The Great Inspiration

The threads of last week were very interwoven for me. Election Day found me hosting a group of 10 visitors to Tijuana, where once again we visited the poorest squatter slums, met wonderful people and saw their pride in their businesses and outreach efforts.

While meeting the microbusiness operators is always inspiring, what moved me most was hearing from a gaggle of volunteers who told us all that they are doing to improve their communities. Our discussion started slowly, with Eliana, the first volunteer to speak, seeming rather tentative and stiff. But as she told us about training children in Christian Values and how, when she realized that many came without eating and began feeding these undernourished kids with her own food, how other volunteers then pitched in to help and more resources were added… She got everyone excited in her own enthusiasm and commitment.

The last to speak, Maria, recounted how she’d organized a boy’s soccer team, although she knew nothing about playing the sport. The new team lost every game miserably at first but slowly the boys gained skill and respect in winning; and now she has organized a girl’s team too. But I think Maria is actually the biggest winner, as this woman with a third-grade education spoke to us with head high, eyes wide and an infectious love for these kids.

Crammed between these bookends were a dozen other women, all volunteers, all passionately responding to needs in their own communities, building lives, sewing bedspreads – which they proudly displayed – to make extra money… but more importantly, sewing a neighborhood out of a slum, each woman a patchwork piece of the strengthening social fabric of their community.

Thursday, I arrived in Washington D.C., right after the historic election of the first non-Anglo to the White House. What a stimulating time to be in the nation’s capital, regardless of how one voted! Plaudits were gushing in from all over the world, foreign writers hailing the return of the American Dream, re-invigorated with fresh evidence that anyone can grow up here to do anything.

I was there to host a small conference of microfinance supporters from around the country for a weekend gathering, which was held in the historic Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue two blocks from the White House, just past Henry Paulson’s office in the Treasury Department building. Abraham Lincoln had stayed a month on the property preparing his cabinet, the term “lobbyist” was coined from jaw-boning with presidents in the hotel lobby, and Martin Luther King put the finishing touches on his “I Have a Dream” speech while staying at the Willard the night before he delivered it into history.

Saturday at dusk, after the event ended, I strolled to the White House south lawn gate, autumn-colored leaves framing the facade and grounds. I found myself standing next to an older African-American couple who were gazing in silence at the White House, holding hands. I couldn’t help but wonder …What must be going through their minds? I decided not to disturb their meditations (prayers? thanksgiving? angst?) but felt some solidarity just standing peacefully next to them as we watched history change along with the unusually balmy evening light.

That evening I sat at a sidewalk bistro outside our hotel and read a fascinating book, Hard Times (An Oral history of the Great Depression), by Studs Terkel. A friend had passed along the book, though it had seemed to put some palpable fear of our own economic future into him, so I was not at all sure I wanted to subject myself! But the prior night I’d cracked it open and the very first accounts hooked me: about the “Bonus Boys”, World War One veterans who were out of work and out of GI benefits and marched on Washington to demand a “bonus”. Many camped out right on Pennsylvania Avenue, and finally Army troops under Generals MacArthur, Patton and Eisenhower were called in to force the protesters out at bayonet-point from the spot where I then stood Saturday outside the White House lawn… historic hopes crushed on the spot I now stood with a newly hopeful couple…

Reading Hard Times on the sidewalk of a 5-star hotel became an immediate encounter with the heart of the poor. Intermixed with stories of great hardship and pain were accounts of great compassion and inspiration. I felt the way many people feel who visit impoverished countries and return saying, “I expected to see the poverty, but I didn’t expect to witness so much hope, joy and generosity.”

Somehow the accounts of compassion and love in the midst of those hard times gave me a glimpse at our own nation’s historic social fabric, albeit of a bygone and nearly forgotten era…

Kitty: “There were many beggars, who would come to your back door, and they would say they were hungry. I wouldn’t give them money because I didn’t have it. But I did take them in my kitchen and give them something to eat… I gave him a good, warm meal.”

Pauline: “My neighbors were angry with my mother, because she fed hungry men at the back door. They said it would bring others, and then what would she do? She said, “I’ll feed them till the food runs out.”

Emma: “Sometimes we would see them on the railroad tracks pickin’ up stuff, and we would tell ’em: ‘Come to our house.’ They would come by and we would give ’em an old shirt or a pair of pants or some old shoes. We would always give ’em food.”

These 1933 realities seem so totally foreign to our 2008 sensibilities, just 75 years later. Housewives taking unknown hungry men into their kitchens?! What about safety? What about fear? For those quoted above and many others, there was a sense that

We are all in this together; we are all of a piece
We have something you need more than we do
So here’s my husband’s suit
And some nice, warm food
I’ve heated it just for you
Instead of calling the police

One of our speakers in D.C. had reminded us that God not only loves but also respects the poor, and that His economy only works if we expect the best from them: integrity, repayment, industry, dignity. I sensed those very expectations in the above quotes.

I was overwhelmed by these stories. I recognized an ethic of mutuality that I thought was too dissonant with our “rugged individualism” to be an American attribute, rather something other cultures had and from which we could learn. But it turns out that we may only need to re-learn it, glory to God!

And depending on the direction the economy takes in the days ahead, we may be compelled to re-learn it.

I’m understanding more about Africa, more about the mindset of the poor in general, by reading a book of quotes from erstwhile middle-class Americans who “lost everything” in the Great Depression; yet maybe they gained the real treasure.

“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he loses his soul?”, Jesus asks us. Last week, I glimpsed the same vibrant soul in the squatter slums of Tijuana as I did in the intertwined stories of survival and support during America’s Great Depression. Lives woven together in mutual support create the true social fabric of every community, whether a neighborhood or a globe, and may best reflect the community Jesus describes as the Kingdom of God.

November 12, 2008
PS: It’s no surprise that every social fabric weaver above was a woman.

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