Monday, March 26, 2018

Post 9--Poverty and Wealth--Comments, Final Thoughts, and Telling

Thanks to everyone who followed this series of posts on poverty and wealth.

The subject struck a nerve, and I hope there are lots of spinoff conversations in churches and homes about how we deal with money and all the other types of poverty and wealth.

I haven't caught up with all the messages and comments yet, but I want to address just a few of them here.

"And could you put it into book form?"
--Rosa Miller
"...I feel like I'm walking right beside you as I read your posts. This would be a great book."
--Linda F. Miller
"Loving these Posts!! Please publish them all together when you’re done!!!!"
--Charlotte Good
"Maybe someone has told you this already, but I feel like there has to be some book potential with this series you're doing."
--Ben Smucker

Answer: Maybe.  I asked Ben if it should be more of a Amish-childhood tell-all or a book on Anabaptist finances, and he said one makes a good framework for the other.

Feel free to email me with your ideas of what such a book should include.

Some recommended books and resources:
"For another example of valuing community (in another culture), check out the movie McFarland, USA, which is about a white coach & family who move to a town that is almost entirely hispanic farmworkers. There are some significant weaknesses in the dominant culture in our country, and strories like yours illuminate them."
--Donna McFarland

"The book by Erik Wesner, "Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive" answers some of the questions you ask about why Anabaptists tend to be financially successful. Here are the main points from the book that come from a review on Amazon by Joshua Crews: 1. Low personal expenses. It's easy to bootstrap a business without debt when your life is simple; you have few gadgets; and your entertainment is family, games and visiting friends.
2. A fear of God. This persuades away from idleness, and into productivity and investing in the good of others.
3. A commitment to excellent craftsmanship. It glorifies God to make a thing well. That alone motivates quality and a reputation for quality and service that can command premium prices.
4. God, family, community before business. Business is used to fulfill your calling to God, to family and to community. The American mantra assumes that business success is THE goal. The Amish don't see it that way."
--Merle Burkholder

"Byrant Myers book "Walking with the Poor" is an excellent resource for understanding poverty and my definition of poverty comes from his book"
--Merle Burkholder

"Have you seen any of the research or books on the topic of poverty by Ruby Payne? She has done a lot on the topic."
--Patricia Ann Lewis

Some further thoughts on various subjects:

"Imagine my surprise, after growing up in that community, when I discovered nepotism is frowned upon in the great wide world.  😮 Talk about culture shock!"
--Jarita Bavido

"The other thing I think is HUGE is a good name....I think the word spreads that Mennonite young people are good workers and can be trusted. Our dentist told us that he knows many professionals that would hire our youth in a heart beat because they know our youth haven't ruined their brain cells with drugs and alcohol and they would be willing to even invest in training them rather than hire someone more educated who they don't know if they can trust... Makes me think of the verse, "A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.""
--Twila Smucker

"In the 'world,' Republicans emphasize personal responsibility and Democrats think society should take care of people. But Mennonites are kind of a mix of the two."
--our son Ben

"Affluence, however, can result in discontentment. I sometimes wish my children would be as thrilled with a new bike or a box of 64 crayons as you would have been. We now sometimes struggle to come up with ideas for birthday and Christmas that 1. aren’t junk and, 2. will produce excitement for them. 
I’m not meaning to complain. I’m extremely grateful for the blessings I’ve been given. I just know there’s some value in learning serious frugality that my kids are probably missing out on."
--Rodney Troyer

"I thought you might enjoy reading up on Black Wallstreet in Oklahoma. Basically, they were forced to do business with each other because of discrimination, becoming extremely wealthy, until they were destroyed by a hate crime. The Anabaptists do the same thing out of loyalty to each other--patronizing their own people. The longer a dollar circulates in a community, the more its wealth creation is compounded, which explains another piece of wealth among our uneducated people."
--Matthias Miller

There are dozens of great, insightful comments both on the blog and on Facebook. I can't do justice to them all here.

And the moral dilemma of Telling:

Someone asked me privately:
You are saying a lot of personal things about your dad/ childhood in this last series on poverty. Will he read it? Have you already discussed it with him? I was just wondering how he'd feel about the negative (but honest) things referring to him specifically?

No doubt lots of you wondered about this. I've had a growing desire to write more honestly about my childhood, and a number of people had been urging me to, but I planned to wait until after Dad was gone. Then I decided to post about poverty and it gathered a momentum and story of its own without my quite knowing what was happening.

I don't know if he'll read it, and I didn't discuss it with him. We get along pleasantly enough today, and he spent the last four summers here, but he and I have never been able to have a conversation about any of this.

I've tried to paint in broad strokes, and I've been very gentle and minimal with the truth, writing here of less than 5% of what actually happened. Also, it's been 40 or 50 years. It's probably time to begin talking about it, and the moment seemed right.

If you disagree, I'm open to a conversation.

The best thing to come out of these posts was that family members found it validating, the grandchildren were sending their parents "we finally understand" messages, and people who have been through similar experiences felt understood. Like this anonymous woman:

Wow Dorcas. I'm struck...with HOPE for my future! I was that little sister and now, at 28, married to my "Paul", with three little girls, I'm incredibly blessed!! God and the Gospel have saved me from the pit of destruction! But this wrestling, struggling, forgiving, conscious and intentional change take effort and energy and gets overwhelming. Hearing where you come from and seeing where you are today gives me so much hope for myself! God does have a beautiful plan for me, whether it feels like it or not.

And a relative messaged me

I can only imagine how many other women are weeping over their smart phones this week.

Before I start sniffling again, re-reading that, let me close with what I see as the best gifts my parents gave me.

Dad gave me curiosity, a love for learning and literature, and a precision with language.

Mom gave me a sense of humor, creativity, lots of hands-on skills, and a love for storytelling.

Even though I felt silenced as a child and teen, God has given me a voice and a platform, and I use all those gifts from my parents in what I do today. 

That is the wealth of redemption and the power of the Gospel.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Post 8--Poverty and Wealth--What Happened Later

"When the time is right, the suffering ends."
--Sheila Walsh (paraphrased)

Life in our home got somewhat easier when my older brothers moved out.  Mom didn't have to pack lunches every morning. There were fewer vehicles to break down. There were no longer arguments in which the boys tried to get Dad to change his inefficient ways of farming. We didn't need as much food. And of course I didn't have to worry about making my brothers angry.

My grandma died soon after my brother Marcus got married.

When the boys left, we girls did a lot more of the farm work. I would sometimes take off of school to disk fields or load pigs. We picked rocks and baled hay and watered calves and mowed the yard and much more. 

We had been in the process of building a new house for a number of years. The idea was to build it as we could afford it, but we could never afford much, so we still lived in the basement when there were 9 of us, including Grandma. As more of us left, more of the house got completed, little by little, which is a backwards way to do things but typical of how we operated.

My best memories are of those short years when we girls were all at home, and Rebecca and I were finishing high school and old enough to drive. There was still poverty and frustration and inefficiency, but somehow the three of us had a little more power to set the tone for our home, and we laughed a lot and had fun.

The summer I left home, about 8 years after we started building, we finally moved into the main part of the house, and Mom finally had a nice kitchen.

Rebecca left for college at about the same time that I left to teach school, so Margaret ended up doing a man's work on the farm in addition to going to school and then working at a nursing home. She was a lot younger than us, so this continued for years. 

"What made Dad finally decide to sell the farm?" I asked her.  She says that farms were starting to fail, as the farm crisis of the early 80s gained momentum, and Dad realized that the only thing that had kept him afloat that long was all the free help from his children, since he never paid any of us anything except for $50 he gave Margaret that last summer. So he sold the farm in 1984, the summer we got married. In the middle of all that, Mom and Margaret raised and butchered hundreds of chickens so they could afford to come to our wedding in Oregon.

On our wedding day, the local auctioneer in Minnesota put in a bid on Dad's behalf on a neighbor's 10-acre farm, and got it for $15,000.

So that was probably Dad's best financial move, selling the farm before the farm crisis reached us. The sad thing was that Mom had to give up her "new" house and nice kitchen for a very old and rundown farmhouse.

It wasn't the end of poverty, though, and the scratching and scrimping continued.  But something happened in the process of that move that changed a lot.

They needed boxes to pack up to move, so they went to the local grocery store and asked for some. The manager told them they can go out back and get boxes out of the dumpster.  

So they drove around and started digging. And—what was this?? Full boxes of detergent! What in the world?! Oranges! Lunch meat! Granola bars! Gleefully, they piled this bonanza in the car, along with the empty boxes.

They had discovered dumpster diving.

For years, when we came home for visits, Mom would happily pull out processed foods of every description—little herby cream cheese packets. Fruity yogurts. Fig newtons. And much more.

"Ooooh, mir essa so gut!" she would exclaim.  (Oh, we eat so good!) And she would relate everything she had found in her latest expedition behind Red Owl or Cash Wise. "And one orange juice bottle had cracked and they threw away the whole box! I washed up the others and there was nothing wrong with them!"

Often she added, "If only we could have discovered this when you children were little. It would have made such a difference."

They had a grocery budget of $20 a month, Margaret says, because Mom still needed a few things like denture tablets and oatmeal and sugar.

They suffered a terrible setback when the house burned down in 1987. They were gone to a funeral and lost almost everything. A church family who was in Arizona for the winter let them live in their house. Margaret says the local Catholics, Lutherans, and Baptists actually gave more money and household items than their Beachy-Amish church did, which goes to show that rural Minnesota people know how to do community, or certainly did back then.

Fortunately, the house was insured through a church program, and they rebuilt the following summer. The new house wasn't big or fancy, but Mom had a nice kitchen again. Rebecca and I used to go home to visit with our babies, and we would ooh and aah at Mom's lovely oak kitchen cupboards, and handy utility room with a washer and dryer, and THREE bathrooms, and a finished basement, and so much more. At long long last, Mom had the nice things.

This little farm turned out to be just the right scale for Dad, with a barn and just a few acres. He would get runt pigs from the local farmers and fatten them up on leftover food that the café in town saved for him in 5-gallon buckets. He had a few goats and sold the milk, and also raised calves, and a few sheep, and guineas that squawked in the early morning with a terrible cry, and chickens that befriended the cats.

Margaret eventually left home, and Mom and Dad settled into a contented routine that lasted for many years—gardening, quilting, raising animals, baking, reading, writing letters, hosting Christmas gatherings, and going to church. Mom with her endless creativity made quilts and rugs and pot holders and jams and jellies and breads and cakes, and once a year she sold them at a local open-air market, which gave her some spending money for herself.

Their cash flow was still microscopic, but the terrible stress was gone, and so was most of the anger and conflict. 

It's hard to explain what a relief it was to see them reach a more comfortable plane. 

They ended up living in that house for over 25 years. 

There is still so much I don't understand about their story, but in the last few years of her life I was able to talk to Mom about my memories of the worst years. It's never easy to hear these memories from your child, but Mom was very gracious. She divulged what was actually happening in her own life and in her marriage and the church at the same time as my most painful times, and it gave me a clarity and understanding I had never had before. She felt terrible that I hadn't known if she and Dad loved me or not when I was little, and assured me they actually did, and I assured her of my forgiveness.

Despite counseling and processing and long hard slogs of growth and much progress, we children still haven't achieved the level of health and recovery we would like. But if you want empathy and compassion, come talk to us. We are rich in empathy and compassion. 

This is one thing I've learned: poverty is very complicated, and it can stir up a soup of stresses that brings the worst things out of our deepest places.

And I've also learned that when the time is right, the suffering ends.

Tomorrow: we end this series with a look at comments and questions it generated.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Post 7--Poverty and Wealth--My Frugal Tips

Last night Emily's friend Ashlie spent the night. The two of them used to be roommates, but now Ashlie lives in Roseburg, goes to college, and coordinates weddings and other events at this big, lovely old house.

We were talking about money.

I said, "I read this article about a young woman who was making almost $60,000 a year and she could barely keep on top of her bills! So she decided to be frugal and lived on 'only' $28,000 and saved the rest."

I may have rolled my eyes before I continued. "I can't FEATURE being single with only yourself to support and spending $60,000 a year. I mean, I would have to work HARD to spend that much!" A bitter note may have crept into my voice. "And now she's written a book about it that's getting published and it'll probably be a bestseller! So annoying!"

Ashlie started laughing. "Umm, I wouldn't have any trouble spending $60,000 a year!"

I stopped ranting. Wow. Normal, smart, cute Ashlie gets how that's possible? All right then.

I think maybe I'm an outlier in America.

Not only can't I comprehend making and spending that much money frivolously, I also can't see how people fail to see the connection between the constant supply of Doritos and Mountain Dew, and the lack of money in savings.
Or why it actually matters to people how expensive your car is.
Or how students can take out such huge loans without seriously doing the math.
Or how certain people can be ok with buying gourmet deli meat (for their dogs!) at Grocery Depot, using food stamps, since you can't buy actual dog food with food stamps.

America is an incredibly wealthy country, and yet it seems that there's so much ill health in the financial realm, from welfare's misguided incentives to middle-class credit card debt to Monsanto using its power so unethically.

But those aren't mine to fix or understand.

I do, however, consider myself an expert at frugality. If you want to seriously save money, pay off debts, live within your means, or be a stay-at-home mom, below is my advice, all of it from personal experience.

The key factor here is that these were steps I took after I was an adult and in a healthy relationship where I could take volition over all these areas of my life that were out of my control as a teenager living at home.

I told you yesterday it would be less hardcore than taking your own cheese to McDonald's, but I'm not sure that's the case.

1. Face the financial challenges with a sense of creativity, possibility, and fun. There's going to be a lot of saying No, but there are Yeses if you look for them. Money is a tool, and you are going to handle it wisely. It doesn't have to control you.
2. Improve your emotional and spiritual and relational health. Addictions and bad life choices come out of broken places inside. You might not be able to afford therapy, but you can go to church for free. Or AA, if you need to. Forgiving is free, and prayer, and apologizing, and going outside for a walk.
3. Maximize your "people" wealth through family, church, mentors, neighbors, etc. Find ways to help them in exchange for them helping you, or just to be kind, as a relational investment. Find a roommate. Carpool.
4. Make a budget. Face your debt. Figure out the numbers. Save first, then spend. And set aside a little bit—for us it was $5 a month—just for a fun personal indulgence, whatever you choose.
5. Forget being cool. Clean and appropriate are good, but name brand anything is a financial drain. Shop secondhand or rummage sales. Or dumpster-dive. Drive an older car. Accept hand-me-downs. Wear things out.
6. Drink water. Stop drinking pop. You can make coffee at home but don't buy coffee at coffee stands or even 7-11s. Don't buy Doritos or chips of any kind. Pop your own popcorn instead.
7. Don't go to concerts, plays, games, or movies, unless they're free. But if someone asks what you want for your birthday, you can ask for tickets. Make friends who are ok with doing free things.
8. Cook from scratch. Get a secondhand crock pot. Buy and cook up dry beans and rice. Bake bread and cookies.
9. Learn as many skills as you can: cooking, baking, sewing, cleaning, car repair, hair cutting, drain unplugging, basic carpentry, mending, basic plumbing, canning, gardening.
10. Don't eat out. Pack a lunch. When you travel, pack a cooler of food and jugs of water. If you can eke a McDonald's meal out of your grocery budget, go ahead. Taking your own cheese is optional.
11. Focus on the little costs. Do the math. You might feel like it's the car repairs and tuition that put you under, but it's the lattes and impulsive Panda Express lunches that get you in the long run.
12. Give God 10% of your income, even if it seems impossible or insane. He isn't obligated to do miracles on your behalf in exchange, but he will.
13. Don't be afraid to say No to expensive obligations, like an assigned food for a church dinner or an assigned price on your child's gift exchange at school. I didn't follow this advice, but I wish I would have. It's ok to say, "We can't afford this right now. Can we do something else instead?"
14. Live with a sense of gratitude and abundance. When you're on a tight budget, an unexpected bargain is an incredible thrill. Enjoy it. After you have more money, life is easier but that thrill is gone.
15. If you want babies, get married first.
16. Marry someone with the same financial goals as you, roughly.
17. Do fun free stuff. The Fourth of July parade. Hiking. Concerts at local churches. Playing in mud puddles.
18. Go to garage sales. Comb your children nice and neat, and take them along. Let them carry paper banana bags and look for stuff in the Free boxes. All the garage sale ladies will ooh and aah over them, and will grab good stuff off the tables to fill the children's bags. Trust me on this. It's not freeloading, exactly, because you're making their day, and your adorable kids will properly thank them of course.
19. Focus on elaborate homemade cakes and fun games for your children's birthdays. Give small and simple presents.
20. Learn from financial advisors and sources like Dave Ramsey or The Simple Dollar. We took an invaluable week of lessons from Lester Miller when he came to our church. I don't know if his material is still in circulation, but it was excellent.
21. Decide your parameters with taking government aid. We didn't feel like it was right to take food stamps or welfare, but after a few medical disasters that wiped us out, we got our children on the Oregon Health Plan.
22. Don't take on debt for furniture and vacations and toys. A reasonable mortgage can be better than paying rent. And going into debt to buy or start a business can be terrifying but also the right thing—but get lots of advice from wiser people first.

Like I said, it will feel like your life is full of No's, but you will develop an amazing sense of accomplishment and a financial intelligence that will benefit you the rest of your life.

Feel free to add advice from your own experience.

Tomorrow: How things turned out for my parents.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Post 6--Poverty and Wealth--Changing Our Beliefs

God, the Gospel, and a good husband make a powerful combination.

Poverty skews your view of the world and of yourself, I said in a previous post. Poverty of money does this to a degree, but when material lack is one ingredient in a thick unhealthy soup, the damage is much worse. Financial hardship leads to stress which leads to anger, and in a big family, everyone turns on everyone else, and everything feeds off of everything else, until you don't know what caused what, or who to blame, or how in the world to fix it. Depression, abuse, mental illness, rejection, chaos, shame, neglect—all of them blended and bubbled in one pot.

And unknowingly, we ladled out messages that we swallowed, believed, and acted on.

The saddest thing, I think, is that instead of supporting each other, we siblings turned against each other. My brothers saw me as a disgusting embarrassment and bother, and were physically and verbally cruel. Then I turned on my little sister Margaret and treated her almost as badly.

For example, when Margaret was about 8 or 10 years old and I was six years older, she was constantly having crises with socks. She didn't have any, or she couldn't find any, or they were all dirty. Could she borrow mine to go to school? Please please please?

Ok, FINE. She would promise to return them, and a week later I'd find them wadded under her bed, which meant that I punished her with shame. She was Just So Bad And Annoying and was going to Turn Out Terrible.

There were no solutions or answers, only chaos, anger, and repeated cycles of the same problem.

Now, having lived with Paul for 33 years, I picture how he would have dealt with this. First of all, if Mom was too stressed to take care of Margaret's socks at that stage, which she was, because besides everything else she was taking care of my grandma with Alzheimer's, he would have come up with a Plan for me.  I could have taken a week's worth of money I got from working in the school cafeteria and bought Margaret two nice pairs of socks to add to her ratty collection. Once or twice a week, we could have gathered all the socks in her room and washed them out in the sink and hung them up to dry.

It seems so obvious. Imagine—an actual solution to a problem!

When I talk about "the Gospel," I mean the entire scope the Good News of God creating us and reaching out to rescue us when we reject him. It involves God loving us immensely and sending Jesus to the world, Jesus dying for us and rising again, forgiveness when we repent and follow him, walking with him in a new life, guided by the Bible and the Holy Spirit, and spending eternity with him when we die.

It's possible for the Gospel to transform everything.

We all believed in  Jesus back then, I think, and yet the essence and power of the Gospel did not get down into the cracks of our family.

So I grew up believing a lot of lies about my own worth and carrying huge insecurities about my value and safety, and about money, and lots of other things.

If I could advise my younger self, I would tell her to get healthy before she gets married, and to look for other qualities in a man besides the fact that he was wiser with money than her dad, and also smart and hard-working and he made her feel safe and was a capable and excellent manager.

By the mercy of God, Paul was that and a lot more, and it all worked out. I think it was because he actually understood the Gospel.

Paul had a very different view of money than my family did. He neither loved nor feared it. It was a tool that he could control rather than a monster that would destroy us.

Paul trusted God, and I trusted Paul, and even when we were very poor, I generally felt safe and life said Yes and we were taken care of and we had happy times and God did lots of miracles like making my first set of contact lenses last for nine years.

Some of our children say they didn't even know we were poor. Others still have painful memories of ugly clothes and never getting the doll they longed for. There's a lot we could and should have done differently, and I still pray for healing and redemption.

They also claim that I carried frugality to such an extreme degree that we never went to McDonalds unless it was Cheap Hamburger Day, and I would bring my own sliced cheese in a little bag to add to their burgers because it was cheaper than getting cheeseburgers, and I'd get one drink for them all to share, and I would never ever get them a Happy Meal.

That's embarrassing.

But they entered adulthood healthy and whole. And frugal.

What you believe is important, because it determines what you do. And what you do is important because it brings results and consequences.

I made a chart that shows the difference that believing and applying the Gospel made in my life—things I told myself, believed, acted on, felt, and did.

As you can see, I have come a long way in changing my beliefs. I have forgiven a lot, found redemption and healing, and been forgiven by others, especially Margaret.

I still have plenty of moments when I forget that I have a good Father who loves me, or one of the children tells me, "Mom! Just go buy a new dress! You're not poor anymore!"

But most of the time I am fully aware that I am incredibly, enormously, incomprehensibly, phenomenally wealthy. I really like the results of changing my beliefs.
With a Gospel Perspective:
Without the Gospel:
I have a Good Father who loves me.
I am abandoned and on my own.
I am watched over and cared for.
I am ignored.
I have value as a child of God.
My value comes from my success and behavior.
I can ask for help.
I must endure in silence.
I can care for others.
I watch out only for myself.

Sense of abundance
Sense of endless wanting
Hope for the future
Hopelessness and despair
Creativity with resources
Locked in a money mindset
Wisdom; open to advice
Stupid choices; not asking for advice
All my own efforts
Disappointment and discontentment
Ignoring or minimizing blessings; jealousy
Expectation of provision
Expectation of bad luck
Stopping unhealthy cycles--abuse, poverty etc.
Continuing unhealthy cycles
Work against each other
Money is a tool I can manage.
Money is a monster dominating my life.
There are answers and solutions.
This will never be fixed and we are stuck.
Solid, healthy identity
Need to prove I'm somebody
We will find a path through this.
We are ruined!

Tomorrow: a few how-to's for surviving poverty that are less hardcore than carrying your own cheese to McDonald's.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Post 5--Poverty and Wealth--How Anabaptists Help

This is how Anabaptists will help you with material/physical/financial needs: throw a grocery shower, help you pack up and move, offer you their extra garden produce, loan you their pressure canner or wood splitter or RotoTiller or van, plow your garden, help you paint your walls, fix your roof, offer you a job, and give you their children's outgrown clothes.

This is how Anabaptists will not help you: hand you money.

The exception to this is when there's a disaster—medical, fire, car crash, or flood. For instance, when we hit a moose and our van burned up, back in 1994, five churches took up collections and we were able to buy a minivan.

But for normal expenses like rent, food, tires, normal doctor visits, medicines, and tuition, you are expected to take care of your own responsibilities. There's an unspoken rule that you never go begging or hinting for cash to tide you over. 

My sister once taught me the useful Arabic word "aib," pronounced "ibe." It translates as disgrace, stigma, ignominy, dishonor, blot, mortification, slur, and smirch.

In this case, "aib" is a good word for both handing an irresponsible person money and also asking for it, in the Amish or Mennonite culture.

So, even though we were so poor when I was a child, the church people wouldn't give us money. Instead, local farmers hired my brothers to work for them. Also, in Ohio, the church men would come for "frolics", an odd name for a work day, and they built an addition to the barn so we could have a milk tank and hopefully Grade A milk. The idea, of course, was to improve our finances by improving our facilities.

Dad organized and appreciated these work days, but Mom found them embarrassing and shameful. Also, she was expected to feed all these hardworking men with hardly any resources which was extremely stressful.

Later, when we lived in Minnesota, people found roundabout ways to help us out, such as offering us their extra sweet corn.

One family hired me to babysit, once in a while, and had my brothers help with haying. I am quite sure they wanted an acceptable way to help us kids, but Dad told me I'm not allowed to take any payment from them. They tried hard to pay me, and I desperately wanted the money, and it was all acutely awkward and complicated.

In a future post I'll elaborate on our family's poverty of spirit, good sense, and care for each other that made financial poverty that much worse.

But now I'm thinking about church people not giving us cash despite our obvious lack. I think they wanted to preserve our dignity, which was a good thing. Not so good was the fact that our level of bad decisions and poor management was so shameful that it could not be spoken out loud. If they would have given us money outright, it would have announced the dark truth in plain words.

And that would apparently have been worse than desperately gathering up every penny in the house, including emptying our piggy banks, so Dad could try to pay the interest and keep the farm.

I grew up and married Paul.

We spent eight years with a mission in Canada where, as I explained previously, our housing and medical care and much of our food was provided, and we had the tiniest stipend to cover everything else.

But our mission friends were in the same situation, so it was mostly ok.

It wasn't so ok when we came back to Oregon. We had four children, a minimum of furniture, the minivan that we had bought with donations, and the clothes people had given after our fire.

Suddenly we had to pay rent, buy a lot more groceries, furnish a house, buy school uniforms, pay tuition, and pay for all our medical expenses. Paul got a job right away, but it paid only a bit more than minimum wage.

What made it worst was that now we were surrounded by our prosperous peers who had been investing in houses and businesses and vehicles all those years that we were gone. 

Twice, medical emergencies swallowed every dollar we had managed to save. But we didn't ask for help.

However, it was very different from my childhood poverty. [Come back tomorrow for that.]

It took about five years to climb out of that desperate place.  The fact that we managed this at all without turning to government aid was due to the church community, the connections, and all the roundabout ways they helped us out.

Of course, they didn't give us cash, and we didn't ask for any. In our case, though, there was no shame attached to our poverty, because everyone understood we had been on the mission field.

First we rented a house in Albany, from Paul's brother's wife's brother, who had a rental that needed some repairs, so he didn't want to rent it to just anyone, but he found out about our need when we were at a mutual nephew's birthday party, and he knew we wouldn't mind the broken things.  So we lived there for a few months until an elderly couple from church moved to their daughter's place and then we moved into their house.  They had lived there for 48 years and hadn't repaired much for the last 20, so the pipes were so full of mineral deposits that the water barely trickled out and the floor had holes and the kitchen cupboards were full of mice.

But that was just fine, because the rent was extremely cheap in exchange for us improving the property 20 hours a month.

Somehow these deals happen only with people you know and trust.

Church friends and family members came and papered walls and painted woodwork and swept mouse droppings out of the cupboards.

Paul gradually replaced the pipes, installed a furnace, mowed down the blackberry bushes, and put in new kitchen cupboards.

We loved that house.

People from church also babysat for free, invited us to come pick the last of the green beans, and gave us outgrown clothes. 

Paul was ordained to the ministry in 1995. That is an unpaid position, but after that we would get part of the quarterly ministry offering, and people would slip money gifts into Christmas cards. When I was pregnant with Jenny, an anonymous person contacted the birth center and paid our entire bill. If that was you, please know that we are still grateful.

A minister should never ask for money, but thankfully it's ok to give him gifts now and then.

What finally hauled us up and out of the pool of poverty and onto dry ground was when Paul took over his dad's business. It would have been nearly impossible for someone in our circumstances to get a bank loan to finance such a purchase. But we were family, so we paid what it was worth—dignity, you know—but Paul's dad arranged a payment schedule between us that we could manage.

I can't imagine how we would have gone from there to here if not for the incredible support and opportunities from family and the Mennonite church community. It's a type of wealth that exponentially surpasses the value of mere money.

So now we are comfortable Mennonites who can afford new shoes and travel. We give money to missions and charities and medical expenses, and donate to scholarship funds, and give clothes and household items to people who are having a hard time. We listen carefully at CAM talks. We hire people to work for us, sometimes creating tasks just to help people out.

But we are typical Anabaptists in that we think it's "aib" for people to ask us outright for money for routine expenses, and we almost never give money in that way. I hope, in the long term, that that is the right decision.

Tomorrow: how the Gospel affects the family economy.

Post 4-Poverty and Wealth--The Anabaptist Enigma

What makes conservative Anabaptists so financially successful?

A couple months ago I sat with some 450 other people in Halsey Mennonite's gym and listened to reports on the various ministries of CAM-West.

Based in Ohio and organized by the Beachy Amish in Holmes County, Ohio, Christian Aid Ministries has become an enormous charity. They funnel the vast resources, generosity and efficiency of conservative Anabaptists into a central organization and then distribute aid all over the world. They send homemade comforters to North Korean tuberculosis centers, gather truckloads of almost-expired medicine and send it to clinics, pack food parcels for emergency aid, and dig wells in Kenya.

They package and distribute thousands of seed packets so people can grown their own food, rebuild after natural disasters, teach women in Eastern Europe to sew, and slip quietly into places like Yemen and Iraq to offer emergency aid.

And a lot more besides, in eye-popping numbers.

CAM-West is a branch of CAM, founded a few years ago. Mennonites in the West had lots of willingness and resources, but we are a long way from the CAM warehouses in the East.

So now the North Korea projects are centered here, and also the assembling of thousands of hygiene kits for Syrian refugees and food parcels for Eastern Europe.

I sat in that crowd of Mennonites, all deeply engaged in the reports, and recalled the Atlantic article about wealth inequality in America.

I thought: By most measurements, we ought to be poor. True, many of us are white and our families have been here for generations, but there's a significant percentage of Hispanics and other non-Caucasians, and we are rural and uneducated. I doubt that half this crowd has finished high school.

And yet, I knew there were lots of deep pockets in that room—farmers and business owners and landlords and contractors. I knew most of them were willing to donate in impressive numbers if they were convinced it was for a worthy cause—hence, the rapt attention to the reports from bearded gentlemen on the platform.

How does that work, and what is it about Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and other derivatives) that turns the American economic charts upside down?

I am not an economist, having inherited my dad's mystified view of anything financial. But I'm trying to learn, and I've observed a few things.

[I have much more knowledgeable friends, such as Merle Burkholder, who are welcome to weigh in with comments.]

Some time ago I read Nickel and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich.

She is a professional woman who went undercover and took various minimum-wage jobs to see if and how a person could get by on minimum wage in America. The short answer is definitely No, it just can't be done with any quality of life.

Ms. Ehrenreich details the harrowing lives of waitresses, cleaning ladies, motel maids, and others. She shows the snowballing effects of poverty and how short-term solutions derail long-term goals. If you don't have money, you can't afford a deposit on an apartment, so you end up in a motel. You can't cook in a motel room, so you have to buy prepared food. There might be cheap rent a long way out of town, but then you have to figure out transportation back and forth. You're working two or three jobs so you smoke cigarettes for the energy boost. And so on.

What struck me over and over in the book is that the only measurement of wealth that she looked at was money and property. From that perspective, there is no possible way to have one person, working for low wages, have their needs met. If there's a child or two, it becomes even more impossible. 

As I read, I kept thinking, "WHERE are these people's PEOPLE?" It seemed like everyone was bobbing around in their own little bubble, trying to take care of food, clothing, medical care, transportation, and everything else entirely on their own.

Once in a while, Ehrenreich offhandedly mentions someone who, for example, didn't have to pay child care expenses because her mother watched the children. But the author never looks at that factor in depth, and to me it seemed like she kind of resented when someone had their mom babysit or their uncle fix their car, like they weren't quite playing by the author's rules.

So of course I would mentally rearrange their lives. Those three waitresses should live together in one apartment and try to carpool. They could take turns staying home to watch all the children, cook rice and beans in the crock pot (from Goodwill) and do laundry for them all.  If there was a neighbor who could fix the car, maybe one of them could give haircuts or cook something in exchange. If one got sick, the others could take her shift.

Or SOMETHING! If they would only help each other!

But they didn't ask me, obviously.

This is my spitballed explanation of the Anabaptist economy:

As a denomination and subculture, we have embraced frugality and hard work and hands-on skills, but mostly I think we recognize that people and relationships are of great value. It's not that we don't like money (trust me) but we know that people are even more valuable. So we live in clustered communities and have lots of children and go to church and turn out by the hundreds for weddings and funerals.

Paradoxically, this system has resulted in financial wealth.

The basic requirements for a job are not education but gumption and connection. In this area, it's easy for a young person to get a job. You can drive a combine for a farmer during harvest, teach at various church schools, sack seed for Paul or another seed cleaner, build mini-barns for whats-his-name on Peoria Road, or work at Grocery Depot, the Mennonite-owned discount grocery.  If you call Loren at Grocery Depot and say you're Paul Smucker's daughter, you'll be hired. He won't ask if you have a high school diploma and might not even ask for references, but he'll expect you to work hard.

If you do a good job at a construction business, you can work your way into a better position and eventually a business of your own. And then you hire your children and nieces and nephews and the guy who came out for harvest but wants to stay on in the fall, and eventually he marries your daughter and expands the business.

It's not a perfect system, as demonstrated by our family's experiences, which were likely attributed to a low gumption level. But on a macro scale, the system works.

However, there must be more to the robust Anabaptist economy than simply valuing people, because other subcultures such as Native Americans also value community but have different economic outcomes. 

Why do you think Anabaptists have done well enough to finance CAM's huge budget?

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments, which I will post if you sound humble enough.

You might be wondering why our family didn't get more financial help from the church community. Tomorrow: how Anabaptists help, and how they helped Paul and me find our way out of poverty.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Post 3--Poverty and Wealth--Dad's Disappointing Degrees

I'm going to quote an email referencing an article reviewing a book, which is kind of like a repeating decimal, as D. E. Stevenson once said.

This is from a Simple Dollar email from Trent Hamm, and is typical of what you find when you look up "How to escape poverty."

In an article in The Atlantic, Gillian B. White writes about inequality in American society. She reviews a book by Peter Temin called The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy

Temin argues that, following decades of growing inequality, America is now left with what is more or less a two-class system: One small, predominantly white upper class that wields a disproportionate share of money, power, and political influence and a much larger, minority-heavy (but still mostly white) lower class that is all too frequently subject to the first group’s whims.

Temin identifies two types of workers in what he calls “the dual economy.” The first are skilled, tech-savvy workers and managers with college degrees and high salaries who are concentrated heavily in fields such as finance, technology, and electronics. . .. The other group is the low-skilled workers, which he simply calls the “low-wage sector.”
. . .
[And especially this:]
And how is one to move up from the lower group to the higher one? Education is key, Temin writes, but notes that this means plotting, starting in early childhood, a successful path to, and through, college. 

You can find lots of insightful material on overcoming poverty, coming from many angles and proposing many solutions. But they all promote education. Many imply that to really leave poverty behind and get somewhere in the world, you not only have to finish high school but also go to college, and a college degree is a pretty sure ticket out of poverty forever.

Which brings us to my dad and the strange Anabaptist economy.

Most Amish people attend school only through the 8th grade. The same is true for other conservative Anabaptist branches, such as the Fellowship and Holdeman churches.

My dad was, in his day, the only Amishman in history who got a college degree and stayed Amish. It seems he had a bishop who recognized that Dad was unusually gifted academically but didn't have a rebellious bone in his body, so the bishop gave him permission to go to college. He not only got a Bachelor's degree in German at Eastern Mennonite College, but he also studied at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and got a Master's in elementary education.

All the while, he wore his Amish clothes and didn't drive a car.

In Iowa and Ohio and Minnesota, we lived in Amish or Beachy-Amish or Fellowship communities where everyone else had quit school after the 8th grade. In addition, English was their second language, and it was sometimes shocking how poorly they read and spelled and spoke.

With the "worldly" experts' emphasis on education, you'd think Dad would have been powerful in such a community, wealthy and admired, and maybe even ordained minister or bishop.

Instead, we were always among the poorest, struggling and scratching and desperate among efficient carpenters and prosperous farmers. 

The Amish economy had no place for someone with his education. Why pay him what he was worth as a teacher if you could just as easily hire an 18-year-old girl putting in a few years before she got married? Either way, your children would learn to read and do basic arithmetic.

The Amish respected physical strength and hard work and a good head for business. Dad was small and in fragile health and not, as they said, a "good manager."

When we lived in rural Minnesota, Dad quit teaching and focused on farming, instead of trying to do both. He was far more educated than our Englisch neighbors and most of our public school teachers, so he could probably have walked into a local high school and gotten a teaching job with a salary that would have seemed astronomical.

But he really wanted to farm. I don't know if he really loved farming that much, or if he wanted to prove that he was a real Amishman, but his farms never thrived like everyone else's. 

In the H.G. Wells story, "The Country of the Blind," a mountaineer happens to find an isolated valley where all the residents are blind. From Wikipedia:  Upon discovering that everyone is blind, Nuñez begins reciting to himself the refrain, "In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King". He realises that he can teach and rule them, but the villagers have no concept of sight, and do not understand his attempts to explain this fifth sense to them. Frustrated, Nuñez becomes angry, but the villagers calm him, and he reluctantly submits to their way of life, because returning to the outside world seems impossible.

Eventually the mountaineer realizes that the blind people in this community have figured out how to fully live life, and he is actually at a disadvantage despite this phenomenal gift of sight that he has and they don't.

I think that's kind of what it was like for Dad. He really wanted to teach and reach his own people with this valuable commodity of education that he brought with him, but they liked their lives just as they were, thank you very much. And who can blame them, when their children had new shoes and a big box of crayons apiece?

Tomorrow: more on the Anabaptist economy.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Post 2--Poverty and Wealth--Childhood

I was probably in ninth grade when Mrs. Carlson decided to do a poll to demonstrate some point about economics. She had a list of items that kids our age or our families would probably own--normal American things, she said. We were to raise our hands if we did NOT own this item.

I sat in the front row and thought: Oh. No.

A tv.

I raised my hand, the only one in the room.

A stereo.

I raised my hand.

A radio.


A musical instrument of any kind.


A baseball and bat.


She listed various sports equipment like a football, cleats, running shoes, and a basketball hoop.

Me, me, me, me.  This was getting awkward for everyone.

A snowmobile.

Up went my hand.

Fishing gear.


A tent.


A 35 mm camera.


A slide projector.

Me of course.

This torturous exercise went on and on.

Mrs. Carlson marched down through that entire lengthy list, and my conscience wouldn't let me lie, so I kept raising my hand every blessed time. Sometimes a scattering of other people did as well, but often I was the only one. Snickers erupted behind me.

Finally Mrs. Carlson laughed and said to me, "You're probably the most contented of us all."

Not in that moment I wasn't, believe me, which might be why it's branded into my memory.

Granted, a few of these items were forbidden by the Beachy-Amish church we were part of, but mostly we didn't own these things because we were so poor.

Our relationship with money and possessions was characterized by worry, pinching, saving, stretching, economizing, waiting, wanting, needing, longing, wishing, mending, making do, hand-me-downs, and acute shame.

Dad was an impractical, dreamy, scholarly Amish farmer, which is as contradictory as it sounds. Money was a nebulous something that drifted in and out of his life. He could never quite grasp it and make it work for him. He was endlessly burdened by debts, haunted by a looming day of reckoning that made him say No to almost anything we wanted to do or get or see.

So we learned not to ask.

Mom was a miracle worker with her gardening and sewing and about fifty other skills that kept us fed and clothed and clean.

But she worried endlessly and carried heavy burdens. She never said this out loud, but now I realize that she could have handled the finances much better than Dad, being of a practical and enterprising nature. But that would have destroyed Dad's last shreds of dignity.

Mom occasionally conjured a sense of abundance, such as when she hauled us all to the back 40 to pick blackberries or secretly sewed warm, ruffled pink flannel nightgowns for our Christmas gifts.

But most of the time we felt impoverished.

After I went to a public school in the fifth grade, we would get a paper at the beginning of the year with a chart listing family sizes, income levels, and who qualified for free lunches. The amount at which a family of our size would get free lunches was far more than we ever made. But we never utilized this benefit. Handouts from the Government were unthinkable.

We either made things ourselves or bought them secondhand. Mostly, we did without. We didn't buy new clothes or ready-made food. We never went out to eat. A box of 64 crayons was something to envy and long for, knowing we could never afford it. Something as fun and cool as a banana-seat bike, which was the ultimate fun and cool thing in its day, was as out of reach as Mars.

But, for some reason, it was important to Dad that we regularly went to the dentist. So I got a mouthful of fillings, which I have reason to believe I didn't always need, while at the same time we "couldn't afford" adequate gear in Minnesota winters, such as the tiny little lightweight chore gloves I wore to school in subzero temperatures.

My sister Margaret remembers having cold feet all winter because her boots had holes and the snow got in. She never had decent warm socks. It wasn't only because we couldn't afford new ones. It was also because no one noticed or cared, and she knew she shouldn't ask. We were going through a horrifically stressful time as a family, and Mom and Dad were preoccupied with just trying to survive the financial struggles and mental illnesses and chaos and conflict.

So we had a poverty of nurturing and attention as well, which fed us those crippling "truths" that we were on our own, no one was going to look out for us, these things could not be said out loud, and the good things in life were for everyone out there, but not for us.

Except, of course, we got our teeth checked twice a year, without fail. 

Poverty and wealth are strange things to quantify and evaluate, they go far deeper and wider than mere income levels and family sizes on a mimeographed chart, and they are far more nuanced than the overall patterns of education, jobs, and costs of living. Parents' relationship with finances affects their children's view of the world and themselves in a dozen odd and seemingly unconnected ways.

What's really strange is that by one key metric, we ought to have been better off than anyone else at church and most people in the community.

Come back tomorrow for that.