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.


  1. What a rich set of posts! Thank you.

  2. I am thoroughly enjoying this series! Thanks.

  3. Its interesting what you said about frolics. Back east we had frolics for everyone rich or poor. If you were building anything you had a frolic day if you were moving you had a frolic. Since I moved out west I noticed that they dont really have that here and I think its sad. People will come help you move if you ask, but there has never been an official announcement in the bulletin like I grew up reading. "Today we will have a frolic at Enos'house to help them move." We were among the poor in the church as dad was in the ministry and their were other circumstances that I won't go into, but I was never embarassed by the frolics. Probably because they happened for everyone. Also the women of the church would help out with the meal so it didnt all fall on my mom. We also had money snuck into our van by anonymous sources.The more older I get the more I realize the exceptional church family I grew up with.

  4. I think being raised with the Anabaptist view on giving is why I feel so uncomfortable with the whole Go Fund Me craze.