Alabama, USA. I have stepped into the thick Southern humidity for four days to visit a friend who goes school at Auburn. Until I set foot outside the airport, I had forgotten how much I hate the sticky feeling of the air as I walk, the feeling that I am breathing soup instead of oxygen. Yet I had also forgotten how much I love the rolling hills and vibrant greens, kudzu vines blanketing the landscape, draped over trees and bushes like a sheet tossed over seldom used furniture. And in accordance with Southern tradition, the people are so welcoming and gracious that you might as well just move in. Of course, there are elements of Alabama that are foreign to me, and sometimes quite funny. I was feeling a little guilty for making so many snide remarks, until a walk through the Piggly Wiggly revealed a shelf dedicated to pickled pig parts. Pickled pig lips, anyone? What planet am I on? The other evening highlight was a drive-in restaurant whose marquee read: "You gotta eat and we need the money!"
I write now from one of the sketchier motels I have ever graced with my presence, just off the highway in Phenix City, AL (yes, that is spelled correctly). I'm with one of the few friends who would join me in purposely finding a fairly trashy motel to stay in. As one who needs to explore the world this way, I am unspeakably grateful for such friends. So here we are, sitting on stained mattresses we hope don't have bugs and adjusting to the stench. The carpet is torn up in places, there is a filthy office chair where a normal sitting chair might be found, and an unidentifiable stain marks the wall next to my bed. Four paintings hang on the wall: three of them are the same print. I look at them and immediately begin the song in my head: "One of these things is not like the other..." (Thank you, Sesame Street, for helping me identify my world even 20 years after I abandoned you for cooler programming.)
Working with the homeless, and doing my best to learn more and more about the life of the American working poor, I look around this room and cannot help but think of the millions of Americans who are paying most of their paychecks to stay in such motels for months at a time. Unable to save the money for the huge up-front deposit on more suitable housing--indeed, more affordable housing--they shell out hundreds of dollars a week to keep a roof over their heads. It is not an option. It is the option. Not so for me, of course. If I wanted to, I could say "Dude, this place just reeks a little too much," and Kristin and I could pack our things and drive home, or check into a place that has a more diversified art portfolio. But my growing awareness of the part of our society for whom this rank room is reality makes me want to stay simply for that reason. Something in me wants to understand, even if it is on a limited level. We are arrogant indeed if we think we can fully understand, coming from a secure middle class world. I can come to understand the aggravation that comes with appliances constantly breaking, the discomfort of having no insulation in the walls, or the shame of walking through the world knowing that your clothing and hair reek of the room you slept in last night. But I cannot understand the hopelessness, the sense that this all there is. I cannot understand the isolation that is often a key factor in perpetuating poverty. And I cannot understand the depth of frustration that led the mother in the room next to us to scream at and slap her child into the middle of the night. I tried to report the incident, but I know nothing will be done. That child will experience the true plight of the poor in America: invisibility. Silence. As I lay in my bed on the other side of that thin, stained wall, listening to the horrible sound of a frightened child, I could not stop thinking of the Proverb God used to call me to the poor several years ago: "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy" (31:8-9)
In a few weeks, I am headed back to the low-income neighborhood where I lived before coming to work at FMS. I desire so much more than to be the school bus and the homework help and the Thursday night cook. Granted, I adore those things. I love simply living life at the Trailer. Yet I long all the more to speak up for those around me who have no voice. The child in a terrible home setting. The struggling family being cheated by the landlord. The injured working man who cannot get the insurance that would allow him to go back to his job. These people need a voice. It takes courage to be that spokesperson, courage that I do not always show. Looking at the months ahead, I pray that I might be brave. I pray for grace to love the invisible, and the courage to raise my voice.