Just a few years ago, I worked in a mall. It was one of those large, fancy downtown malls where rich people go during the holidays to stock up on purses that cost more than my car, where the scent of perfume lingers on the echoing tile, where the economy is always portrayed as good, the songs always chipper. I sold expensive chocolates out of a little kiosk in the center of a large atrium, surrounded on every side by classy, understated clothing stores. At the time I was six months pregnant, a month away from finishing my master’s degree. I struggled with feeling ridiculous, wanting to shout to every customer “I’m better than this!” But I didn’t. I wore an apron and remained detached from the busy and important people who bought the single-origin Grenada chocolates and needed them wrapped up with a bow. I spent many an hour leaning on the wood-grained counter and dreamily thinking about the world outside the glass doors: the traffic, the chronic homelessness, the rumblings of people who were dissatisfied with the current economic situation. But I felt like a kept woman; trapped inside my little box, selling luxuries to the very rich, putting myself through school. Like a mantra, I repeated these words to myself: Once I graduate, I’ll be done with this horrible job. And then I will get on with the business of helping others.
One day, a man jumped from the fourth floor of the atrium, falling and hitting the tile floor like a stack of wood, the sound causing me to gasp. As I called 911, my fingers shook. I was young, living in an alternate universe, and in one minute everything changed. I saw how fragile the human body was, how it really was just liquid held together by skin and bones and a few pieces of clothing, how the places we think are so safe never really are.
The man, dressed in casual business wear, a nondescript middle-aged worker, jumped to his death in a mall. He did it on purpose. It’s possible he had scoped out the spot months in advance. And he chose to jump just a few feet from where I plotted an escape from my own little world. I wanted to feel sad for the man, but instead I felt horror. And anger. He chose to jump when I was working, when the sun was streaming in through the glass. He chose to jump while children ate their chocolates nearby, asking for another toy. He chose to jump while the baby inside me kicked and wiggled. He chose to jump and I kept hearing the sound, over and over, of flesh hitting tile, of worlds being changed.
Several years later, I am in another mall. The inside baby is now an outside toddler, wiggling out of her snow boots every time my back is turned. This time, I am visiting my friend who works in a mall, although this one is vastly removed from the world of luxury brands and gourmet chocolate shops.
This mall is more like a bazaar, tiny squares of retail space stuffed to the brim with all the same items: dresses, headscarves, henna hair dye, gold bracelets, ornate silver tea sets, bedspreads and rugs. This mall is an oasis for the Somali community in a large city in the Midwest. Outside the snow is piled high, but inside it is warm and cozy, each stall blasting hot air from a tiny space heater. I am sitting on a folding chair, crammed in next to my friend while my daughter plays with the scarves. We sip our scalding, achingly sweet chai and talk about life: the weather, how sales are going, English class, the political situation in Somalia. My friend is beautiful and intelligent, with small silver glasses framing her open face. She has long fingers that she waves dramatically when she talks, and she slaps my hand when I tell my screaming daughter to hush. My friend looks at my daughter and says, “Let her scream!” and encourages her to do so. My daughter is flushed with pleasure and yells her favorite words: “Apple! Bracelet! Yo Gabba Gabba!” And we all laugh.
My friend wants to move back to Somalia in four years, when she has finished her education and the country is stable again. She misses the ocean, the food, the snow-free weather. She tells me about the problems in America: the people who live without houses, without health care, who ask her on the street for money or food. “I try to help them,” she tells me, “if it is safe to do so.” She cannot understand why the government allows this. Her cousin lives in Europe, in Norway, she thinks. There, everyone has a house. She puts out her hands to me, palms facing the ground. “Everyone lives like this,” she says, putting her hands side by side. “Everyone is the same. Everyone has a house, has food to eat. Even if they don’t have good credit, they have a house to live in.”
She looks at me over her glasses. “But in America . . .” She trails off. And then she takes her hands, raising one to her head, moving the other closer to the floor. “People are very, very rich or very, very poor.”
And I see it more clearly, through her eyes, than I ever have before. Right outside of this cozy, ramshackle “mall” one could see the skyscrapers of downtown rising high. As people here fought for housing and food and jobs, less than a mile away, people were busy making money, buying expensive chocolates, living into the part of the American dream that is increasingly available for only a few. My friend wasn’t unhappy with her lot in life; there was much joy in that stall, in living life for smaller pleasures. But she was confused by our country, how we could so easily let these dichotomies play side by side—that people could not have houses, that children could go to bed hungry. And I know how we let it happen: we pretend as though it doesn’t.
I am not a socialist or a communist or really that interested in politics. But I have spent parts of my life hanging out on the fringes, socially, economically, and religiously. And people are worried, stretched thin in places, unhappy with the modern fairy tales. We’ve seen a few expressions now, Occupy Wall Street being a prime example, of people realizing that something is wrong.
But for the majority of Christians, we continue to act like it is normal, necessary even, for American life to continue on as it is, with all the bravado and commercials and iPhones that are killing our attention spans and budgets. We hesitate to jump in and advocate for wealth equality, fair wages, meaningful jobs, oil independence. Why is this? Do we still believe the fairy tale? Are we the few left who are still living in it, rushing from work to the mall, caught up in our own vicious, dehumanizing cycle? It’s no wonder so many are starting to opt out. The American dream just isn’t the song anyone is singing anymore.
When I was younger, I scrimped and saved my money, earned at a minimum-wage job, because I wanted to buy green canvas shoes that looked like ill-conceived ballet flats. I wanted to buy them not only for the comfort that they promised but also for the status they afforded: the shoes that I yearned for promised to give out an identical pair to children in need, half a world away.
I drove to the mall in the suburbs, long before I ever dreamed of a future that would find me one day working in one. No, I was an idealistic young missionary, China- or Russia-bound just as soon as I graduated from Bible college, off to convert the world while eschewing the consumerism of my own. The mall was mostly outdoors, terra-cotta planters and tinkling fountains everywhere. I went to the store where I knew I would find my shoes, the alternative haven for would-be hipsters, with its artfully frumpy dresses and sweatshirts with kitties on them, thrift-store goods marked up high and sold to people like me who were hungry to be different. I bought my shoes, paying a significant portion of my weekly pay to get them, and walked out the door euphoric.
I had found a way to beat the American system. I had got what I wanted (new, cool shoes) and I had also bought a pair of shoes for a poor child. It was a win-win in the most classic sense.
As I wandered around my conservative evangelical college, wearing my shoes and drinking my fair-trade coffee, I sometimes thought about the good deed that had come of my purchasing power. I must confess that I never actually thought about the child who might need a pair of shoes, what they looked like or how they felt about their own lack of resources. I didn’t know this faceless, barefoot child. I only knew me and people just like me. I only knew that I needed my justice to be quick, tangible, and easily acclimated to my life.
I didn’t understand how our current economic systems are built to enslave us all, no matter whether we are at the very top or on the very bottom. I didn’t put much thought into shopping malls, into how so many of our livelihoods are either earned or spent there. I didn’t know about the violence I would experience later when a man jumped to his death in front of me or the more recent shootings that have taken place in these centers of consumerism. I didn’t know then about the Somali mall, forgotten by the city around it, that served as a testament to a people’s desperate will to make it in a foreign land where few succeed. I was just one of many, trying to buy our way out of the guilt we feel, the soul-crushing transactions that we mistake for connection, the way we so desperately want to help the poor but can’t be bothered to join Jesus in joining them.
Just as the rich young ruler walked away sadly, the zeal burning in his heart, so too are we. We will do anything for the poor, except put ourselves on an equal level with them. Rich people will do anything for the poor, Karl Marx once said, except get off their backs; I say that all of our backs are broken, and we are all looking to the sky for redemption.
I never used to know the poor, and this was such a comfort to me. I could envision how I had helped them, in so many small ways, just based on what I had bought that day, the kind of grocery store I frequented. I didn’t know their names or heartbreaks or triumphs or dreams or visions. But then I started to read the words of Jesus, and he kept talking about them all the time; David too, and all the prophets many times over. And they all said the same thing, in so many words: blessed, blessed, blessed are the poor.
And conversely, to everyone else, to those with their boots on the necks of the poor, the rich and ruling, to those who wined and dined while suffering and misery was outside their door, those who offered sacrifices to God but did not treat others with mercy or kindness, it was all woe, woe, woe. And there came a point when I couldn’t ignore it away anymore: in the hierarchy of economics, I most certainly was at the top. And scripturally, this wasn’t the safest place to be. I found Jesus telling me to sell everything, give to the poor, devote myself to a king and a kingdom that was not going to come through the normal, powerful channels. And in return he promised me real relationship with God, the blessings of seeing miracles, and the heartaches and joys of community based in mutuality.
And I believed it, every word. Thus, my life has taken a drastic turn. I now live with and interact with the poor on a daily basis. This has proved much more inconvenient than simply buying fair trade, but the benefits are immeasurable. The blessings piled up just as Jesus always said they would. I am starting to break out of a system that is entirely built on the backs of the poor, a system which, in turn, has oppressed me as well. The farther off the grid I go, the clearer I can see how poor I am in what really matters: kindness, mercy, justice, and relationships. But my coffers are being filled, even as I write this, by the kingdom that speaks less of rules and influence and more of redemption and liberation.