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Pandemic Perspectives

This morning’s Chicago Tribune has a cover article about teenagers who are essential workers during the pandemic, balancing school and work and concern for their families.

I read the newspaper every morning and often notice an article I want to share here because we need to recognize the wide variety of experiences people are having during the shelter-in-place. COVID-19 affects all of us, but it does not affect all of us in the same way.

“My dad used to work 45 hours a week and now he can barely get 30 hours,” one Chicago Public Schools student wrote in an online petition seeking relief from the district’s grading policy for remote learning. “He doesn’t make enough for bills and food so I started to work two jobs of a combined 50 hours so I can help with the bills. I can’t even do homework.”

(Chicago Tribune, May 26, 2020)

Families organize themselves in part based on access to resources. When a family has stable housing, plenty of food, and steady income, then children are not responsible to earn an income for the household. When a family does not have the resources to meet everyone’s needs, children might carry a heavier load.

“One Chicago high school student aced a physics test by sending a set of photos showing his work, according to his teacher at George Westinghouse College Prep.

“He showed all his work on napkins, which he did while working at the grocery store to support his family,” the teacher tweeted. “And it was a perfect score.”

(Chicago Tribune, May 26, 2020)

The courage and resilience of a teen who completes school while helping to support their family during a global health crisis – it is stunning. God bless them.

Article cited: Teen essential workers juggle labor, fear, stress — and remote learning — to help support their families by Hannah Leone. Some access to the Chicago Tribune is available for free, but please consider paying for a subscription. Journalism is an essential service.

Mobile Food Pantry

Last Saturday the Northern Illinois Food Bank hosted a Pop-Up Market at Six Flags. I volunteered for a 3-hour shift packing boxes as part of the distribution for thousands of families.

The market was scheduled for 10 – 1:00, but the line was closed at 11:30 a.m. The market had reached its limit. Four hours later we were still working to serve people who’d been waiting all that time.

The shift I worked started at 11:00 and was supposed to end at 2:00. Seeing that people were still waiting to be served and there was work to do, I stayed. By 4:00 I could not do it any more. I’d been on my feet for hours. Our work station of 4 people had loaded thousands of eggs and hefted probably a ton of chorizo and venison into family-sized boxes. Every half hour we would change the way we packed when the event manager re-evaluated inventory vs. cars in line: “That’s running low, put in one instead of two per box. We still have lots of that, pack three instead of one.” we worked like an assembly line but our minds could not wander. We had to focus to remember the most recent instructions.

Families waiting in line to get food.

In the line of cars, families waited. The moved from the Six Flags entrance road, to the parking lot, to a set of lanes separated by orange cones. Many had children or babies with them. A few parents who got out of their cars to ask:

  • “Will there be enough food for everyone? I have a 1-year-old and I’m concerned.”
  • “Is there a bathroom? I need to take care of my daughter.”
  • “Can we get some water? We’ve been waiting in the car for many hours.”

Though they were clearly tired and anxious, everyone I spoke to was kind and patient. The families waiting for food, the staff, and the volunteers all showed forbearance, generosity, and good will. I’m sure we all went home exhausted that night. My muscles ached and I felt a little sunburned. Too tired to cook dinner for my family, we ordered takeout and watched tv.

I thought of the families who’d waited in their cars for so long. They were surely also exhausted, got home weary and surprised at how much of the day they’d spent at the pop-up pantry. If they ordered fatigue-induced takeout it was a tight trade-off. Some other expense will go unpaid because of that stress relief.


The statistics about people who’ve lost their jobs in the last couple of months – 20.5 million Americans lost jobs in April – became concrete for me that day. Many of those 20+ million people live paycheck-to-paycheck and losing a job means a sudden tumble into urgent need.

Looking east from Six Flags. I later heard that the line stretched down Grand Avenue almost to Highway 41.

Both the volunteers and the neighbors receiving food were there because of our need. The need for food is easy to recognize; the need to feel useful, to serve others, to help solve an overwhelming problem is harder to see. It is still a need.

The biggest difference between me and the neighbors receiving food is that I have so many choices. I could choose to go help or not. I could choose to leave when I felt exhausted. I could choose to get takeout instead of making dinner. I could even choose to hang out with my family or go into a room by myself, because my house is big enough for that.

Money gives us choices. The millions of people losing their jobs right now are losing access to choices, and many will now trade their time for things they need. Like food.

If COVID-19 is a storm, we’re all in the same storm but we are not all in the same boat. If your boat is sea worthy and well-stocked, please share. We need our neighbors to get through this storm too.

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. Isaiah 58:10

There are many agencies doing excellent work in Lake County during this crisis. Here are few to consider supporting with your money, your prayers, and your time:

Northern Illinois Food Bank

Christian Neighbors Church is running an emergency food box ministry in Waukegan, partnering with several congregations

PADS Lake County helps people experiencing homelessness

Bernie’s Book Bank providing books for under-served children

Homelessness Forum Report

Recently I dragged my three t(w)eens and a couple of neighbors along to the Community Conversation on Homelessness & Panhandling offered by Village of Gurnee. Once the t(w)eens cleared off the table of treats they sat behind me goofing around and giggling, so I only stayed for half the presentation. Even so, I learned a few things.

This community forum was prompted, I believe, by the consistent presence of panhandlers in Gurnee over the last few years. I’ve often observed people panhandling near the Hunt Club Rd. shopping areas and near the intersection of Route 41 and Grand Ave. Why are people doing this in Gurnee more than other neighboring communities? Why does Gurnee allow it? How should we respond?

Why are people panhandling in Gurnee? Mayor Kovarik said that the volume of traffic in Gurnee is the main reason. Because we are a tourist destination, there are thousands of people coming through Gurnee every day. If 1% of drivers give money to panhandlers, then more drivers=more money.

Why does Gurnee allow panhandling? If someone is on a public sidewalk, then his or her right to free speech is protected. The Village will respond to complaints from property owners about panhandling on their property.

How should we respond? Everyone on the panel agreed that it is more helpful to give our resources to the local agencies addressing the needs of people who are homeless than to give money directly to people who are panhandling. (A list of the agencies is at the end of this post.) One audience member described a connection he has learned of between drug addiction and panhandling – that the kind of small, daily allowance panhandling can provide can support an addiction by paying for drugs and a hotel room for one day. Addiction is a pernicious disease that requires ongoing support to overcome.

Many, many thanks to the Village of Gurnee, Mayor Kovarik and Immanuel Church for hosting this discussion. Thank you to the community organizations who were on the panel:

If you are concerned about homelessness in our area, please make a gift to Housing First, PADS, or Community Partners for Affordable Housing.

End note: Even though my kids did not appear to pay attention, it helped us to talk about panhandling, homelessness, and how we choose to love people with big needs. I suspect that exposure to these kinds of discussions is valuable for them even if they are on the margins of it.

Panhandling & Homelessness

When we talk about poverty, people often talk about panhandling. This is how many of us see – and are challenged to respond to – poverty in our daily lives.

Please join this community conversation on Tuesday, September 24 @ 7:00 p.m. at Immanuel Church, 2300 N. Dilleys Road in Gurnee. Thank you to the many community organizations collaborating to host this event.

Recommended Reading: Online Resources

I have shared a list of books I recommend, and here is a list of articles I like that are available online. Please take some time to read some of these. Alleviating poverty is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to run with wisdom.

Being Poor by John Scalzi – This is a brilliant piece for anyone who has never been poor. It’s a set of vivid snaphots of what poverty means in concrete terms. Don’t stop with the original piece – in the comments section people have added from their own lives. (Scalzi wrote this in 2005. After 500+ comments he finally shut down the comment section. )

The Bottom Line: One in three families can’t afford diapers. Why are they so expensive? by Kathleen McGrory, Tampa Bay Times – The story of Lalandria Goolsby, a brand new mother who is barely getting by, and the American diaper industry. Lalandria’s story reveals some of the ways that systems intended to provide support don’t actually work well for people living in poverty.

The Marshmallow Study Revisited University of Rochester – Ok, this one isn’t recommended reading, it’s recommended watching. You’re welcome. This 4-minute video shows a laboratory experiment comparing how self-control develops in a reliable environment vs. an unreliable environment. Poverty is an environment that is chronically unreliable. What does this suggest about our expectations (and judgments) regarding self-control?

Speaking of self-control,  check out It’s not a lack of self-control that keeps people poor by Elliott Berkman. “This research makes me rethink both poverty and self-control. The science suggests that poverty has powerful harmful effects on people, and helps explain why it’s so hard to escape. Their choices are much more a product of their situation, rather than a lack of self-control.”

This one is for the ambitious reader. Poverty Interrupted: Applying Behavioral Science to the Context of Chronic Scarcity (2015) This one is full of behavioral science theory and practice, which means there are specific suggestions about how to design programs and organizations so that we actually help people get out of poverty. Chronic scarcity is an environment that nurtures different resources and different needs than the stability of middle class. I hope you’ll check it out.

Recommended Reading: Books

Reading is a great way to grow in knowledge and imagination. There is so much outside my life experience and reading helps me start to see how my neighbors’ lives might be different from mine. These books are some of my favorites on poverty and racial division/reconciliation.

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The Color of Law (2017, Rothstein)

Rothstein’s book directly addresses this question: Is racial segregation in housing de facto (resulting from individual choices) or de jure (created by law and public policy?

Chapter by chapter he illuminates how we created this system by public policy. We chose to be racially segregated.

“When the St. Louis developer Charles Vatterott procured Federal Housing Administration-sponsored financing for his St. Ann suburb, he had to include language in deeds stating that ‘no lot or portion of a lot or building erected thereon shall be sol, leased, rented or occupied by any other than those of the Caucasian race.” (Rothstein, p. 85) Housing developers needed the security of government-backed loans to build; the government required racial discrimination.

Please read this book to understand how public policy can create wealth for some and poverty for others. Even after unjust policies are changed, generational effects persist and we need to understand them.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2015, Stevenson)

“The story of the Equal Justice Initiative, from the early days with a small staff facing the nation’s highest death sentencing and execution rates, through a successful campaign to challenge the cruel practice of sentencing children to die in prison, to revolutionary projects designed to confront Americans with our history of racial injustice.”

It’s a compelling read weaving individual stories with clear explanations of criminal justice policy and the racism woven into our policies. It is also full of grace and mercy and a deep understanding that we are all broken.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016, Desmond)

“Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.” (Desmond)

Like many of the books recommended here, Desmond combines individual people’s stories with clear explanations of policies. We need to understand how the combination of policies, exploitation, community resources, and individual choices make poverty persist.

Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives (2014, Mullainathan & Shafir)

These authors show how experiencing scarcity affects how we think and how we solve problems. They separate the situation of scarcity from the person who is living with it. Very relevant to living in poverty, which is an environment characterized by scarcity.

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (2000, Emerson & Smith)

An insightful, methodical examination of how the church explicitly opposes racism but structurally recreates a society divided by race. We cannot change what we do not see. This book revealed layers to our racial division that I could not see before.

Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces the Keep Us Apart (2013, Cleveland)

Class, race, doctrine, geography… there are so many things that separate us. What does it mean to be one in Christ? Can we draw the circle of “us” so that it truly includes everyone? Cleveland explores this with wisdom and grace.

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2015, Edin & Shaefer)

A vivid picture of some individual families living in a very unstable situation. It also has a helpful overview of the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill, including what the policymakers’ goals were and how it has fallen short.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000, Putnam)

We are disconnected from each other and from our communities. This book explores how that happened and why it matters.

When Helping Hurts book coverWhen Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself  (2009, Corbett & Fikkert)

What is the church’s role in alleviating poverty? This book is excellent. It is the basis of the video-based class I teach.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping (1994, Sapolsky)

Smart and funny. Especially worthwhile if you are interested in the relationship between socio-economic status and health.

#ReadBannedBooks

I heard about The Hate U Give when it came out last year. I intended to read it sometime.

Then my son started reading it in his 8th grade literature class. I intended to read it soon.

Then my son came home saying the teacher was told to stop teaching this book. I ran out to buy my own copy the next morning and talked my friends into reading it. Funny how banning a book can make it urgent and exciting

The Hate U Give felt familiar and strange, laugh-out-loud funny and tragic and hopeful. Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in Garden Heights, a poor black neighborhood, and goes to Williamson, a private school in a wealthy white neighborhood. We readers glimpse how she navigates those two worlds and the tension between them.

At a party with her peers in Garden Heights, Starr feels self-conscious about fitting in. She tries to be unobtrusive. “I slip my hands into my pockets. As long as I play it cool and keep to myself, I should be fine. The ironic thing is though, at Williamson I don’t have to ‘play it cool’ — I’m cool by default because I’m one of the only black kids there. I have to earn coolness in Garden Heights. … Funny how it works with white kids though. It’s dope to be black until its hard to be black.”

What a true and terrible sentence! I am white and even I understand this.

The same careful self-awareness is with her at her prep school. “Williamson Starr doesn’t use slang — if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her ‘hood.’ Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the ‘angry black girl.’ Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is non confrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone reason to call her ghetto.

“I can’t stand myself for doing it, but I do it anyway.”

It’s normal for teenagers to try out different identities. But the heavy blanket of race-based assumptions that Starr must respond to is exhausting. Her image is carefully curated because it has to be. The choices she must make bring the color line into the light. Our society is organized by race and Starr’s life reveal the costs of that division.

Reading fiction lets see inside the life of someone whose experience is completely different from our own. Our ability to imagine the possibilities of someone else’s life expands. We need big imaginations if we’re going to love all our neighbors thoughtfully and well.

I suspect banned books are often like this. We ban them because we feel uncomfortable, or somehow threatened. The discomfort, the perceived threat, hints that these books also have the capacity to broaden our perspective in significant ways.

The teacher who assigned this book is one of the few people of color on the school’s faculty. She told me that this is the first book she’s read where she saw herself. I was stunned. I’ve read SO MANY BOOKS with protagonists who are like me!

The student population at this school is about half Hispanic, one-fifth Black, one-fifth White. We all need to see ourselves in books. And movies. And TV. In politics, in the pulpit, in lab coats… Representation matters. 

The Hate U Give is back on that teacher’s syllabus this year.

The American Library Association keeps a list of the 10 most banned books by year. A decade ago, it included many titles we now consider classics: Of Mice and Men. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. All the Harry Potter books.

Read a banned book or two. The Hate U Give is a good place to start, especially because then you can see the movie.

Why Are Our Neighborhoods Divided by Race?

My region, like most around the country, is generally divided by race. There are communities where the residents are mostly white next door to communities where the residents are  mostly people of color. These racial divisions usually accompany differences in wealth. Why is that?

It’s because we designed it that way. After World War II when the GI bill made home mortgages widely available to returning soldiers and their families, the U.S. government and the banks treated soldiers differently based solely on race. This 6-minute clip from the documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion explains it well:

Honoring Dr. King

Yesterday, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, my social media feed was full of quotes from Dr. King. It’s good to see him remembered and his ideas passed on. God knows we still need his wisdom on fighting injustice.

Much as I love inspiring quotes, nothing compares to reading whole works. Dr. King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail — directed to the silent church and as relevant today as it was in 1963 — is worth the hour you will spend reading it. The full text and the audio of Dr. King reading the letter are online here.

In this letter, King outlines so thoroughly and compassionately and passionately the logic of the movement he led. That cannot be captured in a short quote. Don’t miss out.

Echo Welcome to Our Neighbors

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” -Jesus

“We welcome people of all races, cultures, and ethnicities into our churches, neighborhoods, homes and communities.” – 30+ Lake County churches in a joint statement

“No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” – You & me

I am sure we all try to live out this welcome in our lives. We strive to treat everyone we meet with respect and kindness that shines the light of Christ. Individual kindness is essential but not sufficient. We also need to announce it in public.

We need to find our megaphones and announce welcome to our neighborhoods and communities, to proclaim it loudly and invite others to join their voices.

The whisper of kindness in our individual relationships grows into a loud voice proclaiming welcome when we echo each other.

These yard signs are showing up in communities around the country. I plan to put one up in my yard. Some people might notice it. Some people might read it. Lots of people probably will not notice it.

 

 

 

 

 

But what if, on the next block, someone echoes it…

And a neighborhood over, it echoes again…

The welcome gets louder. The echoed message makes our neighborhood a more welcoming community, just as we have promised.

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Do you want to echo welcome to our neighbors? Drop me a note and we’ll connect!  I’ll order signs. The cost is $15 each. You can find my e-mail address is on the About page.