But Where is Jesus?

Over the past few months I have been given a great gift. By American standards I have been poor. It is not real poverty: there has been plenty of (really cheap) food, and I was not homeless. But money is tight. Very tight.

I can write about this now because I am finally convinced that we really are quite well. If I could have planned out our marriage I would have chosen that we would have a time of significant financial struggle, and I would have chosen for it to come fairly soon into our marriage. So I am just getting my way, and it is good.

It really is Good.

I have known for years that I needed to experience poverty1 and while this is a pretty tame introduction, it is already working. I know that it is working because I am learning to see Jesus, and as I learn to see Jesus I am terrified to see where he is not.

Last week I looked up the local meeting schedule for a Catholic women’s organization2 which runs small group studies for women. I had stayed away from them a few years ago over their connection with another Catholic organization, but I softened almost completely last summer when I learned that they are affiliated with Helen Alvaré, a woman whom I greatly admire. For the first time they had an upcoming class at a time and place that worked for me, so I looked to see what was involved in signing up.

It cost $60.00. There was no question that I could not afford it, and I started to get mad. I did not care that I could not join a group now. I fully expect that I will have money within a few months. But I could not escape how obvious it was that this is a group for women who have. If you are not privileged, then you are not welcome. Do they realize what $60 is in this region of the country? People live in two-bedroom trailers that rent for $350 a month. People work for minimum wage. Do you even know what that is? Try $7.25/hour. I do not know what percentage they3 pay in taxes, but I am guessing that it is at least a full day’s work to cover the class.

Then I read a bit more about the scholarship policy which included an incredibly condescending note that every woman must pay something, even if it is a “small amount.” Yes, they have officially defined $30.00 as a small amount. Because in a group of privileged women, $30 is a small amount. I was not really outraged though, until I read their last word on the topic of scholarships. They noted that all of their materials are copyrighted and said: “Not only is it against the law to copy these materials, it is diametrically opposite of what [our] program teaches. In order to maintain the integrity of [our] program, we respectfully ask all facilitators and participants to honor this policy.”

Ah yes, there is no need to mention copyright unless one is addressing underprivileged women, right? Because it is always the poor who steal?! And copying materials is “diametrically opposite” of their program’s teaching? I ran to my husband in horror, spewing something about whether this group must be centered on something other than Catholicism for copyright to be such a central issue. He calmly replied that the Catholic Church is, at best, ambivalent about the issue of copyright.

I sputtered on about the rest of my issues with the group and asked whether Jesus would really support this organization. All that came to mind was the fact that while parts of the gospels (Luke) talk about the importance of the poor, there are other places (Matthew) that modify the message by specifying that the issue is poverty of spirit. I am quite confident that many women in this organization of great poverty of spirit (just not the copywriters/editors for the website!) so why did I have such a strong feeling that this was not a place I would find my Savior?

I went to sleep with thoughts of bishops in solidarity with the poor being murdered by men supported by privileged Catholics dancing in my head. And I woke up with thoughts of Schönborn. This was not a case of “edgy” liberation spirituality. It was simply fact. To the extent that a group fails to include the poor, they fail to include Jesus.

What if it really is true that while white women with college degrees and high-earning husbands sit around talking about suffering, Jesus walks down the road to work in the form of a single mother who dropped out of high school during her first pregnancy?

1. While I grew up in a family which went through many years solidly under the poverty line, it is different going through it as an adult.
2. It does not matter what the organization is, because they are simply one of many with the same issues. And this post is not really about this particular organisation, it is about one of the first parts of me waking up to where my life should, and should not, be headed. If you suspect that you know the organization to which I refer, please refrain from using their name in the comments. And please, please change them from within.
3. Yes, I say “they” because even if I got a minimum wage job I would still see myself as a person who belonged in a higher pay grade and would get it eventually. I may not have money, but I have a sense of privilege, and that is a hard thing to kill.

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10 thoughts on “But Where is Jesus?

  1. Kathleen

    I don’t know what kind of program it is that would cost $60, or what kind of materials they are referring to in invoking copyright law. But let me toss in from the perspective of a volunteer church musician and not-a-big-time church music composer: copyright *is* important. Writers generally get a 10% royalty on whatever is sold–not very much, IOW. Every time someone makes a copy instead of purchasing, it deprives the author of his or her living wage. And copyright violation is absolutely rampant, inside the Church and inside schools.

    This doesn’t address the larger issue of inclusiveness and cost, but if I had to guess, I’d say that the juxtaposition of copyright concerns and the scholarship info was probably more coincidental than pointed.

    1. Rae Post author

      I am well aware of the starving artist component of the copyright issue. That is why, in theory, I support the idea of dioceses sponsoring writers, composers, etc. As for current reality though, it is not as simple as copyright violation meaning $6 less for some author. The problem is also compounded in this case by the fact that the central authors are making no profit, and I am confident that all would be horrified by the idea of authors of workbooks (or whatever supplemental materials) arguing that it is more important to uphold their rights than to include the poor.

      The copyright statement appeared to be the concluding paragraph for the discussion of scholarship and it is difficult for me to see it as coincidental.

  2. Elizabeth

    I wonder what would happen if you actually talked to someone in this group? While the official organization only gives 50% scholarships, I imagine if you contacted the person who’s actually leading the group, either they or someone else would gladly cover the remaining costs of your materials.

    1. Rae Post author

      I do not think that it matters whether I personally can take a class. I am sure that you are right that the actual members of the group have great poverty of spirit and would be glad to share with a woman who asked. I could confidently (if somewhat sheepishly) approach them about various options. I know that I could pay them back in the future, I know that I am well educated and have been taught that I have valuable contributions to make etc. etc.

      But I have no reason to think that a poor black woman would feel comfortable reaching out to this group and asking them to go against their official policy. People imagine that the poor are always eager for handouts, but I don’t think that is true of most people. In my experience most of the less privileged women would simply take the fee as a sign that they were not welcome. And they walk away. And I am terrified that Jesus went with them.

  3. Sarah

    I can tell you right now, as a facilitator of this group, I would personally pay the 30$ fee, or 60$ fee for any woman who wanted to participate but didn’t have the money. Not because I’m some generous benefactor, but because I can afford it, and I believe every woman who wants to, should participate. See, I’ve spent a lot of time debating/thinking/talking this to death in social justice classes, internships praxis classes, etc, and I’m of the mind that privilege is not something that should be killed. Our attitude about it is what should be killed. I married a lawyer who comes from a family with money. I grew up poor (raised by grandparents on a fixed income), but barring any total economic collapse, I will probably never be poor again. I’m only mentioning this to make the point that, that money isn’t mine. It’s not my husband’s. It’s God’s. And just like any gift from God, we’re called to be responsible stewards of what we have.
    Social change does not happen overnight. We will not ever wake up one morning in a just world. We will toil until we die, and then another generation will pick up where we left off. I think social justice types (myself often included) are so disdainful of the current system that we fail to see that it’s going to take a lot longer to change it when you stand on the outside banging on it, than when you go inside and dismantle it brick by brick.
    I no longer feel guilt about my privilege, because I know that it’s a gift from God that I am called to use in order to advocate justice for the oppressed, and work for a new system. I realize some people are called to throw away their privilege in order to live along aside the poor. But solidarity takes many different forms. Neither my husband nor I deserve to have more money or prestige than the man sleeping under a bridge, or the woman in the shelter. But as long as we have it, we’re going to use it in ways that make opportunities possible for every person who wants help.

    I think Jesus does walk down the road in the form a girl who dropped out of high school during her first pregnancy, but he’s also in the form of the teacher with a Master’s who volunteers her time helping that girl get her GED. I think Jesus is in/with the privileged to the extent that the privileged realize all they have is His and offer it back to Him through the poor.

    I actually asked the organization when I became a facilitator about their not-photocopying philosophy, because I thought the 60$ seemed steep to me as well (I was thinking mostly of families with a lot of kids and 1 income, which is common at our parish). What Kathleen stated was part of the answer, but they also told me it has to do with preventing women who are not facilitators from just photocopying someone’s book and leading their own class. Each facilitator must sign a document saying that they agree with everything taught by the Church, and must have a pastoral reference before being approved. So I think it’s not hard to see why they wouldn’t want someone who isn’t a facilitator (and may not be in agreement with Church teaching), leading a class and saying or advocating something that actually isn’t Catholic.

    Sorry to leave a novel. :)

    1. Rae Post author

      Sarah, you give me hope. :-)

      I guess I just don’t see how hard it would be to consider the situation of the underprivileged when setting rates. It is only difficult to reduce prices and ask for donations from those who have more when we do not think that it matters. And when we think that it does not matter, how can we possibly think that Jesus matters?

      Patience is certainly a virtue of great value in bringing about change. But I am not holy enough to be able to be surrounded by stuff and somehow manage to focus on God and loving others more than myself. If I were a camel, I would be a tall, large camel who would be far too stubborn to make myself small enough to fit through the eye of any needle or gate. It takes a saint to live with privilege and still manage to see Jesus in others enough to actually use their privilege for good rather than simply live with it.

  4. Rebecca

    It is hard going through it as an adult and I see your struggle with organizations that should be reaching out for the good, but make membership exclusive.
    It is so hard for those who don’t face a budge in which $60 is a lot of money to understand that $60 is a lot of money.
    Recently my husband and I just spent a little more than that amount on something that is very important to both of us and that we feel called to do, it just stung a little, ok a lot, that something that is Catholic Teaching must come at such a price.

    1. Rae Post author

      Rebecca, I am sorry. This thing did not really matter to me personally, but it stings so much when something that *does* matter has a high financial price. It seems wrong that simply paying the price of doing what is right is not enough.

  5. Claire

    Rae–This is my first time on your blog, and first post to read.

    I am not sure that I know which organization you are speaking of, but I know of a similar one which charges $60 for classes and feels as strongly about copyright as the one you mention. For both groups, I imagine that Sarah is probably right about the copyright/facilitator issue–they really, really don’t want these materials used for something for which they were not intended. In the group I am familiar with, my facilitator is the founder of the organization and I love her to death. I also know that she, along with the other (VERY) privileged women who happen to be part of my small group, have little or no understanding about poverty issues. This is a reality that is very foreign to them.

    I find myself in an interesting situation in this group. Some weeks wanting to run away and never come back, and sometimes feeling as if I learn so much from these women, and this environment. My socio-economic history is very mixed: came from a family that sometimes had no money for toilet paper (literally) and luckily we had a bidet. :)
    Now, my dh is about to begin a career as a physician within a matter of months and has his pick of jobs around the country, some of which offer salaries that could pay off his $1/4 million medical school debt within the first year. This, to me, is horrifying.

    My point when it comes to white privilege and women in particular is this: in the last 4 years, during my dh’s medical “residency,” as we have climbed up from living on food stamps (2 babies in medical school means little money for much besides rent and utilities), to now earning the median national salary, I have gotten to know more and more privileged people. And the conclusion, as much as I hate to admit it (and my former social-justice-enraged-self would NEVER want this to be known) is that these white privileged women who are in my Catholic small group are in reality extremely poor.

    They don’t even know it, and they are really missing out.

    1. Rae Post author

      Thank you so very much for your comment and reminder.

      I wish that there was something that we could do to break down the disconnect that allows us to forget that it is impossible for one part of the body of Christ to suffer without all parts suffering. But it is so easy to think/feel that the privileged are “complete” and it is only a matter of them following the command of Jesus to give to the poor who are portrayed as incomplete.

      Anyway, thank you.

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