I wasn’t raised poor or affluent. I was a middle-of-the-road, middle-class kid from a small town. The fact that this small town is named Hicksville is only a distraction from the fact that it’s actually a great place to raise middle-class kids. That does not say there wasn’t economic disparity. The poor in our community worked in the factories. The rich owned the factories. But being a small town, most families knew and cared for each other. They went to the same schools and played on the same sports teams.
My starting place is small-town, middle-class, but I’ve had the joy of living alongside people far more affluent and far poorer. I got to hang out at someone’s lake house that was bigger than any regular house I’d ever been to (there was a theater room, billiard room, hot tub, four floors, and multiple boats parked at their dock…. and this wasn’t even their primary residence).
I also spent a summer on the Northern Cheyenne reservation where most people lived below the poverty line and I slept on a blow-up swimming device in the local high school. (Which might be the reason for my current back problems.)
As many of us, I’ve spent some of my life in these three different economic worlds: wealth, middle class, and poverty.
I recently learned that there is a test that you can take that will tell you what class you are from. I haven’t take the test, but one of the questions had to do with what you say after you feed a room full of guests.
Someone who is poor, might say “Did you have enough?” (quantity)
Someone who is middle-class, might say “Did you like it?” (quality)
And someone who is upper-class, might say “Was it presented well?” (presentation)
I recently discovered another category for such reflection: Vacation.
I realized that as I told friends and people from church that we were headed on vacation, the majority of the time was spent explaining to them how we were paying for it.
You might be middle class, if…
1. You go on vacations. You see, the poor don’t. They just don’t. They can’t afford it. Christian rapper, Lecrae once said,
Rich man need a vacation, hop a plane
Broke man need a vacation, Mary Jane
Can you imagine a world where you don’t go on vacations? I don’t want to. So you might be middle class if you go on vacation.
But, you might also be middle class if…
2. When you tell people about the vacation, you explain how you can afford it. You see, the working middle class (as many others) have this love-hate relationship with vacation. We go, but we’re a little guilty about the money we spent on it. And we don’t want people to think we’ve spent more than we have, because usually our vacations have been carefully priced out, and strategically planned.
To be fair, some of this might also be guilt left over from pastoring. Christians can be rather nasty sometimes when pastors take too much time to enjoy themselves.
Don’t let shame define the conversation.
There is a lot of shame around money.
Whether it’s a pastor justifying a vacation or the concerns the middle-class have about the poor seeing them as too extravagant. The poor, the middle-class, and the wealthy can all experience a level of shame and discomfort when interacting with each other around money. The rich might be embarrassed for having too much, the poor for not having enough. We don’t feel this tension when we’re with people like us. But if we’re going to enter into a relationship with each other, we need to get over the discomfort.
Here are a few ideas that might help.
Get over the initial shock. I think one of the biggest barriers to cross-economic relationships is the shock that happens when someone realizes just how rich you are, or just how poor you are. I’ve taken affluent people to homeless camps. When they look around at someone’s home, made up of a campsite and tent, you can see the shock on their face. I’ve also taken people who are lower-income to expensive restaurants, and the shock on their face was exactly the same. They’re not sure how to order, and can’t believe we’re spending as much as we are just to eat.
As someone who is middle-class, I’ve been shocked on both ends of the spectrum. By shocked, I mean: speech-less, awkward, out of place, and weird around some people because I didn’t realize just how different their life was from mine. I’ve been in a JC Penny suit while rubbing shoulders with Washington elites. I felt like a fake and out of place. I’ve walked into a homeless camp and felt dizzy from the reality settling in. I’ve spent $150 for a meal for two at the top of Hancock Tower in Chicago, for food that was just alright. I’ve walked into homes that cost more than all the houses of my block combined. I’ve delivered food into homes that the stench of their pets and trash hit you at the door. If you have grown up predominately in one economic class, and desire to extend the kingdom of God to people outside that class, you will likely experience some kind of shock. Expect the shock, be ready for it, and then get past it.
Don’t hide. You are you. There’s no need to hide who you are, whether that be poor or rich. That doesn’t mean flaunting either—and I’ve seen it happen amongst the poor and the rich alike, trying to outdo one another. Just be you. When it’s all said and done, we’re all human: we all hurt, and we all want to be loved. Be confident in who God created you to be, and in God’s call on your life to be generous, and you will have the confidence (and humility) to talk to just about anyone.
Don’t assume. I met someone once who drove to the meeting in a fancy, big, beautiful truck, and got out wearing some really nice, clean-cut, designer clothes. I thought to myself: Well, he’s clearly rich. But then we sat down and chatted. He told me his story of finding Jesus. He told me about how before he gave his life to Jesus, he drove the best car money could buy and wore exclusive, custom, designer suits. He then said something I will never forget, “Now that I have Jesus, I drive a truck and I dress like this.” For this person, I looked down on them because I thought they looked rich. For them, this truck and his outfit was a large, rather generous step towards humility. Don’t assume you know someone.
I’ve had similar experiences with the homeless, where I assume they can’t do anything, when in fact they are amazing, caring, competent people. Don’t assume. Don’t judge someone because they are rich, don’t look down on someone because they are poor. Get to know someone. And live generous, open lives with all people.
Don’t try and fix someone. Don’t assume people should be like you. I’m not convinced the rich should be poor. And I’m not convinced the poor should be rich. I’m not even convinced everyone should be middle class, even though if I was honest, I’d say this is my default position.. if only because it’s my default status… But I have to fight that tendency. I can’t assume someone needs to be like me.
I think everyone should have enough to live and be happy. I think we should be radically generous. I think we should fight against systems that oppress. But I do not think people’s lives will be fixed primarily by becoming more wealthy or poorer. My friend once said that his biggest problem with the church is that most Christians want to fix him and make him middle-class. The problem: He’s content being poor, and he feels closer to Jesus without all the middle-class trappings. He has a home, and a job, and enough to eat. He’s content. Don’t let your desire to fix someone keep you from learning from them and entering into a relationship with them.
This is just the starting point—a few initial ideas. What do you think? What was the most “shocking” event you’ve had when it comes to meeting someone who makes less or more than you?