A debate is raging among a handful of Christian leaders about social justice and the Gospel. Some super conservatives are saying that the entire concept of social justice is unbiblical. A handful of ultra-liberals have asserted for years that social justice is the Gospel. Still others are saying that social justice should be a natural lead in and outflow of the Gospel.
But before I dive into this debate I want to make something clear…I take this debate super personally.
Why? Because I was raised “American poor.”
I call it American poor because the brand of poverty I lived through pales in comparison to some of the levels of poverty I’ve seen firsthand in places like India, Colombia and El Salvador.
But, by US of A standards, my family was poor. I was raised in apartment complexes and trailer courts. And, yes, we qualified for free cheese and food stamps.
But my mom was too proud to accept government help. In some weird way she thought it would be admitting defeat and “stealing from the government.” Although she should have gotten alimony from at least one of her four former husbands she didn’t get any.
My mom raised me and my brother in one of the highest crime rate areas of our city. On many Friday and Saturday evenings my mom would ask, “You wanna watch cops tonight?” And, if I said “yes,” we’d hop in the car and follow the cop cars blazing through our neighborhood to the scene of the closest crime. Long before the show Cops came out we were watching our own version of it firsthand.
Sometimes the cops showed up at our house. My extended family (uncles, aunts, cousins) were a little like Sons of Anarchy. Lots of fights, lots of violence, lots of anger. But, as tough as my uncles were, they all had a respect for my mom, their sister, because she could throw a punch (and take one) with the best of them.
Mom was a fighter on every level. And she determined that me and my brother were going to have the best chance at a normal life. She fought, scraped and scrapped to put food on the table, clothes on our backs and some shred of dignity in our souls. She was determined to raise us as well as she possibly could. But sometimes the pressure was too overwhelming for her.
She would often cry herself to sleep at night. My brother and I could hear her through the paper thin walls in our tiny apartment. Mom told us many times that she was worried that we would turn out to be just like her.
She felt like a loser because she couldn’t keep a relationship. She felt like a loser because she couldn’t get ahead of the relentless bills. She felt like a loser because of the sins she had committed.
And every month, when the bills came due, her feelings of inadequacy were magnified.
As a kid I was a collector of pennies. In sidewalk cracks and underneath couch cushions I looked for those shiny copper coins everywhere I went. By the time I was eight I had amassed a fortune ($50 worth!) I’ll never forget the look of shame my mom had when she asked to borrow the money from me so that she could buy groceries for us that week. I agreed and she promised to pay me back when she could.
Mom worked long hours at her job and did what it took to make sure her boys had enough to survive. But when she felt the pressure of unpaid bills and an inability to change the situation she would sometimes crack. I remember once she took out her anger on Paul, one of the guys she had married. After all he had left us high and dry with bills to pay. Then one day out of the blue he showed up in a new car in front of our place. I’ll never forget when she took a baseball bat to his car and then turned it on him. By the time he drove off his car was trashed and so was he. We never saw him again. The only thing he left behind were his unpaid bills….and a trail of blood.
I know American poverty. I was raised in it and reared by it. To me poverty is not a theoretical subject for the seminary classroom, but the shaper of many of my childhood memories. Yes, we had people that helped us along the way, including my grandparents. But mom paid back every loan she ever got from them and the stress of it all took a huge toll on her. I think that’s why one of the only luxuries she allowed herself was a two-pack-a-day smoking habit.
But in the midst of all this Jesus came walking in and changed everything. Through a variety of crazy circumstances my entire family ended up coming to Christ over a few short years.
My toughest uncle was reached with the good news first and the rest began to fall like dominoes. Uncles, aunts, cousins…everyone eventually put their faith in Jesus. For the first time real and lasting hope entered my family and I was a firsthand witness to it all (that’s a big part of why I’m so passionate about Dare 2 Share and the power of the gospel to change lives!).
When my brother and I trusted in Jesus we began to share this message of hope with my mom. For years she resisted. She thought she was too bad for God to save. She especially felt guilty because she had lived a life of hard partying. I was the result of one of those parties. When she found out that the man she met got her pregnant she drove from Denver to Boston under the pretext of visiting family. Her real intention was to have an illegal abortion (this was before Roe vs. Wade).