Economic Distress and Religion, Rural View

“We’re not black or white here. We’re all poor. We ain’t got nothin’. Everybody hates us, and we’re all in this together.”

That quote is from my dad, explaining to me why he and some of his buddies went and put a smack-down on some young idiots who were trying to start a gang in the small crossroads town I grew up in.  Population: 352. Median household income: $28,914.00.  (How could you even have a gang with no one to join and no money to contribute? Bleh – amateurs.)

During a comments exchange on the post “Does Your Faith Radically Transform Your Life?”, the question came up about how growing up in an economically distressed area has affected my faith. I had just come out of intense training at the NC Rural Center’s Rural Economic Development Institute, and the role of faith-based organizations had featured heavily in our discussions. Informal discussions with friends I made at the Institute had also considered what our faith requires of us in our communities, so when Hammered Thumbs put up this post, I was already ruminating on poverty and religion.

This is not a scientific study by any means, but just a reflection on a couple of the things I learned, directly and through implication, about living faith while growing up in a poor area.

1. Work together.

I don’t have that much anyway, so will it really hurt to share it? No, because someone will always be sharing with me, too. Besides, if things get too hard, I can always run out and find someone to hire me for a few hours to work in the chicken houses, or dig some holes, or wash their car or something. Any person – decent, good, hard-working folks – can unexpectedly fall on hard times, as our recent economic woes have shown even those who thought they were safe.

It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do, or how you dress, or how you talk, or what church you do or do not belong to, or how you got here. You and I are in the same boat, and we can’t get out of it by hating each other. I swear sometimes it is hard not to believe that there is a shadowy upper class (bourgeoisie, if you will) trying to stay in power by creating and feeding divisions among us common folk (proletarians, some would say). Divide and conquer? Not in my town (see opening quote). We all have opportunities to be Good Samaritans, and reach out and help each other across false divisions.

My grandparents own rental properties, most of which are very cheap. They are very generous and considerate of what others are going through, because they had their own struggles during the early years of their lives together. One family that rents from them pays them once a year – at tax time. Oh, and there are no interest or late fees added. That’s what they can do; that’s what they can afford; and my grandparents are now in a position to let the rent float that long.  Why make them ashamed and miserable by insisting on terms they can’t meet? Which leads to another truth.

2. Leave people their dignity.

I don’t want to be belittled or pitied or talked down to, so why would I do that to someone else? In Sunday School, at home, on family visits I heard over and over the same mantra, “God helps those who help themselves.” Rural folks are notoriously self-reliant and resistant to charity. Most I know would rather be poor, living dirt cheap, hunting and growing their own food and even pitching tents in the woods (true stories here) than accept charity or public support. (You’ve probably seen the type of people I’m talking about, although you might have thought of them differently and applied labels to them that include various synonyms for primates, variations of spelling for the color of their skin, or the word “trash” on the end.)

I have been very, very, very broke before. My aunt, who has worked hard and earned well by it, has always helped me out. But she has never given me money. It’s always been, “Hey, I need some help entering in the tax information for our new crew of workers. Do you have some time? I’ll pay you.” Or “Look, I’ve got to transcribe this huge spreadsheet of tobacco buyer info – are you free this week? I’ll pay you.” Or “I don’t have time to clean out the stalls this week. Can you help me out? I’ll pay you.” My whole life I’ve seen her do this, with me, my cousins, people in the community, or just friends she has taken under her wing. I am now in a position to do the same and I follow her lead. A friend out of work? “Yo, would you be willing to cut my grass this summer? How much would you charge me?” Even the small church my family attends does the same; a member who recently was laid off from a 31-year job was hired to maintain the grounds until he found new work.

3. Give what I’ve got.

I wish everyone on the planet would read about Mrs. Lillie Sanders. What an amazing woman, with a special place on reserve in Heaven. I met her at the NC Women Giver’s Conference in 2007, just before she won the Nancy Susan Reynolds Award for advocacy. Mrs. Sanders is a beautiful spirit, who puts me to shame everyday. Pleeeeeeeeease read the article. You will be amazed by it.

Mrs. Sanders is from Magnolia, NC in Duplin County. “Duplin County is largely agricultural, jobs are scare and wages are low. There is no United Way, no Salvation Army, none of the services larger communities take for granted. So over the years, the hurting and the needy have turned to Lillie Sanders, who time after time has helped.” (from link above)   She shares EVERYTHING with everybody. And I do mean EVERYTHING. If she gets it, she gives it. She told me at the conference that her and her husband had enough to live, so why keep anything else? Talk about living a faith…

My friend Eric, a dedicated Habitat for Humanity advocate,  shared this on a Facebook note recently:

“The late Tom Hall, a former associate director of HFHI, reflected on God’s miraculous acts: ‘Rather than complaining about the meagerness of the resources, Jesus took what was at hand, thanked God for it and put it to work. Wonder of wonders, there was more than enough! I do not know just what happened on that Galilean hillside. I do know that when we take what is given and go to work with it to do God’s will, the job can be accomplished.'”

I saw this truth played out over and over as I was growing up. Even our famed hospitality is based on it – don’t hold back, insist my guests have seconds, and short myself if there isn’t enough to go around. And never, ever, ever complain or call attention to the fact that I am sacrificing anything. Ah! Lesson # 4:

4. Shut your mouth.

Point #1 : Pharisees prayed on street corners. We don’t.

Point #2: “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaulteth not itself, is not puffed up.” I Corinthians (ch. XIII, v. 4)

5. Don’t judge.

Who doesn’t know this one? But on the surface it is easier than when you start thinking about how to apply it to actions. Growing up, I never thought about NOT giving change to someone who asked for it. It wasn’t until I was older that I was introduced to the ideas that: “He’ll just spend it on liquor.” “She should go out and get a job like the rest of us.” “Those kids have no right to MY money.”

Why are these questions even applicable? First of all, what someone does with the money that I give him is between him and God. Unless I take him into my home, he is not answerable to me. Second of all, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I’m not so conceited to think that I could never end up in that position. Third, this is not MY money. Nor is it my house, my car, my anything. I only have it because God has allowed me to have it, and if He gives me opportunities to share his gifts, I have an obligation to do so.

This one falls over into so many categories for me. I was amazed and appalled by people who said that people facing foreclosure deserved no help because 1) they shouldn’t have gotten into that position in the first place, and 2) I’m not getting any help and am paying my bills on time so they shouldn’t have help either.” Wow! What a judgment call, based on assumptions and no research. What selfishness. How could I look myself in the mirror if I thought that way?

Another point Mrs. Sanders makes which is one that I finally settled on and have lived by for years before she expressed it to succintly is this: “Sometimes I tell people I serve the needy and the greedy, but I don’t think it’s my place to try to distinguish.” We have a court system and a Judgement Day for that.

6. God never promised you a rose garden.

Listen to a good old Southern Baptist hymn lately? How about “one fine morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away”? Or “over the sunset mountains, someday I’ll softly go”? How about the beautiful spiritual “swing low, sweet chariot, comin for to carry me home”?

Did your granny ever talk about everyone having a cross to bear?

I think maybe the thing I learned growing up that has been the most inspiring for me is this: life is going to hurt, it is going to suck, it is going to always be me against the world – but one day it will all be over, and I will never suffer again.

Now, please understand, these are the ideals by which I was raised. They are not always put into practice, but they are the values and beliefs that underlie how my community lives its faith. All fall short, a few times or many. And there are many arguments of interpretation I know – yet the question for me is, as Hammered Thumbs asked – am I adjusting my living to fit my faith, or adjusting my faith to fit my living?

Other interesting questions come up as I’m writing this – Am I fixated on giving as central to my faith because I grew up in a poor area with so much need? Do I associate Christianity with social justice for the same reason? If I grew up rich in a rich area without much need, would I be more concerned about other manifestations of faith in my life? Am I trying to make my faith fit my view of the world? Am I even qualified to be discussing this, considering my background and my life choices (and quite a few will give you a definite “NO” on that one!”

However, these are the values that are under the surface (in Dr. Yo’s iceburg analogy) of my rural, economically distressed area and of my own faith. And these are the values that sometimes bring us into contention with the more visible, prevalent, and overall political manifestations of the Christian faith. Sometimes we just don’t understand why the rich man who can’t get through the eye of a needle, much less into heaven, gets to be the public face of our faith.


~ by gypsyjonga on June 16, 2009.

5 Responses to “Economic Distress and Religion, Rural View”

  1. I think the world would be a better place if we had all been raised with those ideals, and spent our life trying to live that way indeed

    • Thanks for the comment, Aunt Angie! I know I fail to live up to them regularly, but there’s a lot to be said for trying…

  2. Fantastic post here. Thanks for taking the time to answer my question and to answer it so well. I love your description of the ideals and values you grew up with. In many ways what you describe is so similar to my own family roots in rural Australia. Given that similarity, I’m very curious to give some more time and thought to the idea of social justice in relation to faith, as I too find that is a central part of my faith identity. Thanks again.

    • Thanks! It is a fascinating subject. It is intriguing that there are similarities between rural NC, US and rural Australia, especially since when I was in Sri Lanka a few years ago, I actually found that I related better to the native Sri Lankans I met in the village we stayed in than I did to my fellow travelers who were all from the U.S. but from large towns and cities. Although Anura, Kairo and the other friends I made are Buddhist, their values and way of interacting and ideas of social justice were pretty similar to mine. I wonder if it is a rural thing, or a poverty thing?

  3. […] I wrote the post Economic Distress and Religion, Rural View (click on it to check it out) back in June 2009, I was doing pretty well. I had finally gotten it […]

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