November 2, 2011 Leave a comment
Rick Droog – Siouxland Diaconal Conference
Kurt & Emily Rietema’s stories of life and love in the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, and in Croc, Mexico
Before ye cast your first stone at me, admit it. You, dear reader, are not that different than I. At fundraiser brainstorming sessions, you give an honest attempt, hoping for something new, something novel and innovative. With populist ideals, you hope for the wisdom of the common man to rise up and shame the cynics. You hope for that one, moment of brilliance, like the humble offering of one small boy with a few fishes and loaves of bread, feeding the five thousand again and leaving behind twelve baskets overflowing with fistfuls of twenty dollar bills. But you can sense the suppressed bake sales and 25- cent lemonade stands gasping for air. You brace yourself for it like the frontman in a washed-up, cover band waiting for the drunk guy in the back to start yelling, “Freebird! Freeeebird!!!” Yet it comes just as inevitably. “I think we should do a car wash.” Let’s speak plainly for a moment. Car washes are dumb ideas. Most of us swear them off in fifth grade. And as much as I’ve wanted to put my learning into practice and embrace locals’ ideas and empower and support them in implementing them, my conceit won out. I couldn’t help but think that Mary’s suggestion of a car wash fundraiser for the Franklin Center was a dumb idea. Nate did some quick, careful redirecting that day, but months later, on August 20 there we were in the Franklin Center parking lot. Rain coming down. Washing cars.
Mary was one of the first ones to show interest in our efforts to restore the Franklin Center. She used to work there a number of years ago before it closed up. Mary didn’t say much in those first few meetings. But she was always there. She always showed up, even if we didn’t. Every once in awhile Mary would mention that somebody should do this and somebody should do that. We’d often try to suggest that Mary initiate those suggestions and we’d support her. But she was shy of taking any kind of leadership role. Mary would only follow our lead on things.
By conventional definitions, many would attempt to label Mary as a poor person in need of services. Though the color of her skin and her marital status don’t speak to her character, being a black, single mother assigns her meanings and assumptions she never asked for. The first time that I was over at Mary’s house, I could smell the stench of poverty. It brought me back to one of my first summers in Croc, stepping into Jorge and Cristobal’s house where chickens darted in and out without fanfare. The smell of poverty is unforgettable. It was tempting to believe the story that was assigned to her. Helping a poor, black, single mother also would have made a good story for the youth group that worked alongside her this summer in Argentine on a Youthfront Missional Journey. In ways mostly beyond our recognition, our modes of helping others often communicate that it’s a one-way street. We’re the haves—physically, culturally, socially, spiritually. Mary and others like her are the have-nots. She could become the poster child, the souvenir photo of “the least of these”, those we have come to serve.
But this isn’t the woman we’ve come to know. As we were organizing for the Franklin Center potluck this summer, we noticed something. When Nate, Ty, or myself would go door-to-door talking to people about the Franklin Center we’d generally get positive responses. Yet when Mary walked with us, she was our membership card, our identification badge for East Argentine. She didn’t say much, she’d just introduce us to people often by their first name, and then let us take over. One person told Nate, “Well, I don’t know you and what you’re doing, but I know Mary so I’ll probably be there.” Maybe it was because she’d been there for decades and people trusted her. Maybe it’s because she and her sister, Ramona, walk up and down the streets every evening. People trust her in a neighborhood that sees a lot of people and their good intentions come and go. It’s a kind of wealth that money can’t buy.
Yet there’s more to Mary’s counter narrative. Her neighbor, Margaret goes in for dialysis several times a week and on returning home, Margaret is too weak to get out of her car and take a few short steps to the house. Yet every time, Mary is there to help Margaret back to her house. Together, Mary and Margaret found out a homeless couple was living in the bathrooms in a park in Argentine and they made a space for them in Margaret’s house. Where I would have called up social services so they’d be someone else’s problems, they just took care of it themselves.
Mary may not understand the psychological effects of a clean house, she may need some social confidence in being a leader, she may need to mentally push through obstacles and disappointments, and spiritually, Mary may not be able to articulate the gospel. Maybe we can help in reducing some of her poverty in those ways. But maybe she can take away our poverty as well. Because what I’ve learned from Mary is that staying put, being available, showing up, and risking yourself for the sake of others is part of being the Good News to others in Argentine.
Lilla Watson, an aboriginal activist, said, “If you have come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied to mine, then let us work together.” We’re not here in Argentine to simply help Mary and others like her. We’re here because we realize that the freedom that God has for us is found when the rich and poor, black and white, privileged and disenfranchised come together, when we recognize the poverty in all of us, and together look towards Jesus Christ who leads us to freedom.
We weren’t washing the five cars that showed up that rainy, August day because we thought we’d make any money. We washed those cars because Mary wanted to see it happen. It was a way of acknowledging her as a true leader, as someone who has shaped us and not as a token, local spokesperson to build our agenda. And its funny how God humbles us. The value of listening to Mary’s leadership can’t be measured in dollars and cents. That day, ten kids showed up to help washing tires and collecting money and are now knocking on our door every day wondering what more they can do to help. Who ever said that car washes are a dumb idea?