Monday, June 29, 2009

Something about economics

Recently, I was hired as a part-time Sales Associate at Ten Thousand Villages, in Brookline, MA. The store is located about 5 miles from home, although the bus commute can take about 25 minutes on a good day and closer to an hour or more on other days.

Before I moved to Boston, a wise professor and friend encouraged me to do two things once I moved into Dorchester: get a job within walking distance of home and spend almost all of my money in my immediate neighborhood, a place that would clearly benefit from some financial investment -- and where my money would have an immediate impact on the well-being of my neighbors, who own, operate, work at, or shop at the surrounding businesses.

Now, I find myself waking up around 7:30 AM most days and donning reasonably nice khakis and polos (okay, they're thrifted... from a shop 6 miles away in a neighborhood that is Boston's version of Fishtown) or gifts from Mom (made by sweatshop labor and sold at bargain basement prices by Kohl's), and shoes to match. By 8:30 or shortly thereafter I am on the 15 or 41 Bus and driving down the thriving main drag through the hood, Dudley Street, until I get to the station and switch to the 66 Bus. The 66 is my ticket to Oz, where I am daily reminded that we are definitely not in Kansas anymore - rather, we have crossed Roxbury, drifted through Mission Hill with the blink of an eye, and find ourselves in Brookline: the home of clean streets, parking meters, nice restaraunts, a Stop and Shop and Trader Joe's within a mile of each other, and all of the comforts of a cozy downtown. Most of the people are vaguely aware that there is a land on other side of that gray area we call Mission Hill, but few mention it. Conversations about my neighborhood make it sound as though its as far removed from Brookline as my neighborhood in New Hampshire is.

But, my trip to Brookline is redeemed by the 4-6 hours I spent advancing the cause of Fair Trade economic principles by working for 10,000 Villages, right? After all, the people that come in are mostly of middle- to high-class socio-economic standing and some of them can afford to drop over $1,000 a day on a handful of items. One says, "After all, I'm supporting something good". And I can't help but think, as I say "Thanks for your purchase, and we look forward to seeing you again real soon!" with a bright smile, "Lady, you just bought a bunch of stone frogs to make your pretty, quaint little house look even cuter. And the sad thing is, you can't feel bad about, because the crap you just bought - however useless - was fairly traded". And my job description is essentially "to increase sales... so we can buy more and help more people". How is encouraging materialism in North America the right cure for the poverty of the developing world?

Clearly, the money made from these sales is helping people to have jobs - sustainable, good jobs - in places where they wouldn't have work. The marginalized women, lepers, disabled, religiously discriminated - all find a place of affirmation and encouragement in the co-operatives we work with. In a globalized world, where our next-door neighbors are connected to us just as much as those who labor in the fields and factories of El Salvador, Pakistan and Ethiopia, stepping back from fair trade buying and focusing on purchasing (or even producing) locally produced goods raises as many questions as buying products made in the worst of conditions, sold by companies practicing the most devious procedures.

So, what if we only bought 'practical' fair trade items - dishes, clothing, food products? The food product question really throws me for a loop, although it makes a whole lot more sense to me than a $300 metal figurine from Haiti (as much as I love the people from Haiti, my time there at least taught me that buying a $300 metal figurine is not the best way I can be of a positive contribution to changes in that nation). In my store, we sell coffee, tea, and chocolate - all originating, mostly, from Latin America and Africa. We also sell a cookbook called "Simply in Season", about cooking using only foods that are in season in order to cut down on exporting food from foreign countries (or even the other side of the US), due to the environmental impacts of food shipping.

Oddly, the backbone of Fair Trade is coffee -- which we don't have a choice in the United States except to import. And, oddly enough, it's an addictive substance. I need a 16-oz mug in the morning unless I've gotten 8 hours of sleep. Usually I need little bits throughout the day, too. Last year, I would get migraines at 4;00 PM sharp if I skipped my coffee dose. Are you addicted to coffee? If not, how many people do you know who can't live without it? The last time I checked, the Christian community is not supposed to be encouraging addictive behavior; yet we are proponents of the Fair Trade movement, which is arguably a pretty big drug dealer (let's skip the bullshit, folks). But it's okay, it's providing jobs to marginalized people worldwide.

Why can't we just live without those products that have to shipped hundreds or even thousands of miles? Why can't we settle for what organizations like the Food Project in Dudley are selling at their farmers' market every week? Heck, they employ people who wouldn't otherwise have jobs - and some of those people would otherwise be selling drugs (although not coffee) and/or turning to violent alternatives this summer - in my neighborhood, not someplace thousands of miles away.

Now I've raised some controversy, I want to take a step forward (in admitted hypocrisy) and wade a little bit deeper in. The level of complicity that we all have with the global economy reminds me very much of the passages in Revelation that talk about men and women taking the mark of 666 in order to participate in the day-to-day goings-on of the world around them; scholars tell us that taking the mark is not that different from a modern-day social security number, or a bank account -- the very numbers that allow us to participate in society. If we looked around at the effects of most of our economic decisions, we would see how much damage we wreak on the worlds. Our banks and most of our biggest corporations are involved in coups, environmental destruction, and all sorts of destructive practices around the globe.

They are not the harbingers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yet we continue to fill up our cars with gas, and live in all sorts of other ways that presuppose the suffering of others. If I get a socially responsible credit through Bank of America, and plan to use it to buy solely fair trade products, it's still with Bank of America. I have, in effect, taken the mark in order to feed those in distress - something John, the author of the Revelation, still criticizes and warns against. Without the marks of today, participating in an economy - even the fair trade elements of it - would be impossible; we wouldn't even be able to go get a sandwich without cash or credit in our pockets.

I have many other thoughts about Fair Trade and its implications. And, despite all of these struggles, I'll continue to push forward with my internship and my part-time job, because I want to believe another world is possible in which economies can reflect God's justice and mercy. The growing success of Fair Trade in places like Jamaica Plain, Mass., and Media, PA, might one day have an effect of considering corporate leaders to reconsider the way in which they do business - not to mention the condition of the heart behind it. And maybe we can get to a place where we are not the only ones buying the expensive art work for the sake of materialism; perhaps it comes as part of a more dimensional trade between a North American family and the family who produced the piece. What I mean is that I don't want to just buy fair trade stuff, I want to meet and eat Communion with the men, women and children who produce it!

For example: We often think of Africa as this dirty, poor, messed up place - but sleek white and pink Kenyan stonework reminds us of the richness of the culture and joy of the people. Many of us critique the United States (with sound reason at our backs), and are quick to point out our government's corruption and the materialism of our people. But I'd like to believe the same richness that allows joyful, beautiful Kenyan stonework to be crafted with delicacy and convey a beautiful message of hope and relationship is also found in some places across the United States. I'd love to get my hands dirty making a craft and being able to share its story over a meal with a Kenyan stoneworker.

Now, brothers and sisters, let's reason to together and spur one another on toward good deeds, always going deeper and pushing one another to critically wrestle with the implications of our decisions and life choices.

Thanks for your readership,
-- BC

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Something brief

I really hope I never get propositioned by a prostitute right in front of my house again.

And I really wish that people didn't approach me begging for money, with obvious drug problems or heartbreaking stories that I know deep down are bullshit, but want to believe.

I told you this would be brief.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Something about hope

I don't know about you, but most of the people I hung around with during election season were either opposed opposed to voting and participating in a particular campaign, period, or were really into Barack Obama. One of the things that seemed to appeal was Obama's emphasis on the ability of communities to lift up their heads, see the light at the end of the dark tunnel our nation is apparently in, and begin walking together toward that light hand-in-hand.

I won't lie; I really like that about President Obama. My favorite sociologists and activists are the ones who root their theory and practice in hope. They look around, see the situation for what it is, and don't give you any bullshit about how bad things are. But they also are committed to the belief that there can be a better tomorrow, and the only way to get there is by doing the tough work -- together -- of meeting the challenges that we face.

The biggest problem I have with any of this is that it's not really a Christian way of thinking. It almost is. But, if you believe in the overwhelming reality of the human condition (i.e., sin), then you have to admit that reaching the light at the end of the tunnel is never possible based solely on hard work and determination.

What's missing from this equation is grace. To believe that the sort of message we've been told about hope and possibility is ever attainable without repentance from us and grace from God is to bie into a lie that seems pervasive in the world we find ourselves in.

For example, the prodigal son worked really hard to trudge home after making a lot of mistakes, and he faced his father - probably with some shame, or maybe with sheer selfish desperation - knowing full well that he might not have been let back into the house. Instead, Dad showed him grace and even threw a party for him. That's boundless grace, right there. Dad could have told him to get his sorry ass moving and go back to the pig farm, if he wanted to. But no, that's not the nature of how Dad is. If any of us chose to believe that the happy ending for the son was all because of his own merit, we'd be fools for ignoring the reality of the way in which the story has to work.

Does God honor our hard work? I sure hope so. He encourages us to love our enemies, go out into the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on our back, and conduct miracles in His name by faith. I sure hope He honors that hard work; otherwise, He'll have some explaining to do if I am ever left hanging. Maybe His way of extending grace to us is, when we are at our last straw, providing a way through the problem at hand as a means of teaching us that only He could bring us through in the first place.

I muse on all of this because it is particularly pertinent right now. I've been connecting with a guy recently who struggles with both cocaine addiction and alcoholism. Last night, he told me that "a busy mind makes a free mind", and he clearly meant that if he keeps busy, he's less prone to use and abuse drugs and alcohol. The way he keeps busy is by helping out at the church next door, where I might expect him to show up and receive prayer or some form of handout to help with his condition.

But, no, he recognizes that change can't come by sitting around and twittling your thumbs while waiting for Divine deliverance to happen. And the way in which he keeps busy is by serving others. One of the most broken people I've met (literally, he has plenty of other health issues, too) is allowing Himself to be repaired by serving rather than just receiving service. And, finally, he understands the most important truth of all: that, while he may not see the light of the end of the tunnel now, as Job might not have when everything was taken away from Him, he feels God's presence beside Him as he both proclaims and demonstrates the will to be redeemed. And he knows that, in the end, deliverance is both a possibility and a reality.

A lot of people would look at my friend (who I am intentionally not naming as yet) and say "It would take a miracle for him to change". Well, a miracle implies that the change is at least somewhat dependent on an outside force. I hope and pray for a miracle to happen; what better evidence of God's hand at work than a man healed of addiction and alcoholism, who knows who to give the credit to immediately?

I can't think of anything better than that.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Something about yesterday

Yesterday was a loaded day. First, I met a 22-year-old kid at the bus stop who had quite literally just gotten out of prison. He proceeded to tell me some of his story and the situation he now finds himself in, which will probably be an entirely separate blog post once I think through what happened.

Then, in the evening, I was tutoring a kid from around the corner. We went to the park because the house was crowded. There were some shady folks in the park engaged in equally shady business behind the swings. Plain-clothes policemen showed up and frisked them, and lectured them. In the middle of the park, where kids were playing. Again, more on this later.

To top it off, I had a bit of a breakthrough with a man who lives in the neighborhood our church serves and is quite a part of. I'm headed over there shortly to try to connect with him some more. I'm sure you'll be hearing quite more about this fella, and I might even tell you his name or make one up once we connect some more.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Something about gardening

For the longest time, I've been saying "I'd love to get my hands dirty in a garden". And then, wouldn't you know it, I made myself entirely too busy or made up excuses to skip a trip to the community garden at Frazer, or step up and help start one at Eastern. Now, I think my other commitments and obligations were legitimate at the time, but now that I live in the middle of a pretty grey and drab part of Boston, the urgency of re-connecting with the land is becoming a bigger deal. And in that light, Wendell Berry is getting moved to the top of my reading list (once I finish The Beloved Community, which you will read about on here once I'm done with it).

A quick glance around my neighborhood revealed that a grocery resembling Acme and Genuardi's (for those of you in New England, Shaw's or Stop and Shop), is not within walking distance. And, most of the people who frequent large grocery chains have the money and means to buy 4,6 or more bags of groceries to last the entire week, or maybe even longer in some cases.

Many of the kids in my neighborhood struggle with obesity; and a quick look at their diets indicates that someone might pick up a few TV dinners on the way home, because, after all, they're only $1 a piece. When you have a limited amount of time, money and hands to carry things, it's easier to walk to Brother's Grocery, pick up a few things, bring them home and prepare them quickly than it is to drive to Stop-and-Shop, pick up potatoes, spinach, cereal, milk, eggs, etc., etc., and develop a week's recipes for balanced meals. Or, maybe you take the bus to Stop-and-Shop... but you buy the same stuff, because you have to take the bus back to your neighborhood and walk home from the bus stop. And you only have two hands.

But, now, in what way are the families pursuing these habits any different than a number of suburban families? I grew up in Exeter, NH, as an only child. My family currently owns four cars between the three of us, and within 5 miles we have access to Stop and Shop, Shaws, and Market Basket. There's also a smaller, pricier organic-type grocery called On the Vine, and Hampton Natural Foods and Hannaford aren't all that far away, either. The number of cars we own could be critiqued by some for plenty of reasons; I mention it only to say that it's really easy for any of us to get to the store, load up the car or truck with 8-10 bags of groceries, and get them home in a timely fashion.

While my mother used to take a good deal of time to prepare every meal we ate, and often still does, it's not like she represents every suburban mom out there. I've witnessed plenty of Moms and Dads who are so busy with their demanding jobs and social lives, that their children are often handed the same crummy food that some of the kids in my neighborhood are. And while some of the families in my block might be plagued by alcoholism, a quick glance around my former neighborhood in Exeter, or dare I say, Wayne, shows that some families suffer from workaholism.

Okay, so as usual, I've ranted for a couple of paragraphs. But now I'd like to get constructive. See, a few days ago, I spent some time with Leah, Kim, Elizabeth, Magen, Andy, Laura, Booker, and a whole bunch of kids and parents from the block - whose names I can pronounce but not spell yet - building a 4 x 8 raised bed -- on a plot of land poisoned by lead, making it impossible to plant in the land itself (hence the necessity of a raised bed). Filling my truck with dirt, arriving at the property, seeing the joy on the kids' faces as tutors showed up with popsicles and face paint, seeing how excited the "adults" (sorry, I don't think of us 20-somethings as adults, yet) were to get this project underway after some delays in past weeks, was a refreshing, collective experience. Elizabeth showed us all how to plant tomatoes, sweet onions, herbs and who knows what else (I was too busy trying to make sure the watering can made it around to all of the kids, that I didn't really focus on the types of plants we put in).

Here I was, a suburban kid who didn't care much for gardening, or anything related to the natural world, until 2-3 years ago. And my Dad had a huge garden in our backyard up until a few years ago! Maybe one of the ways to practice redemption is for the Christian community to do things like get our family together and plant a garden in the back yard. Doing this on a land poisoned by lead in a pretty rough part of Dorchester might be just as powerful as Mom and Dad taking one day of work off each week in Wayne to spend time with their kids and get their hands dirty together, instead of handing them over to a nanny or taking them to run around concrete wastelands like the King of Prussia Mall.

Maybe the problems that face communities like Dorchester aren't all that different from those in places like Waybe; sin, and its effect, take on very different faces but when the consequences are neglected kids, who don't know and don't care about the very land that they walk on (and really depend on), redemption is needed in both places and can be a powerful sign of the Kingdom of God breaking forth in the world, here and now.