Tag Archives: poverty

Frederick Douglass: The enduring call to wakefulness

DC Teacher and Davidson Alum, Clint Smith‘s moving spoken word on zip codes, food desserts, and injustice entitled, “Place Matters,” is lighting up my facebook account and provoking some important conversation about the battles young children are fighting everyday against drugs, poverty, and obesity.   Click here to hear what he has to say!

Over ten years ago now, I spent a formative summer in Anacostia working with a youth missions organization, and it breaks my heart to hear how much the children there are still struggling to survive.  In a spiritual autobiography class at Princeton Theological Seminary,  after we read Frederick Douglass’ biography, I wrote a piece about my time in Anacostia and Douglass’ house, which stood high on a hill just down the street from the church we lived in, and from which you can get a glimpse of the capitol.  I want to add my voice to Clint Smith’s this morning in an effort to raise awareness about the state of education, poverty, and injustice just a few miles from our nation’s capitol.


I held Terrance and Talib’s small brown hands in my white ones as they dragged me toward the convenience store, expectantly bouncing up and down toward sodas and candy.  But in a matter of seconds the rusty van with its side door missing came careening around the corner, flying past us and I had just enough time to shove their little heads to the ground—trembling, we were, amidst the sound of screeching tires, hugging the hot pavement.  Two weeks prior a local gang from our neighborhood had accidentally killed a kid from Congress Heights in the crossfire, and here the gang from Congress Heights was now, circling the neighborhood for easy targets.  Terrance and Talib all too casually rose from their prostrate positions and turned their backs to the street, peering through the great iron bars that lined the sidewalk right where we had fallen.  They raised their eyes to look at his house, broad and grand, the only three story house that hadn’t slumped to two under the weight of poverty and decline, the only porch that held pristine rocking chairs, the only grassy hill for miles of pavement.

 “Whose house it that?”  Terrance asked.

There is no Frederick Douglass in Anacostia today, I thought, instead of mouthing the words.

His house was right there over the bars and I longed to tell that to Talib and to Terrance, but without “the sliver trump of freedom” it would mean nothing.  No soul can rouse itself to eternal wakefulness without a light to summon its attention.  Much as the bondage Douglass experienced gave the white man’s salvation a distinctly bitter, putrid taste, a message of spiritual liberation so trite meant little to this neglected community and to these boys who were starving for the sustenance of life itself—their own humanity. 


But this is where Douglass’ struggle ends, not where it began.  He begins his story with all that he does not know, all that he has lost because he was born a slave, far beyond Tuckahoe, Easton, and Talbot County.  And it is in this way that the children who came to Renaissance Baptist Church simply because we were there to listen, told their stories.  Absent of any detail, a parent completely unknown to them, a knowledge of nothing beyond the W, the street on which they lived. 

It is called W Street—like many city streets in southeastern D.C., in what is known as Anacostia, it seems downright generous to give alleys littered with burnt out cars, bottles, and buckling houses even a letter to their name.  On one end of this winding road is the metro station which connects this landmass on the other side of the Anacostia River to the rest of the capitol and congress buildings, and at the other end lies his house, statuesquely seated upon the only hill for miles, looking across the water to the capitol, yet directly down upon a city of shambles. 

These are the tangled roots of America and American Christianity, that though “all men are created equal,” the marble of the congress buildings was laid to bear by the hands of slaves, that though the Christian scripture might have harbored a message of liberation, the harshest slave owners were the ones whose whippings were steeped in scriptural righteousness.  This Christian and public alliance with slavery is what pushed Douglass not only to flee the plantations of his youth northward, but to flee (temporarily) the faith as well.  His anger, though, represented his hope, the fire of freedom that refused to accept a religion promising only spiritual, not physical liberation to its people. 

But the anger in Anacostia today fractures the community as brothers and sisters thrive off the exploitation of one another.  Even Renaissance Baptist Church was just another haven for drug trafficking—our pastor drove an olive green jaguar and came once a week to look out at the streets with a smug, careless glance.  It was Frederick Douglass who attacked this kind of religion, the kind of Sunday holy-rolling that slinked away to prostitute itself during the work week, from the very offering plate that the faithful had filled.  “What!  preach, and kidnap men?/  Give thanks, and rob the own afflicted poor?/  Talk of they glorious liberty, and then/  Bolt hard the captive’s door?”  While Douglass spoke of a new paradigm for salvation from his house on the hill, those in Anacostia found the captive door bolted, and traded the hope of glorious liberty for a hellish day-to-day hardened existence. The black church in this place had lost Douglass’ fiery ambition, becoming a cult of complacency in a community of need.

Perhaps all that is why the Nation of Islam temple two blocks up the street was so popular, boasting the likes of Louis Farrakhan, who preached twice within its tattered walls that summer.  The police barricaded off blocks up and down the street and black men with bright bow ties marched past the Frederick Douglass house, the Renaissance Baptist Church, and into the temple.  It was one of these nights in July that a young Anacostia man held his pregnant girlfriend hostage in a car across the street from our church; it was a scene unlike anything I’d ever experienced, police lights flashing, sirens and blow horns thundering, bow ties aflight from the area, fleeing across and out of Anacostia.

And this was what I observed: nobody, nobody wanted to be in Anacostia. The church was two blocks from murder row; the Salvation Army and the Red Cross had moved out.  The Venus and Serena Williams Tennis Center was a gleaming, marble monument in the neighborhood over, but it was a testament to the Williams sisters’ ability to get themselves out of Anacostia, rise above these God-forsaken streets.

The nights were bleak despite the joyful cries from the children frolicking on the steps of the church.  They were there because no one cared where they were, least of all their parents.  For the first few nights, I tried to walk these children back to their homes, meet their parents, and let them know that we couldn’t care for them at these hours of the night.  But from within young Terrance’s house came the notable shrieks of his mother prostituting herself in the upper room, and suddenly babysitting on the steps seemed the only thing to do.

A young Frederick Douglass.

But it is his house, the Frederick Douglass house, which stands so solemnly and out of place amidst this sobering circus.  And there are tourists who come to D.C. and come all the way out to Anacostia to see the yellow house with green shutters and experience the world of Frederick Douglass.  Perhaps what they do not expect is to have to use their imagination to see past the reality of Anacostia.  They have to wonder, I think, how St. Michael’s, where Douglass worked the plantation, is one of the loveliest portions of the Eastern Shore, whereas his own home attests to the height of urban poverty, institutionalized racism, and neglect to the ideals of freedom and equality he sought so desperately to instill in all people. 

All people have souls, Douglass’ biography teaches, even the slave.  But does Anacostia itself have a soul?  Or has it sold its soul, sold these children, Terrance and Talib, into a new irreversible, urban bondage of poverty?  Who will tell Douglass’ story, not just with words, but with his life?  Where is hope when there is none to be seen, when the house on the hill can stand so tall but its presence is not enough to triumph over today’s complicated systematic evils? 

Sometimes in my dreams, I imagine those children from the church steps playing on the Douglass lawn, on the porch, living in that big unlived-in museum of a house.  I imagine it all with anger, helpless anger, until I remember the real lives lived on the streets.  You see, it’s easy to equate the decay of buildings and structures with the decay of souls. 

At an after school program in Anacostia, DC.

The story I have not told is the one in which the community on W Street took us in and protected us from all the danger they lived with everyday of their lives.   Gert and Bill, the couple who lived across the street from the church, came over the very night we moved in, promising to be there, whatever we needed.  That eventually came to spiritual conversations, much needed showers in their cramped bathroom, and ever-important information about the needs of the community. By their generosity of spirit, their hospitality, and their care, we touched one another in a community that frequently felt bullets graze by, felt the emptiness of hunger, but rarely felt the “silver trump of freedom…rousing one’s soul to eternal wakefulness.”  Douglass recalls this moment for him, when “freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever.  It was heard in every sound, seen in every thing…I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it.  It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.” 

Douglass looked out from the plantation’s slave barracks on a bleak future yet all he could hear and taste was the cry and the thirst for freedom.  Perhaps looking for hope against the dingy backdrop of Anacostia is to place too much faith in appearances, to place too much acceptance upon the reality that seems irreparable.  If Douglass’ deepest longing to learn, to know freedom, and to live, reverberated from deep injustice, perhaps Anacostia does have a soul after all.  Anacostia could not be so desperately in need of salvation without a soul to yearn for grace.  A great injustice remains in the blocks surrounding the Frederick Douglass house, but the justice to redeem it will come from within.  The Frederick Douglass house stands as a reminder that freedom calls us all to wakefulness, but not a freedom from oppression or poverty arranged at the hands of white men in congress, but a freedom for humanity rumbling in the depths of the depravity in which Anacostia toils on day after day.

Cooking cultures

Many anthropologists are writing about the culture of feeding, defining kin and households based on who eats where and who feeds whom, and arguing that sitting down at table is a sacred practice that connotes far more than just physiological processes (see Janet Carsten and Mary Weismantel).

A meal in the mountains of Yunnan province. Photo by Evan Schneider.
My husband, hard at work, in the kitchen.

And last night as my husband whipped up some tomato sauce from a bushel of farm fresh tomatoes down the road, we began talking with a friend of ours about what we ate growing up and noting that it mostly came from cans, freezers, and boxes.  It was not only a function of the type of leisurely evenings and worryfree youth that we (in many thanks to our parents) are enjoying (and that our parents lacked), but also a culture of poverty that struck America among our depression-era grandparents and extended into the cooking habits of their baby boomer grandchildren.

“What a fascinating generational study,” I mused, perking up, ever the anthropologist, and my mind racing about the lively interviews to be conducted among grandparents, parents, and children in kitchens all over America.  I began to expound that my friends who have definitive cooking backgrounds mostly took these from their immigrant grandparents, while their baby boomer parents were too worried these ethnic roots would hold them back and didn’t pass on language, culinary expertise, or other cultural artifacts to their children.

The rolling hills of Yunnan province and mostly subsistence farms. Photo by Evan Schneider.
Traditional Chinese stoves in the countryside.
Another look inside a Chinese kitchen.

These are sweeping generalizations, of course, but immigrants cook less out of boxes and are often much closer to where their food comes from: I remember the Hmong families my mother tutored in inner city Milwaukee that kept pigs and chickens (and likely butchered them in the backyard), and fresh off the plane from China, my husband recently lamented that he may not be able to find anywhere in America to buy pork fat to render his own lard for making tortillas.

A mound of bok choy, our favorite Chinese vegetable.
My husband and a foreign friend haggling over a piece of pork along the road just outside of Beijing.

I’m not arguing for a hierarchy here when it comes to health, knowledge, or even taste (God knows lard, while it tastes great, has expanded many an American waistline), nor am I wanting to romanticize poverty.  Rather I’m going for something like substance, connection, depth.

As I thought more about these cultures of feeding or lack thereof (and enter here the catalyst for the slow food movement), I began to acknowledge the reason my heart leapt yesterday morning when my professor suggested my husband cook some Chinese food for us this evening, or why my husband and I felt oddly satisfied by the Chinese meal we had in Oklahoma in ways we didn’t by American cuisine.

It’s not just my body, but my heart that craves these foods lately, the feeling of being satisfied part and parcel of a struggle to adopt and adapt a whole nother world.  And that is often now followed by a profound emptiness, or hunger, that creeps up from the depths, hardly recognizable until it finds what it craves.  My heart, my mind, my soul found themselves profoundly satisfied by China’s odd cuisine, and I’m left wondering how long it will be before America can do the same.

**On a related note, I just stumbled upon this TIME photo essay on how families around the world eat.  Fascinating!**

On wealth and solidarity

When we first arrived in China, many of my posts took the form of earnest prayers that God provide security to us in this unknown place.  I struggled to trust God’s faithfulness when our apartment flooded, when the visa process loomed large and complicated, or when my dissertation research just seemed too impossible to complete.

And I’m thankful for a community of supportive readers who hear me out when I fear and when I complain, and the process of writing through these feelings and the fears has been immensely important and meaningful to me.

Lahu children in the mountains of Yunnan province.

But it’s nothing compared to what many in the world face everyday.

When I listened to This American Life‘s radio show on Americans in China, when I visit with my foster families who are struggling to make ends meet, and when I remember that despite China’s growing wealth, half of the population lives on a dollar a day, I am reminded that we in America, for the most part, are on the side of the rich and powerful.  Even I, as a graduate student, am rich by most Chinese standards.

Chinese men in a church in Yunnan province.

I recently met with one of my Chinese friends who is struggling with these dichotomies. “I notice a lot of missionaries come here and live very comfortable lives, all the while speaking loudly of their sacrifices, in order to keep a steady stream of support from abroad for their kids to go to good schools and so the parents don’t have to work,” she observed.  “But meanwhile it’s the Chinese people who are working in the trenches, making the real sacrifices, spending their own money and time, on top of their bills and their full-time jobs, and much judgment from their foreign partners who chide them for worrying about money and not spending enough time with their families.”

This whole partnership and solidarity thing is tricky.

And rather than a drastic move across the world or an elaborate ministry to the poor, I think any effort at solidarity or partnership with others first requires us to admit how powerfully our own wealth distracts us from the Gospel and hampers our ministry, and based on this realization, agree to play a minor, humble part that is based on listening, rather than a major one in doing God’s work.

You see, as Richard Rohr writes, we who hold the wealth, the prestige, and the power, have been in the driver’s seat for far too long.  “And in this world, there is still a whole mass of other people who have other insights.  The white man first raises questions of power and control.  The questions we pose to the Gospel are always questions that come out of this bias.” (Rohr Simplicity 163)

A young female minister in the church in Yunnan.

Rohr goes onto specify the types of questions we need to ask if we are to be free of ourselves, namely, “In what sense are we ourselves rich?  What do we have to defend? What principles do we have to prove?  What keeps us from being poor and open?  The issue isn’t primarily material goods, but our spiritual and intellectual goods–my ego, my reputation, my self-image, my need to be right, my need to be successful, my need to have everything under control, my need to be loved.” (Rohr 168)

It seems we’re quite incapable of welcoming Christ because we’re so stuffed full of ourselves.  The real thing we have to let go of is our self.  We aren’t really free until we’re free from ourselves.

—Rohr Simplicity p. 168

It’s a process–we can’t look the three demons in the eye: the need to be successful, the need to be righteous or religious, and the need to have power and get everything under control (174), until we recognize that material wealth has its limits and has taken its toll on our ability to know God and others.  And it is that toll, that ego, those demons, that hamper our ministry and our ability to know and understand others.

There are no easy answers here.

The author with a foster child.

But that’s the beauty of this challenge to be vulnerable with one another, to craft a life built on the promise of abundance, sacred things, and mutuality.  As Rohr writes, “But Jesus doesn’t offer us any certainties; he offers us a journey of faith.  Jesus doesn’t give us many answers; he tells us what the right questions are, what questions the human soul has to wrestle with to onto Christ and the truth.

Our formulations determine what we’re really looking for.  Our questions determine what we ultimately find and discover.  Answers acquire power too quickly; they often turn our words into ammunition to be used against others.  And answers make trust unnecessary, they make listening dispensable, they make relations with others superfluous.  Having my answers, I don’t need you in order to take my journey.  I need only my head, my certainties, and my conclusions.  It’s all private.  But Jesus said we have to live in this world so as to be dependent on one another.  The real meaning of a poor life is a life of radical dependency, so I can’t arrange my life in such a way that I don’t need you.  We can’t do it alone.

–Rohr Simplicity p. 162

And isn’t that the bare bones of solidarity and partnership–that we can’t do it alone?  That dependence on others requires us to rearrange our lives around one another, however inconvenient, humbling, and excruciating that process may be?  

I have a confession– I don’t think I’m there yet.  

Me and a Wa woman in Yunnan, 2011.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

But I desire to grow in Christ, and I pray that I am growing, not just with every year spent here in China, or every realization of the Gospel as seen through the eyes of my brothers and sisters here or in America, but in the quietness of my heart, where I admit that my wealth and my power have led me astray, where I find the willingness to ask questions and really listen, rather than rely on my own answers, and where I discover that I am my own worst enemy, that my needs for recognition, power, and control pale in comparison to the a life of dependence on Jesus and my neighbors.

And perhaps most importantly, I’m realizing that it’s not so much about me and my rising above all this, but about the faults and the wounds that I carry, in which others may recognize their own humanity, and we might begin to tear down these walls that divide us.

Thanking God for the woes

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. –Luke 6:24-26

I’m not usually such of fan of negative passages in the Bible, you know like the whole ‘Loving God, please heap burning coals upon my enemies’ heads’ lines that often fall at the end of the Psalms.  Something just doesn’t seem quite right with those…

Sermon on the Mount by Laura James

So I guess that’s why I tend to gravitate toward the version of the Beattitudes in Matthew 5, you know the one that wraps up with blessings, joy in heaven, and then moves onto that cheery salt and light bit.

And perhaps that’s why these few verses at the end of Luke’s version struck me so profoundly with their recognition that it’s not only poverty of spirit that’s too be cherished, but gluttony, wickedness, and pride that are to be avoided.

Yesterday, as we made our way to a foster family’s home on the outskirts of the city and down a dusty road, a Chinese friend of mine turned to me and said, “You know people think that because China is developing so rapidly that things are fine here, but we still have a lot of problems.”

This morning I read an article about the education that few can afford in China, and the widening gap between the rich and poor.  And yesterday I saw it with my own eyes, far removed from the gleaming skyscrapers in the city, among these lovely old ladies who live in shacks and take care of severely disabled, needy kids for next to nothing.

But we can all relate to that story of the haves and the have-nots, can’t we?

It’s the same story in America just on a different frequency, and it must have been the same story back in Biblical times or Jesus would have been able to stop with that list of blessings.

But he didn’t.  

He went onto to preach that he wasn’t just talking about the plight of the poor or charity, where the rich could chip in a few cents for the poor and go on their merry way, but life-changing justice–the kind where we’d all have to give up something so that others don’t have to go without the necessities, where we’d have to stop rejoicing in the struggles of others, or attributing our success, wealth, and status to our own good graces.

I’m grateful during this Lenten season that Jesus didn’t stop with the blessings, but heaped on the woes.

Because its causing me to ask myself the hard questions like, What is Jesus calling me to give up this season so that others don’t go without?  And what burdens is Jesus calling me to shoulder so that others don’t stumble and fall?  

These are the questions that Lent begs of us, and the questions that renew our search for God’s wisdom and for Christ’s kingdom here on earth.

They are the questions that I ask even now when I’m afraid to do so, so that in some humble way someday I might not be facing these woes or trashing Jesus’s good name with them, but that I might be a blessing to others.

Hunan Headlines: A Mix of Sorrow and Hope

It’s been about three weeks (May 9) since I first read on a Chinese news website about the incident of baby trafficking in a poor county in Hunan that subsequently made international headlines. While I’ve been busy, the wait was actually intentional, in that I didn’t want to respond with only my gut or my heart, but with my mind, as well.

Several weeks later, allow me to share a few lingering thoughts.

First, I’m filled with sorrow for the parents who lost children so many years ago, and whose pain was largely ignored by not only local and provincial leaders, but media, and social agencies. This story, though it received many slants in the media, is first of all a story of human tragedy, and only secondly, a story of tragedies about national or international systems. I also am filled with sorrow regarding the mistakes of local officials, and their alleged abuse of the population policies.

Next, it saddens me that a few individuals’ mistakes have colored international perspectives regarding Chinese governance, and given that my research attends to the individuals in Chinese society who warmly and willingly foster and adopt abandoned and disabled children, it frustrates me that this negative story is the one (as the negative stories often do) that has captivated international attention.

As someone studying Chinese social welfare, I’m more often than not refreshed by the care and concern Chinese people have for their children, and I’m blessed to see that there is much to be hopeful about when it comes to the lives of orphans and disabled children in China.

Finally, it frustrates me that several media outlets have taken this opportunity to draw attention to the one-child policy, and focus on condemning its role in child trafficking, rather than the illegal actions of a few individuals, or the complexity of competing pressures. In this case, local officials abused the policy, and for whatever reason, chose to implement the policy illegally and inappropriately, and as such the child trafficking is a consequence of illegal behavior, rather than routine policy enforcement.  While the one-child policy is by no means perfect, child trafficking in China, as in other developing countries, is a much more complicated effect of poverty, international demand for adoptions, etc., rather than the direct consequence of a policy.

This incident has received attention from the Chinese government and the Chinese press, and is currently under investigation. My hope is that as a result of this incident, the pressure that population officials are under to maintain low birth rates will be illuminated, and families who lost children in Longhui county, as well as in other parts of China, will be given support and attention from the government.

My encouragement goes out to those in Chinese society who are working to promote the case for foster care and domestic adoption in China, and my hope is that I am able to describe their work accurately, so that the international audience can understand the complexities of life in China, and also relate to the love parents have for children here as well.