Saturday, September 25, 2010

Urban Adventures and Environmental Injustice

The following is a guest post from my friend, Tracey Bianchi. Tracey is a pastor and the author of Green Mama: The Guilt Free Guide to Helping You and Your Kids Save the Planet (Zondervan, 2010). I have the joy of joining her each month as part of the Redbud Writers Guild, a writing community of women’s voices that engage our world. You can catch her musings and information about her book at here.

I called Colorado home for a few blissful years. A native of Chicago and the Prairie State my little soul came to life as a graduate student in the Rocky Mountains. My classmates and I were a devoted tribe of skiers who would study Greek and Hebrew words en route to a ski resort, mostly broke we would skip a meal or two in order to scrape together the cash for a lift ticket or season pass.

I once took a ten day course that was designed to open my eyes to the complexities of urban poverty. We spent each night in a shabby hostel on the corner of a intersection where white skiing types like myself did not spend much time. We visited correctional centers, dined with the homeless at nearby shelters and enjoyed hours of lectures by community leaders seeking to bring peace, reconciliation and hope to the most beleaguered citizens of Denver.

One afternoon a local pastor stepped up to chat with us, the fleece and hiking boot crowd who sipped from high end water bottles and chattered away about recent hiking adventures as we waited for our session to begin. Behind his podium was a huge glass window offering a sun-drenched view of the Rockies.

He began by fanning his arm toward the window, remarking that indeed, it was a gorgeous day up in the mountains. We nodded, several of us letting our minds slip to a desire to be up in the hills rather than in a lecture. Then this pastor captured our attention quickly. He asked, “did you know that most of the children in this neighborhood have never been to the mountains?”

The foothills would take less than one hour to reach, the resort destination of Breckenridge barely two hours.

“They look every day at those peaks yet have never stepped foot into a mountain stream or experienced the joy of hiking in the backcountry.”

I was stunned. I looked around at the motley crew of seminary students assembled for this lecture. We were shabby and broke but for most of us this was a choice. We made a decision to pay tuition over a mortgage and even on our worst days could scrape by enough cash to cover gas and hiking boots.

To be a child living below the poverty line in Denver, to look upon those mountains each day yet never take them in, was ludicrous to me.

Eight years later I find myself championing the cause of our environment from Chicago. I urge my fellow urbanites to walk when they can, shop smarter, compost, recycle and such. But my mind still settles on that room filled with yuppie hikers and an urban pastor. What is the point in saving this planet if the very people who inhabit it cannot all enjoy its bounty?

Environmental injustice runs deep in our culture. The poor find themselves on the losing end of multiple transactions. First, they unfairly receive waste, landfills and serve as toxic receptacles since many communities lack the funding and education to fight these initiatives.

Second, the poor rarely get to relish in what is good and beautiful about this planet. To live in Denver yet never set foot in the mountains is a grave injustice. Millions of visitors from across this nation and the world fly into Denver’s International Airport every year. They drive through these neighborhoods, past children who are native to Colorado, and these tourists experience a Rocky Mountain High while the very children who stare at that vast space each day do not know the first thing about John Denver.

As we engage in conversations about urban poverty let us do our best to be sure we get children out of their urban settings on occasion. Let us fund initiatives that take children to summer camp, the mountains, the beaches or wherever it is that those with more income dash off to for peace and rest. Even if it means planting a patch of wildflowers in a local park. Moving urban children toward wilderness experiences is to treat their lives with justice and fairness, it is to bring their hearts a glimpse of the wild, vast expanses of God’s world. It is only seems fair to share the planet.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Map of Race in Chicago

I got this map of where people live in Chicago by ethnicity from this web site. Could we be more segregated?!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

What is poverty?

Rupert @roop13 asked me a series of great questions via twitter that I can’t answer in 140 characters. Here’s his tweet: @ArloaSutter define poverty? Do u really consider poverty in the US to be poverty? Do u really think we have it that bad in the US? #justcurious

Here is my response, Rupert. Let me know your thoughts.

Poverty is very complex and can be defined in many ways. The first thing that usually comes to our mind is economic poverty. In my book, The Invisible, I mention that even economic wealth is relative. Here is a quote from page 62.
Clearly, economic poverty is relative. A family living on $20,000 per year in Bolivia may be quite comfortable, while a family of four in the US would be living in poverty, and the family would be in crisis if they lived in Europe. When I traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2005, I was amazed to learn that $40 per month was considered a pretty good salary for teachers there…

While you may not consider yourself to be financially rich, I am going to assume, in a world in which half the population lives on less than $2 per day, that most of you reading this book are extremely wealthy. A web site,, will tabulate your income relative to the rest of the world. A salary of $50,000 will put you in the top 1 percent of the world’s wealthiest! Unless, your income is significantly less than that, you can be pretty sure that nearly 99 percent of the world’s population is poorer than you economically.
Yes, Rupert, I believe there is, indeed, poverty in the US and lots of it. According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune “The Census Bureau said 14.3 percent of the U.S. population, or 43.6 million people, lived below the poverty line last year, compared with 13.2 percent in the previous year and 11.3 percent in 2000… The poverty threshold last year was $10,956 for one person and $21,954 for a family of four.”

In the US, this poverty is compounded by what I call a “poverty of purposelessness, hopelessness and despair”. There are millions who are left out of any income generating activities. While I don’t want to discount that some people are just lazy, I would suggest that, for the most part, these are individuals who have simply given up on ever having the opportunity to get ahead. They often come from families that have been burdened by poverty for generations, have attended under-performing schools and have lived in environments burdened by crime and violence. Poverty has become a way of life for them. They are trapped with seemingly no way out.

There is also a kind of poverty that burdens the economically wealthy. The church of Laodicea was told in Revelation 3, “You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” We can have economic wealth and be trapped in a web of self-centered consumerism that stifles our soul and compounds our greed.

A few years ago, I asked a group of young men who had spent time in a refugee camp in Kenya what they were given to eat. They rounded their hands to form a bowl and said they were each given one bowl of meal to last an entire month. I asked if it lasted that long and they said it didn’t, that sometimes they had to go several weeks with nothing.

I don’t think the poor in the US experience that kind of extreme poverty. The fact that millions in developing countries go hungry and die of malnutrition and other diseases should disturb us. I think we all need to be involved in poverty alleviation at home and abroad in some way through our investments and advocacy.

Emerson, Smith and Snell in their book, Passing the Plate, discovered that if 90 percent of committed Christian households in the United States would give away 10 percent of their after tax income, we could raise $85.5 billion each year above what is currently given. What a difference this could make in alleviating poverty! The sad fact is that one in five US Christians give literally nothing to church, para-church, or nonreligious charities!

Jesus told a group of Pharisees in Luke 11, “you clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness… give what is inside [the dish] to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”

Jesus was the greatest advocate for caring for the poor in dignifying ways that ever lived. Those of us who choose to follow him will follow him to the poor.

Myths of Homelessness

Breakthrough Adult Services from Breakthrough Urban Ministries on Vimeo.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Memories of a five year old

I ran into Ann Healing at River City Community Church last Sunday. Ann is the Director of Intern and Fellows Program for the International Justice Mission. She and her husband Dave were on staff at Breakthrough before they moved to the east coast two years ago. She told me about a comment her son made that I asked her to put in writing so I could post it.
We just moved back to Chicago after living in the DC area for 2 years. When my 7 year old son finally got over his sadness about the move back, he asked me if I was going to work at Breakthrough again. I told him someone else now has my old job but he continued to beg me to work there. (clearly a little confused about how employment works). When I asked him why he wanted me to work there so badly he said “Mommy, I loved it when we served meals in that big kitchen to the people who live at Breakthrough”. He was 5 years old when we moved from Chicago. Much of what we did the first time we lived here he doesn’t remember. On top of that, he only actually joined us 2 or 3 times in the year that we served meals monthly at Breakthrough. Despite all that, he remembers that there was something special about serving and having a meal with others like we did at Breakthrough. It was unique and forming for him. We hope to begin to serve there again now that we have returned to Chicago.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Staying Refreshed

“How do you stay refreshed?” I’ve been asked that question twice in the last few weeks. “How do you stay positive in the midst of such crippling circumstances and devastating need?” Admittedly, we can run dry if we are not careful to put practices in place that sustain us for the long haul.

In my newly released book, The Invisible, I wrote an entire chapter on a principal that has guided my life work at Breakthrough. Early in our work we learned to “be led by the Spirit, rather than driven by need.”

In order to be led by the Spirit it is essential that we spend time with God in prayer and meditation before we rush in to meet needs and attempt to solve problems. We are led to joyful action when we first listen to the promptings of God’s Spirit. When we spend time with God each day we recognize how big God is and that God is the salvation of the world, not us. We don’t overestimate our own importance. Instead we let the love of God flow through us as we cooperate with the work God is already doing in the lives of others.

Another important principal that sustains us is the fact that we don’t work alone. We are part of a larger movement, a caring family of believers who work together to create a network of support for those who have become isolated and alone. This network also nurtures us as we engage in reciprocal relationships. We are part of a caring community that is reweaving the fabric of God’s shalom.

I am blessed to be surrounded by so many amazing people who are led by the Spirit to reach out with great acts of sacrifice and love in tough places. Thanks for being part of this great movement. Your contributions of time, encouragement and financial support keep us refreshed and joyful.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Green Faith and the Poor

Last week I preached the second message in a series at River City Community Church entitled "Green Faith". I realized as I prepared that God has been bringing me on a journey of sensitivity about environmental stewardship and especially the affect of environmental injustice on the poor. You can listen to my message below.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Are we spending too much time in holy huddles?

In my newly released book, The Invisible, I urge readers to join movements that are working for social change. This can be threatening to Christians who don’t feel safe joining causes that might be led or actively participated in by unbelievers. Can you participate in a walk to fund AIDs research or join a movement to end human trafficking that does not express Christian faith in its mission statement?

My friend and mentor, Ray Bakke, teaches that “people of good faith can join with people of good will for the good of the community.” We don’t need to water down our faith to be involved with unbelievers in causes that affect the welfare of the poor and oppressed. In fact, joining such movements is a natural expression of true Christian faith. When Christians are not present at the tables where plans are laid out to address societal evil our absence communicates that we don’t care.

Our holy prayer clusters are important. Our fellowship circles strengthen our resolve to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. But then we must move out from those comfortable places to take action in the world to care for the oppressed and to work to right the wrongs of social injustice. This was Christ’s mission on earth as expressed at the outset of his ministry in Luke 4:18-21.

As Christians we are called to act out our faith. In fact, the apostle Paul states in Galatians 5:6, “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love.” And James says, “What good is it, my brothers, if a person claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

Perhaps we are spending too much time in holy huddles and not enough time serving in food pantries and shelters or joining with others to bring education and business opportunities to impoverished communities. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
  • When was the last time you shared a meal with a poor person?
  • What cause or causes are you presently engaged in?
  • How many people in your network are from races and socioeconomic groups that are different from yours?
  • What is stopping you from getting involved in a movement that is working for compassion and justice?