I remember when I first moved into the city of Portland, my father admonished me to avoid running at night. Being an invincible twenty year old, white, and over six feet tall, the idea of my getting jumped or something was laughable. Yes, there was a higher overall crime rate, but the statistics don’t tell the story of the city. Not even close. A parallel statistical anomaly is the overall average rainfall of the state of Oregon. Divided by east and west, Oregon would be close to the highest and lowest precipitation recordings in the nation — the eastern half being a desert on account of the rain shadow of the Cascade Range. This is analogous to Portland’s neighborhoods. But even the neighborhoods don’t tell the whole story. A white woman driving a minivan, slowly, and with the windows down, would not get the same reaction as a black man in an Impala driving by the same park. The division of our people, street by street, shade by shade, dollar by penny, is what arrests the heartbeat of our collective person. The separation here is a living hell, and only a handful of people seem to feel it. It is the picture of oppression that runs rampant through the city. As rampant as the injustice is, so too are the catch phrases that summon do-gooders to the scene. Though the subtleties of power imbalance, misguided charity, the monetization of need, and on and on, there’s a clearer and clearer picture formed. It is the image of so many cartoonishly strong, giant, impatient, and yet loving people caressing and petting so many little bunnies. Picture a scene from Of Mice and Men, with thousands of men and women, some innocently and some not, but replace bunnies with people, ideas, and relationships. Men like me can uproot historically black neighborhoods with buying power to spare.
Brentwood-Darlington, pejoratively titled “felony flats” in newspapers and around southeast Portland, sits just east of Woodstock, an up and coming neighborhood. There’s a known line, southeast 52nd avenue, that separates the two in more ways than one. Looking east, there sits East Moreland, Sellwood, and West Moreland. If one were to draw, with paint and ink, the lines of relationship between the people living in those places, there would be a void marking the isolation around East Moreland. When people sell their homes and move in that neighborhood, they buy a house somewhere else in East Moreland. Conversely, the interconnectedness of Brentwood-Darlington would paint the whole city — poverty is mobile, and as such, there are people moving in and out of this place and those like it all of the time. I used to react with surprise and fear when a young person would tell me they were moving. They would say, by the way, “my mom said we’re moving back to Oakland,” or some such thing. There were constant conversations, apparently, that alluded to money troubles, with the resolution being a move somewhere else. Ricky, Michael, Thomas, and a few others were on the other side of the example — not a false alarm, but after a dozen or some false alarms over a year or so, they did move. Thomas’s mom couldn’t afford to keep him, with his dad and jail and with her drug problem, so he moved in with his grandparents. Ricky was a similar but simpler story, what with the family being unable to afford their house. Michael’s dad got out of jail, so they moved to be closer to his family — they moved in with them. A slight downtick or uptick in the economy, a job, or family situation will send someone uphill or downhill. Brentwood is a neighborhood of continually changing faces, with so many renters barely hanging on. So when my father is telling me to stay indoors at night, he’s thinking that there’s this enormous swath of gang-controlled jungle in Portland. Roving AK-47 battles, graffiti sprayed onto people standing still too long and such. The problem being, he was speaking from true experience, however outdated it was. Up until the last ten years, there was serious gang activity stretching across much of the inner city. Those days are over — the gangs still hold sway on their historical turf, then they mostly go back home to East County. Many commute in, for lack of a better term, to shoot back at their rivals. There is this weird transition stage in places where these middle class, white hipsters have BBQ’s in the same parks where people get shot at, or just shot, many having no idea that the park hosts that kind of thing. The process of gentrification has transformed neighborhoods like Woodstock into the walkable, living room communities they are now, with the “rough patches” around the city becoming the smaller and smaller pockets in an increasingly suburbanized inner city. The people moving into formerly “rough areas” proudly announce their new urban roots when, in reality, the inner city of Portland has been transformed into a white middle class oasis.
When I moved in among “the oppressed” it was this lesson in self-destruction. Every remedy I came up with had been tried before, and had spectacularly failed. I suggested, in seriousness at times, that if the poor in my city knew what I knew, then things would change. I rooted for Occupy Wall Street when that was still a movement, with my primary desire in them being their bringing chaos. The poor could grab the keys of power away at any time, if not for their innumerable striations of division. Someday, I hope at times, these people would organize themselves, peacefully or not. It was painful to watch Marshall High School get shut down by Portland Public Schools, knowing that so few people in that community could advocate for themselves. The school’s attendance had dwindled for so long, and parents with any wherewithal had removed their children from that school long ago. The few remaining didn’t have the political or social clout to create the same level of resistance that other schools on the chopping block had mustered, and so Marshall was closed down. It was the easiest target, as is often the case with the poor, with immigrants and minorities, and the decision had little to do with results — the efficacy or the performance of the school in any way had little bearing on the discussion. I remember a single mother, one I knew to have a serious drug problem, getting pen and paper to create a petition among some of the other adults. She wouldn’t receive help, saying while rolling her eyes, “I know how to make a petition.” I saw her feeble effort much the same way that a board member would eventually see it, and it broke my heart.
I learned that my advocacy was self-promoting so much of the time. Their advocating for themselves wasn’t going to help me much, I realized, nor would it work as well as what I could do for them. It was layers of frustration coming to the surface, seeing my failure coupled with theirs — seeing the southeast community trampled in such a public way, with so little I could do about it. Maybe, I thought, they could learn to work the system the way that I could, despite the rung on the ladder on which they started, and eventually get ahead in the world. I thought for a long time that life was fair. Not fair in the sense that everyone has an equal hill to climb, or that everyone is genetically equal, but I surmised, everyone has 24 hours in a day. Someone born into poverty could pass me up if they were willing to go through the process, work harder than me, and with a little luck they could easily pass me by. This was the coach in me, wanting to poke the weakest kid on the team to excel, to work harder than the best player. It worked, at times, and generally it didn’t. It wasn’t true. There just isn’t any “fairness” in the world, not in the sense that I had hoped. And, to put it bluntly, as much as I could teach a young black man how to navigate this or that system — a job interview, a scholarship application, a networking gathering — I couldn’t teach the world to respond to him differently. People aren’t fair, not even the ones who try.
The solution for a time was to take bits and pieces of these ideas and add in a redefinition of success. Austerity as a means to thriving in the world. There was some truth in it, certainly, and I found that I enjoyed some level of austerity when compared with others my age. The lesson came from much of the costs of ministry. Collecting five dollars to pay for just part of a movie ticket was painful at times. Collecting hundreds for summer camp from a young person raised in scarcity was like a fight to the death. At the same time, I found that many young people, their parents, their friends, had some of the same signs of wealth that I had. Cell phones, new shoes, constantly shopping for the right socks or whatever. I thought, they could forgo some of the creature comforts and be content with less — it was shocking to see so many poor people who were obsessed with luxury items. Cool cars, gadgets, blowing money on food and all of this, TVs, and whatever else. It was ridiculous. I thought, if I could get enough people knowing how things really worked, “we” could rise up to some level of wealth.
The “we” thought, when it first crossed my mind, broke me apart inside. “Who is this we?” I thought to myself. This was a years’ process, probably six years, before I was so entrenched and so ingrained in these people that they were me, and I was them. My solutions switched to things that they could do different to things that I was doing as one of them. The visions changed from mapping out how they could take some kind of detour in their lives to catch up to me to these young people being themselves. There would be no journey through Portland State University’s business program, but a creative way for each of these young people to experience fullness in their own way. The white, middle class dream was a lie in the first place, I realized. My identity was up for grabs, with so much rejection behind me, but because the superficial trappings of that former life were so temporary. I couldn’t draw “my people” into something that was fleeting and hollow. I tried it, and it wasn’t working. I looked back at my process, and I felt like I was trying to bargain with the world. Let me trade places with some of these people, give me their skin color and they can have my privilege. Or, I was trying to bargain with my people directly, trying to get them to fit themselves into my life trajectory. I didn’t even know where my life was headed, first of all, and I see now that there was a hope in hopelessness that was destroying me. I was paying penance, basically, for the guilt of my real sin and the guilt of my inheritance. The “white guilt” thing is a lie, but it drove me where God wanted me to be. I was hoping that I would earn my way back to prosperity by bringing some poor people back with me. To put it another way, I was hoping to work off my self-imposed purgatory among the poor. It was that this place and these people were a temporary means to my spiritual end. And then, the plan went, after I had earned my way back, and with a few “fixed” poor people behind me, I would live out the rest of my days all the better for it. That dream died, again and again, with every remedy I could offer. It died when I found out that Jesus was so incredibly, beautifully among the poor. The death knell of this vision and this hope was when I realized how hopeless it was to try and earn my way back into God’s good graces — I was lying to myself about what God thought about me, the way I was born, the crimes I’ve committed. I was lied to about my identity. When “they” became “we” was around the time I saw my hope shift from a God-ordained exit to my staying here forever. I can’t “go home” because these people are my home. This isn’t a mission trip — going back to the suburbs has become my mission field. I wanted to, I want to be with my people forever. God, I so love the people you have given me!
The mystical, spiritual reality superimposes the practical reality. I still struggle, though my identity has been cemented, with wanting everyone to live like they lived in Sellwood and East Moreland, with the four thousand square foot homes for two retired people. I thought at times, if only everyone could live in such abundance. For a while, I would correct, harshly at times, the way that poor people talked about money. Saying things like, “When I have money I will start saving,” and other stupid shit drove me crazy. “Do you hear yourself?” I would ask. I moved from wanting to raise the level of the poor to wanting to smash the rich, to turn the tools of oppression around against them. If the poor would stop turning on themselves, killing each other, and taking the fight to the hills, then we would get somewhere. Not in a grandiose way, but slowly over time, we could break enough windows and jaws to level out the world. Violence was the answer, I considered. It had worked before, in country-wide revolutions, where the workers and the poor had thrown off their chains. But there were no chains to point to for my people.
I found, so many times, that these “poor people” would not call themselves poor. It’s always that those other people are poor. I talked to a young woman on government assistance, eight people living in one two bedroom house, one adults working a minimum wage job to support them — she considered herself middle class. There are the ubiquitous hoop dreams, kids thinking the NFL or NBA are going to pick them up out of poverty, along with the rest of their family. And there is the lie of equality that so many believe. Despite all evidence to the contrary, there is both the assumption of equal treatment by authorities and such, but also the animosity towards them. A young black man shared with me his claim of equality, how he has experienced fairness and sees no disadvantage to his race, but followed that up with dozens of stories about harassment by security, police, teachers, comments by neighbors and strangers. It was dizzying, the paradoxical self-delusion and angst. All these people living in incredibly hard situations, even when considering softball issues, were incredibly angry about their situation, but were too prideful to label it “poverty” or “oppression” or any such thing, and — this is the kicker — were blindly lashing out at anyone and everything. “If it wasn’t for Bush, or Obama, or for my dad, or for this teacher or for that coach…” And it’s not just poverty, but the wealth is so often the means to power and self-determination, among so many other things.
I’ve found that it’s not that people in general hate any particular race, save for a handful of the KKK holdouts and such, it’s that people hate the poor. When someone describes “that guy” that they find obnoxious, it’s not a generic black person, it’s a poor black person. Poor, uneducated, breaking all of the social norms and expectations present in the situation. People don’t hate immigrants, they hate poor immigrants. Name any minority, any group. If they are educated, cleaned up, wealthy, if they have good manners, they could be any color and they would be acceptable. There are no “reconciliation” conversations between poor white people and poor black people. There are the “model minority” stereotypes that point to the hard-working, middle class, competitive and overachieving types — the Japanese, Ukrainians, the second and third generation Mexicans. Somewhere along the line, there is this divide between who was acceptable in the mainstream and who wasn’t, and the poor are always on the outs. I remember the murder of Larry Ma, a young Vietnamese man who had just graduated from David Douglas High School a few months before he got shot. Someone came up behind him, fired a few rounds into his back as he sat in the driver’s seat of his luxury car, and got away. The young man crashed his car into a fence, trying to get away himself, before he bled out and died. The newspaper articles about him were written with superficial information about him. The murder didn’t make sense, the articles said. He had a perfect GPA, graduated top of his class, and came from a solid, tight knit family. They were middle class, too. Classmates who knew him, friends and such, knew that he carried a handgun to school and was involved with some fairly high level drug dealing. What got him killed didn’t fit with the traditional stereotype of the dropout, the absent teen father, or the broken home. He dressed pretty nice, so the gang tattoos and bandanas didn’t give away the criminal in him. The academic and social achievements — he was incredibly articulate by the way — confounded the racial stereotypes of gang violence and the standards of gang culture. The point being that cultural assumptions don’t measure up against the multiple layers of division and brokenness in the world. The problems for Larry Ma were, by nature of his Vietnamese culture and so many other factors, incredibly well hidden. The common vein is oppression, spiritual and real, but also oppression playing itself out in the carnal, worldly wars between rich and poor, black and white, criminal versus establishment. Boys like Larry Ma are spiritually oppressed the same as the Crips in East County, the same as the richest, whitest family living on the hills in West Linn. This is because we are one and the same. This is because the oppression of one is the oppression of all. And, this is because the superficial means of separation are a lie at the outset — the marks of unity, like education and signs of wealth, are a lie the same.
On the other side of that bridge, “love” over the deepest divide of incompatibilities, was my being one of them. Not just being with them in the relational and structural sense, although that was a means to the same end, but being them. The fate of these oppressed people is my fate. On a world scale, and certainly in the spiritual realm, the treatment of the least is the measure of the good of an individual and of a community. There’s not this optional act of service or charity in which I, or the collective, participate in at times. In that way, the oppression here, and anywhere, is the oppression of us all. Sex trafficking, slavery overseas, forced prison labor in China, and all of this is not “someone else’s problem” if we understand who God is. This discovery, as I finally crossed over that bridge and left behind my old identity, became a revelation. The oppression in my world, even as I benefited from this oppression, was done to me in the spiritual realm. It wasn’t this binary way, with either my being the oppressor or the oppressed, so much as the reality of oneness. The tyranny inflicted on others is inflicted on me. The material, social, or other gains are lost in the spirit, in the Kingdom, as I look over my balance sheet. Making my life one with theirs, choosing to be with them, living on their side of the divide, brought about a whole new level of pain, joy, unity, and hope. I had gotten over my self-hatred enough that, in seeing myself in them and them in me, I could love the “others” through anything. And what happened to them stirred up in me the same righteous indignation that I would feel if say, for instance, my wife was under the boot of society as well. What’s true, and found in Jesus’s prayer for his followers, was that we would experience oneness in the same way that Jesus was one with the Father. It was a received and claimed identity as “one of them,” now us in my world, but it is the ultimate aim of any loving Christian. The kind of advocacy to which I aspire is sourced in a moving from indifference to a claim of responsibility. I am pointing to the reality that we are living in the lie of “survival of the fittest,” social darwinism that has been intermingled with Christianity. The counter is true — whether one is beholden to the ideals of our meritocracy or not doesn’t matter — we are created by the Creator, and we are ultimately one in substance and one community. The divisions in which we live are sin-created and man-created, and the tools of oppression and exploitation are wholly sinful. And in that, I am oppressed on behalf of the oppressed, even while I am so much the beneficiary of the systems of exploitation. Finally, there is a way around this.