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

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

 

 

 

 

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.

Silence is Not Neutral

After the the white nationalist march, counter protest, and deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va. last month, dozens of churches in our area issued this statement together-

I didn’t grow up thinking much about race. Part of my racial identity as a white woman is that I don’t have to think about my race. The world doesn’t remind me that I’m white; it just receives me as an individual.

The freedom to ignore racism is a related privilege. Racism is evil but it doesn’t seem to affect my daily life.

Majority white churches have a habit of silence in the face of racism. Silence is not neutral, it’s not ok. After Charlottesville, Michael Eric Dyson wrote in the New York Times, “If such heinous behavior is met by white silence, it will only cement the perception that as long as most white folk are not immediately at risk, then all is relatively well. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could more clearly declare the moral bankruptcy of our country.”

This time we are not silent. This time, dozens of churches in Lake County, including several majority white congregations, spoke out together against racism.

We lament the insidious cancer of racism in the United States today….

I am so relieved to see this word, lament, in our joint statement. Lament is a prayer arising out of need. In our pain, we call out to God, trusting that he will respond to our suffering. This lament expresses the fact that we are one body, and when one suffers we all suffer.

We are grateful for the diversity of God’s world and we have much to learn from each other.

Living like people who are grateful for diversity is hard. It demands humility, that we value others as much as ourselves. It is also essential to our communities and to our growing in Christ.

Let’s continue to work together, to speak together, to pray together against oppression.

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!

Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?

For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground.

Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. (Psalm 44)

How to Gather Volunteers

Every week a miracle happens here and you are part of it. This was the start of an announcement at the end of the worship service one week. I expected the next sentence to be something about communion, or prayer.

Every week, after worship, we work together to put away all these chairs (150-200 folding chairs) and it happens in no time because so many of you help. That’s a miracle.

Our volunteer-recruiter went on to talk about forming teams to set up the chairs before the service — no less amazing, but less miraculous-seeming  because it requires planning.

Continue reading “How to Gather Volunteers”

How Hidden Figures Reveals Hidden Systems

“White people,” I once heard a white guy say, “are not taught to see systems.”

He was referring to unjust social systems, the way we organize ourselves to benefit some people at the expense of others. In whatever ways we fit into the mainstream of society we tend not to notice that things are arranged. If it’s working for me it feels like normal, fair.

His assertion could be heard as an accusation, but I don’t think it is. I heard it as an observation. This is how things are. We — white folks, people in society’s mainstream — need to learn to see unjust systems so we can help work to change them.

Sometimes learning to see is as simple as going to the movies.


On Martin Luther King Jr. day our family  went to see Hidden Figures. The women in this movie are spunky, smart, and persistent. They have grit. I loved them. I loved their story. But I left angry because their enormous intellectual gifts were buried by an oppressive social system. Their story is of digging, digging, digging out to expose the gifts God gave them. Continue reading “How Hidden Figures Reveals Hidden Systems”

Book Review: Disunity in Christ

Portia was one of the first people I met when I started college. She was a sophomore with a welcoming attitude, eager to help the freshmen feel welcome. I sat next to her on the bus to band camp and as we chatted about our lives, church came up. When I told her I went to a United Methodist church she was delighted. “I go to an AME church – African Methodist Episcopal. We’re the same!”

Basically, I grew up in the white Methodist church and she grew up in the black Methodist church. Portia could have focused on the differences between us instead of finding our common ground. She chose to welcome me. Twenty years later I still love her for that. Continue reading “Book Review: Disunity in Christ”

Helping from Weakness

Life is hard right now. In early October my dear mom died.Stained glass window

Last spring we found out she had cancer and that her time with us was limited. Even so her death is a shock. I feel sad, angry, confused, disoriented. Sometimes disconnected, like a leaf that’s fallen from the tree but not yet landed on the ground

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I was feeling screwed up and lonely and aimless yesterday, so I decided to walk to Starbucks. Continue reading “Helping from Weakness”

How Loving My Kids Teaches Me to Love My Neighbor

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:4

My middle son was barely 7 years old, at the kitchen table eating string cheese and crackers, when he saw the newspaper’s front page photo of President Obama, eyes downcast. “Mom, why is the president sad?”

That was July 2013 and the president looked sad because a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. obama-sad-face-450x278

I took a deep breath and asked God to help me speak the truth in love about race & violence. I am white and my son is black. Like Obama, he was born to a white mother and black father and is growing up in a white family.

It was a stressful conversation. I wanted to be honest but not explain more than he needed to know. I’d explain a little bit and let his questions guide us. Continue reading “How Loving My Kids Teaches Me to Love My Neighbor”

In the News: The Church at Work in Chicago

high-fives-at-oglesby“The children entered the school to cheers and salutes. Every stairwell and entrance was flanked by men, from the basement to the third floor. The men cheered and high-fived students, and before the day was over more than 100 men agreed to volunteer monthly for a literacy program called Real Men Read and to be mentors at Oglesby.”

In this commentary for the Chicago Tribune, Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, tells how 300 men showed up on the first day of school at an elementary school on the south side to cheer for and encourage students.

300! Men! To cheer for them!

This is the church at work, the body of Christ at work in the world to love the children.

Several people came together, doing the work God set before them, for this to happen.

The principal of Oglesby had a vision of how her school could be. She prayed about it. She told her pastor about it. She asked for help.

The pastor supported the principal, recognized her vision, and shared it with the church. The pastor invested himself and invited the church to join him. “I called for men… to join me at Oglesby on the morning of Sept. 6,” he writes.

The church and the community responded. “Almost 300 men, most from Trinity United Church of Christ on the Far South Side, stood with members of the Black Star Project, Nation of Islam and teachers from Oglesby Elementary School in the Auburn Gresham community.”

God bless it. How can our churches work together in our community to be the body of Christ in the world?

Offensive Equality

Recently one of the readings in church was the parable of the workers in the vineyard from the gospel of Matthew. It’s a story of the upside-down-ness of God’s kingdom, and I noticed something I’ve never thought about before. Equality is what gets everyone really angry.

Parable-of-Vineyard-Workers-Law-and-Grace-1-10-BT-fs2For the kingdom of heaven is like… Jesus begins. It’s like a business owner who goes out to hire workers for a day. He hires some guys and they agree to $100 for a day’s work.

Later that day, the business owner goes out and hires some more folks. Then later he does it again. Continue reading “Offensive Equality”