomfortable with all the stares and attention. I felt like an elitist showing up to mingle with the common folk, and I hated that. I knew that I was a "commoner" too, but couldn't convince anyone of that stepping out of a porsche at a country concert.

I thought about that awkward drive through the parking lot as I rode my bike to church today. This has become my new favorite thing to do. It's about a 35 minute ride and though I show up to church a bit winded and sweaty, it is well worth it.

My church is in Paramount which, if you're not familiar with the LA area, borders Compton. And the city of Compton, if you're not familiar with rap music, is not the nicest of areas. So on my ride the scenery is not what you'd call "picturesque." I pass by mostly run down houses or apartments with high fences and bars on the windows, and tiny barber shops, hole in the wall Zapatos stores, abandoned shopping carts, and lots and lots of liquor shops.

There are lots of pedestrians and lots of fellow bikers, but I stick out like a sore thumb. My fellow bikers are either homeless or Mexican and appear to be using their bike because they don't have a car- not because they left their Jetta parked at home so they could get some exercise. I'm not sure if it's the bright yellow paint, cute wicker basket, or my boots with the fur on them, but I saw lots of people do double-takes as I sped by this morning. And yes, though I was trying to pray, most of the way I was singing, "apple bottom jeans, boots with the fu-ur..." I know why they did a double take. It wasn't because of my stunning beauty because let's face it, a french braid and back sweat is never that cute. The double-takes were because I'm white, and I'm blonde, and I clearly don't belong in the neighborhood.

But I love riding in this neighborhood. When my car was in the shop, I rode my bike in this same area late at night to get to my life group and passed by some really seedy-looking folk. And I loved it. Sure, I thought they were maybe going to jump me and steal my cute beach-cruiser, but I loved being in the midst of them, rather than in my safe Jetta with the tinted windows. I waited at a light with a homeless, hunchbacked man and we talked about the weather. It was wonderful. I didn't lead him to the Lord or have a super meaningful conversation, but I had a conversation. And this conversation that was only made possible because I was not in my elitist car; I came to his neighborhood, to his world on a his level- on a bike.

I started riding my bike to church because I needed exercise and because it reminds me of the slow pace of life I used to live in Mozambique. However, I'll continue to ride my bike because of the people I pass along the way. They are wonderful mixed assortment. Mainly homeless or Mexican, as I pedal past them, I can't help but wonder about their stories. Because if I'm totally honest, I am a recovering racist with a tendency to make awful assumptions about people. I often see their race or their dirty rags and immediately put them in a box. I fail to see them as unique individuals, chosen and loved by our God. I don't see their stories; I see their stereotypes.

As I drive past them in my car, I fail to see their individuality because I fail to look. It's easier to assume these sad-looking folk all have similar, sad-sounding stories. It's neater inside my head that way. It's easier. But when I ride past them on my bike, it's harder to make assumptions. And it gets messier when I see them as real individuals because they surprise me and leap out of the neatly labeled boxes I had previously put them in.

When I make eye contact and sing "goo-ood morning", I am greeted by a variety of responses ranging from startled, surprised smiles to, "get it gu-rl" greetings. These people leading such drastically different lives than my own suddenly become real and are in the same boat as I am. There is an instant camaraderie between us solely because we aren't in cars. We exchange head nods and hellos and there is a strange sense of unity among us, us- the riding/walking community. This connection to this previously foreign world is why I'll continue to ride my bike to church. I can't be connected to them in my Jetta- I have to come to their world and meet them on their level.

Just as no true cowboy would have given me the time of day at the Rascal Flatts concert, these people won't give me their time or trust if I continue to parade around feeling superior to them. Sure, they see my pearl earrings and fancy scarves and know that I don't belong in their world, but they accept me because I've come on their level, because I come smiling and pedaling through their town on a bike.

Lately, Jesus has been moving around, stirring about in my heart in ways that are scary. Because He's been stirring in me convictions that have long laid dormant- convictions concerning these nameless faces I pass by on my bike.

The pastor today spoke about how transformation in the world comes through us; how we must be open to the sanctification process and allow the change to happen IN us, only so we then can allow change to take place in the world THROUGH us. He challenged us to consider our broken world and consider what irks us the most about it- what part of society or group in society we most ache for. And then he asked us to consider if that feeling of hurt we feel for them could be the Holy Spirit leading- if that could be Him guiding us to areas we are supposed to be serving in. He raised lots of convicting questions but the most convicting part of the sermon was actually not in the sermon at all. It was the scripture read beforehand.

A woman in the church read aloud the following passage from Luke 4:

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

And when she read the part about Jesus saying he came to proclaim the good news to the poor, the woman started to cry. I know I am a sympathy crier but these were not sympathy tears I shed. These tears were rolling because the God I serve loves the poor a whole lot more than I do. And the girl sitting next to me turned to show her matching tear-filled eyes and said, "I love that the simple words of Jesus are so powerful that they make us cry."

Jesus came for the poor. He came for the hurting, hunchbacked, homeless man. He came for the dirt poor, new immigrant who can't speak a word of English. He didn't just come for the Jetta-driving, pearl-wearing white kids. Yes, He came for us too but His love is much bigger than I think I've ever imagined. And I think He's calling me to have a bigger love too- to love those nameless people I pass by. To build relationships, to interact, to serve in these communities of poor, hurting people. I think He's asking for more than a check to World Vision and a tithe. I think He wants me to get my hands dirty.

I've been reading Evolving in Monkey Town written by Rachel Held Evans, who wrestles with God about big questions and struggles with similar doubts I have faced. Yesterday I read a chapter about Jesus which, shocker, drew big fat tears down my cheeks. Here are some excerpts from the chapter entitled, Jesus, God in Sandals:

"I wanted an explanation from God, and according to John, the best place to start with Jesus. If Jesus was indeed God in sandals, then that means he cared about what God cared about, hated what God hated, and loved what God loved. The incarnation gave God a face....What the Spirit of God said and did while living among us in the person of Jesus must say a lot about what matters most to him.

...if Jesus is God, then God has not forgotten the downtrodden and oppressed of this world. In fact, Jesus had a special relationship with the most forgotten of first-century society: women, tax collectors, sick people, minorities, Samaritans, and sinners. Jesus welcomed children into his arms and washed his disciples' dirty feet. He took contagious lepers by the hand and surrounded himself with the poor and uneducated.

This radical Jesus wanted to live not only in my heart and in my head but also in my hands, as I fed the hungry, reached out to my enemies, healed the sick, and comforted the lonely. Being a Christian, it seemed, isn't about agreeing to a certain way; it is about embodying a certain way. It is about living as an incarnation of Jesus, as Jesus lived as an incarnation of God. It is about being tennis shoes."

So now I can't help but picture Jesus in New Balance running shoes, or maybe Sauconys. And I love this picture of Jesus- not in running shoes- that's a little ridiculous, but the picture of him mingling with the downtrodden. I've known this to be true since the time I was still wetting the bed, but somehow it never clicked that I probably should be doing the same. Somehow I've managed to ignore my tendency to ignore the filthy, foul-smelling people asking me for money. In fact, I walked right past a mother begging at the post office yesterday. I even felt a little peeved with her- annoyed that she was making me feel guilty. Somehow I don't think Jesus would have given her the courtesy grin and wouldn't have walked quickly past her and her toddler without a second glance. But that's what I did. And this kills me.

If I truly love Jesus, I need to start obeying him. And to obey him, I need to copy him; I need to get my hands dirty and see the "dirty" in society as individuals. I need to love them, not be annoyed by them. I need to try to understand them, not stereotype them.

As my pastor said today, since the poor and hurting aren't typically wandering into churches where they fear they'll be met with judgment, we must bring the kingdom of God to them. We must meet them on their level, on their streets. I am ashamed that did not bring the kingdom of God to that poor, disheveled woman. I showed her none of God's mercy. I wish I could have do-over for that moment.

These were the thoughts swirling through my mind as I weaved between bus benches and telephone poles on my way home from church. (I only crashed into a wall once) I am called to serve; called to drop my prejudices and feelings of superiority. If I truly want to follow Christ, I can't keep ignoring the poor and hurting around me. If I truly want to live for Him, I must care more about His beloved children- especially when they don't look like me.


  1. Figuring there is a 96% chance you have already read it, but if not read "Same Kind of Different as Me". Short, sweet, and powerful. I cried until I felt like I needed an IV.

  2. Oh what I would have given to watch you read that book:) You were 100 % correct. I loved it so much that I'm actually requiring all my juniors to read it.

  3. Required my Bible class to read it, as well. They loved it.

    Katie, so much that you share here, I deeply understand. I am in my own struggle to let Jesus, not doctrine or even "theology," much less political pundits, rule my thinking and heart about the poor. God, is breaking it, rewriting his thoughts upon my flinty brain. I spent a bit of time in the slums of Costa Rica last summer. I have never felt safer, more immersed in the love of God and man.

    Something I "knew" was transformed in those moments. I knew God loved the poor - hear "group of people." I guess I thought that for me to love them, too meant- help them with a bit of what you have - give something toward them and do your part. I did so.

    But, I dont think that was what Jesus was saying. I think he was saying they have names, like me, and stories, like me, and they have families and futures, just like me. They, BIll and Bob and Betty, are just like me - God doesn't love them because they are poor, He loves them because they are who they are and no less a person than me, except that they have a rougher go being Jesus calls them out as special when He talks about who he loves, He makes of mention of them often because they suffer, as He did. He just plain loves each of them.

    The poor are not less, because they are least.

    Personhood, for God, is not defined by a social security card or bank account or a vehicle that we drive. Do our documents really make us real? Do our id numbers or our stories define us to God? What should define us to one another?