Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.


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Poverty and Worth – What Society Still Needs to Learn from Dr. King

Normally I keep this space for my personal reflections, but today I am breaking my own rule and cross posting a piece I wrote for the non-profit organization I am privileged to serve as executive director.

The piece is, in that sense, “professional,” but it is also very personal for me as it reflects on one of the influences that has shaped my own understanding of how to live out my faith in the world: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was lucky enough to take a semester-long course on King’s theology and social action during my seminary studies and those studies encouraged my emerging belief that the work of social justice could emphatically be ministry. I am now living out the effort to engage just such a ministry. It is much harder than it sounded in the hallowed halls of Princeton Seminary, and the daily grind of e-mails, and website edits, and politically worded communications often feel nothing at all like the work of the Kingdom. That’s why it is so very meaningful to me to be able to look to the words of a great leader like King and see that the work I am doing is about something so fundamental and holy as basic human worth.

You can read original post here.

 


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Lessons in leaves

Autumn is a time for messes. Leaves fall from trees and make messes of lawns. Return to school rearranges schedules and makes messes out of lingering, lazy summer habits. Shifting weather demands widely divergent clothing from one day to the next, making messes of tiny closets forced to fit to two season’s worth of clothes.

And, I suppose, these shifts also tend to make messes in my mind. Much as I tend to live in the future – always planning for what comes next – the actual experience of the shift tends to overwhelm me and disturb me with the reminder that I really have very little control over much of anything.

Today I experienced one such reminder, and also an antidote, at least of sorts.

I spent 90-odd minutes of the afternoon watching a heartbreaking film, with my darling 7-year-old Princess Imagination cuddled beside me. The film was American Winter, and I was watching it because I am a panelist for a screening event tomorrow afternoon and I needed to know its content in order to prepare something intelligent to say about it. The film shares the devastating stories of 8 families who were basically flattened by the Great Recession. They were families experiencing homelessness and hunger, unemployment and foreclosure. They faced moments and months of stress, anxiety, and despair, and while the film also reported some glimmers of hope, there was not a nice, neat happy ending for most of them.

These are stories I have heard too many times, and stories that are in one sense my stock in trade – the reasons I go to work each day as well as the way in which I argue and plead for economic justice. But watching them with my sweet daughter at my side was something new. She kept asking questions – questions that made me stop my analytical assessment of how to frame my response and actually engage the pain spilled out across my screen. Her most frequent question was why, and the aching quaver in her voice spoke both of her innocence and of the innocence I’ve lost.

I was shaken by her horror that such things actually happen to people. That parents skip meals so that their children can eat. That children feel responsible for making sure their mom packs herself a lunch. That widows and their sons have to sleep on cots in shelters, and that families live for a month with no water and no electricity. I was shaken because these things truly are horrible, and once I get past my defense mechanisms as a professional advocate, I still don’t know how to deal with it.

I’ve committed my career to fighting poverty and I work hard at it. I can rattle off my economic arguments against trickle-down theories and list 5, or 10, or 15 policy changes that would make a practical difference for families trapped by poverty. But I don’t know what to do when my daughter’s eyes fill with tears about the pain of strangers. And when her soft, shaken voice whispers into my shoulder her confession that “I’m glad we don’t have to live like that,” my heart must honestly respond “me too.”

And so, my mind and my heart were a bit of a mess this afternoon, when the kids asked permission to go outside after the film. We took our big bucket of chalk out to our ample driveway to draw pictures and little messages of love. Then the mess of leaves strewn across our yard challenged an attack. So, we took up rakes and sallied forth to do battle. We conquered one small corner, and then conceded some of the hard-fought ground to celebratory pile-jumping and complicated maneuvers involving the red wagon as a transport device ill-equipped to move children and leaves in the same load.

It was a simple, silly afternoon and I was poignantly aware of just how fortunate we are to have that chance.

AND – I watched the light dance in my daughter’s eyes more delicately than the leaves she was throwing into the air, and that light lifted the cloud from my own heart.

The mess isn’t gone. My heart is touched anew with the pain that drew me to this work. I’m chafing at my own inability to bring order to an economic system that is leaving millions behind. And yet – the falling leaves call for play. And my guilt won’t help the families who have lost their own lawns. And sometimes, the best thing we can do with a mess is let the children play in it – knowing that, at least, I am teaching them to want enough for everyone.


 

To rediscover joy in curled brown leaves,

To squeal with giggles just to watch them fly

To live a moment wholly free from griefs

Despite a world that tells my heart to cry

 

To rake up leaves then scatter them again

To watch sun set and know we’ll still have light

To feel the stab of joy that’s taught by pain

This blessing and this weight I feel tonight.

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Baby, It’s Cold Inside – My Winter of Apathy

I joked yesterday about the wonderfully “warm” welcome New Jersey is offering us, because yesterday the thermometer actually reached above 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Considering that most days this month the sun has struggled to warm this little corner of the planet to the miserable benchmark of 20 degrees, and the moon has supervised nightly dips into the single digits, this was progress! Today, unfortunately, we were back in familiar territory.

In other words. IT IS COLD!

For a California girl, born and bred, this kind of weather is nothing short of miserable. I am wearing my snow boots days after the sidewalks are clear just for the warmth. I am shoving my hands into thick, unwieldy ski gloves for the 20-odd steps from my front door to my car. I am surrendering my habitual air dry for the hot, soothing breath of my hairdryer on my towel-dried locks. Anything to stop the creeping chill from taking advantage of an incautious opening to lock its icy fingers on my bones and make me resent the 14 years of rich life experience that have held me captive away from the warm Golden State of my youth.

What has me up late this night, however, is not the cold. At least, it is not the frigid outdoor temperatures. Rather, it is the realization that all my precautions have come too late. Somehow, insidiously, when I wasn’t looking, the cold has wormed its way into a much more dangerous place.

It was a conversation with Princess Imagination several days ago that first began to thaw the lock on my awareness. We had just completed the shuffling hustle from front door to car. I had wrestled the seat belts over layers of sweaters and scarves and winter coats to buckle us all safely into our minivan for the ride to school. I had waited impatiently for the car’s engine to heat up sufficiently to begin pumping heated air through the vents to dissipate the steam from our exhaling breath. I might have said a little after-thought prayer of thankfulness for the blessing of a functioning heater, although if I did I’m not sure that I engaged the thought sufficiently to really direct it to the personal God I claim as the center of my life. I was still too cold to really think about anyone other than the woman whose sensory perceptions register with my consciousness. Then came the question.

“Mommy, when it snows, what do the people without homes do?”

It’s a complicated question, really. There are so many ways to define the homeless, and so many ways to parse the quicksand system of safety net programs, charitable services, informal networks, and personal ingenuity on which the most desperate members of our society depend for shelter. As an “issue” homelessness is something I have studied and professed concern about since college, if not before. For probably close to 20 years I have ranked this at or near the top of the social policy topics that I care about. There was a time when I could have identified exactly where to go to find the nearest shelter or EA hotel*, and could have delivered an impromptu testimony for a state committee about the tragic gaps in the system. I’m a bit rusty after three years out of the country, but I still probably know more than 95 percent of the residents of New Jersey, and I am definitely more knowledgeable than 99 percent of the portion of the state’s residents who have never had to find out for personal reasons.

But none of that knowledge was what my daughter was interested in. She wanted to know about the people. Her six-year old brain had processed the sensations of bitter cold on her skin, and the images of white-blanketed fields and bushes, and she knew something was wrong. No one could possible sleep outside in this kind of weather, so she wanted to know what happened to the people who don’t have homes.

I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t really engage her question. Not the way I should have. I talked a little about shelters, but my answers weren’t terribly satisfying so she dropped the subject. And I let it drop. Maybe because a 15 minute drive to school, battling traffic and snow glare, is not really the time to sensitively talk to my 1st grader about a pervasive social evil. Maybe because I just didn’t know what to say. Her question was so real and devastating, and I didn’t have the emotional empathy to respond to it the way it deserved.

I haven’t brought it up again. To be honest, I haven’t even thought about it much until this night. There have certainly been chances. Her class discussions of Dr. King’s legacy in the days surrounding the holiday have captured her imagination. She has spent significant free time reading about his work, watching the library video “Martin’s Big Words”, and engaging me in dialogue on the whole range of issues he fought for, including economic justice. This week her school is collecting canned goods for the local food panty, so we went shopping together on Sunday to pick out our donations, which she is taking in small 2-3 pound batches to class each day (she has a big heart, but scrawny arms). Even the Gigglemonster piped up today on the way home from school, reminding me that some children don’t have enough money to buy clothes, so maybe Mommy should go back to the store where I bought his new monster shirt (his latest pride and joy) and buy monster shirts for all of those children too.

All of this sweet, naïve, wonderful compassion that my children express for the less fortunate makes my heart glow. I must be doing something right as a parent for my relatively sheltered, privileged children to be so empathic about poverty-related deprivations. It’s all very heart-warming.

Until I realize just how cold my heart has grown. The realization came just before we turned off the TV to go to bed tonight. I wasn’t even watching but my ears caught the plug for the instant-win prize pool in the New Jersey Lottery. And my imagination was off. There are 10, count them 10 $1 million cash prizes just a scratch away. What if I bought a lottery ticket for the first time in 18 years? What If I won the million? Imagine what that would mean! We could make a really significant contribution to the kids’ college savings accounts. I wouldn’t have to start looking for a job right away. I could finish my book, maybe write another. Maybe I could do some volunteering.

It took until that step in my internal soliloquy before I realized just how self-absorbed I have become. There was a time, a young, idealistic time, when fantasies of coming into a sudden windfall automatically triggered internal debates about which charities I would prioritize in using my new wealth to do good. Now, I look at money as an escape from the obligation of returning to work in a field that at least tries to make a difference in the war on poverty.

It’s not that I don’t care anymore. I know that. The part of my heart that hasn’t frozen over to concerns beyond my doorstep still cares deeply about poverty, and homelessness, and the intense injustice of systems that give me and my family the opportunity for so much when so many are struggling just to survive. I do care. But I’ve lost faith in the solutions.

The research and policy work I did before we left New Jersey was important, and gripping, and I poured my soul into it … and it didn’t seem to make that much difference.

I stepped away from it for a few years and started listening to the rest of the culture (both America’s and the world’s) that couldn’t care less. I started feeling like nothing will ever change until people’s hearts change. Part of me wants desperately to be a voice that can change those hearts, but then I see how easily their apathy seeps into my own heart, and my hands drop listlessly to my side, unable to pen the words that will kindle the fire.

Is America’s heart really warm enough to care about what happens to people without homes when it snows?  To really care, rather than looking around for the nearest shelter or welfare program that is supposed to deal with that problem for us? If my advocate’s heart can’t ignite at that question from the lips of my own daughter, how can I expect anyone else to shrug off the icy blanket of apathy and start to change?

Part of me wants to stop trying, to relax into the deceptive warmth of hypothermia and gently drift away into my personal American Dream. After all, I don’t HAVE to care. My family is among the privileged, shrinking few.

But my daughter’s warmth is stinging me. My son’s innocent generosity is shaming me. If it’s cold outside it is all the more important that I reignite the flames in my own heart. Or rather, that I seek the spark to ignite them. I can’t do it on my own.

In part that spark comes from my faith, which is always my eternal source: the God who shrugged off the form of godhead to take on “the form of a slave… even human likeness” and suffered every pain to breathe life back into my heart, such a God is the only flame that can thaw an iceberg the size of affluent apathy.

But I also wonder if you wouldn’t mind throwing a stick on the fire. Would you take a minute to inspire me? Recount a story about America’s compassion. Tell me what you are doing to keep out the cold. Give me your reasons for fighting against apathy. Say a prayer for me. Or maybe, by some miracle, tell me that my words made a difference in helping to speed the thaw in your own heart.

I could use some company.

*EA is the shorthand name for Emergency Assistance – a temporary payment for housing costs available (with multiple restrictions and eligibility requirements) to recipients of cash assistance, better known as welfare.


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Love and Pain

Various experiences this past Tuesday combined to confront me with the fragility we must embrace when we become mothers (parents). To bear and raise children opens our lives to a kind of love that empowers us to do things we never could have done before, but it also leaves us vulnerable to the hurts we cannot fix for our children. I am so grateful that, so far at least, my children’s pains have not been shattering. They are young enough that Tyler and I can protect them from most dangers, and the unavoidable ones have not targeted us for devastation. I know, however, that security today offers no guarantees for tomorrow. They are growing; their worlds are expanding; and there are so many, many ways that they could be hurt.

When I confront those dangers, my first instinct is to hold on tight. To try to gather my little ones to my breast and hold the evil world at bay.  When my spunky little Gigglemonster banged his head jumping onto his bed, I jumped to snuggle him into a little ball of comfort on my lap, offering kisses and ice and soothing sounds as he cried. But he didn’t want to stay there. He wanted to jump again, and hit his head again! I stopped that particular activity, of course, and other than a temporary goose egg on the top of his head there was no lasting harm to my little adventurer. But the jolt of panic when he let out that first scream left an echo in my soul. An urgent imperative that I have to protect my child.

Then I met Madonna on the street in the course of my morning, the young mother who begs on my street and whose struggles with deep poverty I have discussed in an earlier post (see Encountering My Privilege: https://faithfamilyandfocaccia.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/encountering-my-privilege/). I could tell something was wrong just from her face, and as we talked she explained that her daughter was sick. Madonna’s two children are back in Romania with family while Madonna and her husband try to earn money in Italy to send home. The family caring for them allowed the kids to play in some dirty water during a heat spell, and now the daughter had pneumonia. I can only imagine the panic that must create for Madonna – unable even to stroke her hand across her daughter’s forehead to impart a momentary coolness against the pain of fever, she must somehow find money now for medicine, not just food. I did what I could, and she was effusive in her thanks, but the encounter left me a bit shaken. What must it be to lack the resources to buy your own child medicine when they are sick?

Then I followed a friend’s Facebook link to a moving music video. It shows a young man, Zach Sobiech, performing his song “Clouds”, which he wrote about his experience of approaching death from cancer. The video cuts between shots of him singing and playing his guitar, short descriptions of the path his cancer journey has taken, and brief moments of his interactions with his family, including his mother whose adoring smile at him is an eloquent testimony of her love and pride in her son. The link that led me to this heart-breaking video explained that he had finally “found the clouds” after his long struggle. Watching his mother smile up into his face as the video played, I can only image the pain in her heart as she deals with that loss.

That afternoon, as I hugged my two healthy, happy children whom I get to see and love every day, my heart was broken for so many mothers who don’t have that joy today; so many mothers whose children face dangers they simply cannot protect them from. I offered prayers for Madonna, and for Zach’s mother, because I believe in prayer and I believe it can heal. But I also know that too often the promise “I will pray for you” becomes a trite and shallow offering that we can use to insulate ourselves from the pain another person is suffering. I don’t want to insulate myself from the pain. Every mother in the world is my sister, and I don’t want even one of them to feel that she is crying alone.

So I dedicate the poem this day’s encounters inspired in me to every mother who is crying today. You are not crying alone.

“Mommy, my head hurts!”

The joyful play

of yesterday

has left a painful bruise.

So, I kiss, give a rub

and a warm, gentle hug,

reassured, this brief pain he will lose.

“Mommy, it hurts to breathe.”

Her ears can’t refuse

the frightening news,

‘Your daughter is sick in Romania.’

With cupboards bare

and nothing to spare,

How to cover the cost of pneumonia?

“Mom, there’s not much time.”

A young man’s song

pulls my heart along

on the painful, ending journey.

He’s now found the clouds,

but his song still plays loud

for the mother he left, now in mourning.

“Mommy, why are you crying?”

How can I explain

the bittersweet pain

of holding my own children tight,

when I know of the loss

and the fear and the cost

for those mothers who face pain each night?

“Sister, I will cry with you.”

When love meets with pain

that can rend and can stain

all the joy that your child inspires,

may a chorus of voices

discard other choices

to give sympathy that never tires.

And may all of your tears

and your doubt and your fears

rest in love that flows now to you.

You are not alone.

My hearts hears you moan.

And my prayer seeks the God who renews.

 

(For now – I am relishing the laughter)

bubble rolling new haircut photo Princess Imagination


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Encountering My Privilege

Today brought me an unexpected encounter with my own privilege that has left me floundering for an adequate response.

The day started out normally enough. I woke up a bit late because of yet another epic battle with the Gigglemonster about going to bed and staying asleep in his own bed all night (we are into week two of this new phase and it is leaving Tyler and I both exhausted, frustrated, and completely at a loss for how to master this new emergence of the monster side of our son’s personality). Consequently it was a bit of a rush to get the kids dressed and ready and out the door in time for school. We missed my target departure time by 11 minutes, but we still managed to enter the school just before the fateful hour when they close the main gate and the only entry available is through the shame-shrouded side door.

From there I waved a greeting to a few moms from the Gigglemonster’s class who were all looking very sleek and Milanese on their way to grab un buon caffe, and despite their warm friendly smiles I was painfully aware of my unwashed hair and muddy jogging shoes . Then I was off for my training run. I am signed up to “race” in the Stramilanino in 4 weeks. It is a non-competitive 10 kilometer organized run through the heart of Milan, and it is only a race in the very loosest sense. In my case the goal is simply to run/jog the whole way (completely disregarding time), but the fact that until a few weeks ago I had never in my life run even 5 kilometers in one go means that I am in training. Today the goal was 6.4 kilometers (4 miles for all my American friends) and it was my longest run to-date. I had mapped a circuitous course that took me from the school through some of the quieter neighborhoods of Southeastern Milan and up around Porta Romana to finish up at my own front door (I’ll walk back to school the afternoon where my car is conveniently waiting the drive the kiddos home). The run started out a bit labored with the cold air hitting my morning-fogged lungs, but my route offered lots of sunshine and I soon warmed up. I had my ridiculously over-priced but oh-so-wonderful running jacket (thanks to my wonderful mother-in-law’s thoughtful Christmas shopping), and its convenient sleeve pocket nestled my i-phone so that it could deliver Eye of the Tiger and other suitable exercise inspiration via earphones to my waiting brain.

I managed the run in 46 minutes and didn’t even huff too much on the long hill over the train tracks, and I felt good. I decided to run a few extra meters to the end of the block where I could cross over to one of my all-time favorite spots in Milan – the Forno Ambrosiano bakery. In addition to their focaccia (which truly is ambrosia), the Carnevale and Lenten seasons bring an additional high-calorie indulgence that is worth every extra pound: tortelli vuoti. The closest corollary that I can describe for those who have not tasted this magical confection is donut holes, but those are only a poor shadow of this greasy, sugary goodness. The bakery offers two other varieties (filled with crème custard or nutella), but our family always opts for the vuoti (meaning literally empty – so that there is nothing to compete with the taste of melt-in-your mouth sugar-coated fried batter balls). Understandably, this variety usually runs out first, and thus my decision to head to the bakery first, rather than stopping home for a much-needed shower. As I sprinted down the last 100 meters of sidewalk I passed Madonna, and began an internal dialogue about how to approach my return journey to my front door.

I should explain that Madonna is a woman who begs on the sidewalk  just outside the coffee shop that is 6 doors down from my building. I first got to know her about 4 or 5 months ago, when I asked her name as I dropped a small bill into her cup. In one of my college sociology classes a professor encouraged our class of generally liberal, faith-minded idealists to consider how to make our charity more humanizing. She suggested that one of the worst things about extreme poverty is the way that it cuts you off from social interaction. Those who are reduced to begging for change generally meet two reactions – either averted eyes that pretend not to notice them, or eyes that watch the small donation of loose change into their cup, but never make contact with their own. Professor Alexander didn’t insist that we should give to every panhandler we encountered, but she said that if we do choose to give, we should try to do so in a way that makes a human connection. Make eye contact, ask their name, offer an encouraging word, if time permits offer to buy them a sandwich and sit with them while they eat. Give them more than just loose change – give them the respect they deserve as a fellow child of God.

I’ve always remembered that advice and I try to put it into practice when possible. I certainly don’t give to every panhandler I see, and I can’t claim to have any admirable system or criteria for deciding when I do. Most often it has mostly to do with how easily I can access a suitable denomination of coin and how much of a rush I am in at the time. However, on my way home from school one day in late September or early October I dropped a contribution into Madonna’s cup and made eye contact with a smile. Her responsive smile was enveloping, and she offered an enthusiastic thanks. We had a brief conversation, hampered by the limited Italian that is our only common language (she is from Romania), but eased by the responsiveness of her eyes and smile. It was a moment of humanity, and since then I have felt a certain connection with Madonna. I won’t claim that there are never times I pass without offering her a contribution – when I am balancing shopping bags and whining children or when I am completing or starting a training run and I have no money with me, but I always try to at least make eye contact and smile, and she does the same, usually with a friendly “Ciao, Bella” as well.

Then came the run-up to Christmas and all the business and activity that involves. I had not talked with Madonna for a week or two with all my rushing about, and I had been thinking (with a degree of self-satisfaction I am ashamed to admit) that the next time we met I would ask her what her two children would like for Christmas. I imagined the opportunity to take Princess Imagination on a shopping trip to pick out Christmas gifts for her 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter and what a great chance that would be to reinforce the lessons we are trying to teach her about generosity and passing on the blessings we have received. When I stopped one morning to hand Madonna a small bill, however, the interaction did not go as I had planned. She held my hand in both of hers, looked into my eyes with a look of desperation and explained that she had been hoping to see me. Her son had told her that the only thing he wanted for Christmas was to go home to Romania to see their family, but she couldn’t afford the tickets. She had asked everyone she could, but she was still short by a substantial sum. The price was not really that high in the context of my life — perhaps the equivalent of two dinners out for Tyler, myself and the kids — but it was certainly more than I had ever given to someone on the street.

I was taken aback. Suddenly my warm and fuzzy sense of generosity was replaced by discomfort and even fear. Was the story true? Had the relationship I felt we had been building been genuine, or was it just part of a long-con to get a large chunk from the naïve American? I was fairly sure I had been conned by another “young mother” a few months back for a smaller, though not insignificant, sum and I felt wary. My instincts to help clashed with all the stereotypes of class barriers and I did not want to be taken advantage of. I told her I would have to think about it, which I did.

I thought. I anguished. I avoided walking along that stretch of sidewalk for over a week to prevent any need to confront her searching eyes again.  And finally I prayed. I came to the decision that I wanted my life to be more characterized by love than by fear, by compassion than by distrust. It was money we could spare, and ultimately I believed she did have need. Whether the money was really to pay to take her and her children home to Romania or not, it didn’t really matter. I gave her the money a few days before I departed for my astronomically-more-expensive trip home to California (paid for by the company thanks to a generous expatriate contract), and I felt wonderfully at peace. I had no doubt that I had made the right decision, and the tears shining in her eyes as she clasped me in a hug of thanks were a very special Christmas present that confirmed my faith in the value of humanity in all human contacts.

When I returned to Milan in January I did not see Madonna for a few weeks. When I gave her the gift she had said something about perhaps not seeing me again if she could find a way to stay in Romania (or at least, I think that’s what she said – our communication is imperfect). I wondered whether that had happened. Perhaps she had found work, or her husband had, and they had been able to abandon the failed hope of a better life in Milano. I was glad to imagine that possibility for them, but I have to admit that I was also glad of the prospect of not facing her beseeching eyes again.

You see, what Professor Alexander had not talked about when she encouraged us to make human connections in our charity, was how that raises all the complications of human relationships. Issues of trust, and selfishness, and relative power, and judgment arise when you acknowledge someone else’s humanity. In the particular relationship of informal benefactor and recipient these dynamics twist every interaction into a distorted parody of the more natural interactions of our daily lives. We had no natural point of connection other than the passing of money and there were no rules or standards for how to govern that exchange. What was enough? What was too much? What right had I to control how my donations were spent? What expectation could she have that she could ask a large sum from me again? Once our exchange had gone beyond the occasional coins or small bills, there was an increased stake in our relationship, and I was quite happy to avoid that prospect. And so, I wished Madonna the best in Romania.

And then she appeared again. Her smile for me was warm, but I felt something else behind it (whether genuine or born from my anxiety I am not sure). She asked when I would be walking by again. She had made a video for me back in Romania, to thank me for my help and to show me where her family lived. She would bring it if I would tell her when. We made a date a few days out when I knew I would be able to walk down that short stretch of sidewalk, and I left. When that day arrived I felt oddly hesitant. Feet that have newly accustomed themselves to run several miles at least 3 or 4 times a week felt heavy and reluctant to traverse just 50 meters of pavement. But finally I ran out of other tasks that needed to be accomplished and I made the walk. Madonna smiled her same welcoming smile as I approached and chatted in her friendly sing-song voice. At first she did not mention the video. Rather she asked about the kids, and my trip home. She then inquired about my faith. I confirmed that I am a Christian and she said she had a feeling – something about me just shone. She was not a Christian herself, but her mother in law was, and she saw the same love in me. It was a lovely compliment, perhaps one of the most beautiful I have ever received, but it laid another weight on the burden of responsibility I had grown to feel toward her. Now my actions toward her reflected not just on myself, but explicitly on God as well. I hoped even more fervently to be spared any further obligation that might come with her promised video. Perhaps she had forgotten to bring it? Perhaps I would be spared that tangible, physical tether to her need? But as I made to pass on she dug a paper-wrapped DVD out of her bag and handed it to me with a little explanation. The video showed her home and her family in Romania – so that I could see where she had gone. And, if I wanted to do something more to help her, or if I wanted to show it to my friends to see if they would like to help, she would thank me deeply.

I left with a heart of lead. My fears were realized. The first request was being followed by more. I couldn’t just reach down my benevolent hand in a gesture of humanity and then retract it, with no sense of continued obligation. I was now her benefactor, with the potential (at least in her eyes) to identify still other benefactors as well. The video sat unwatched on a shelf in my house for several weeks. The thanks it promised to give felt tainted by the expectation of further gifts, and it made me deeply uncomfortable.

So again, I avoided that stretch of pavement during Madonna’s normal hours, or I loaded myself down with parcels or schedules that did not allow for extended conversation. She occasionally asked if I had watched the video, but I would explain I had not yet had time, and then rush on with my busy life.

Until today. Today, as I walked home from the bakery toting my bag full of tortelli vuoti, I lectured myself with Professor Alexander’s words about humanity, and with the reminder that my life reflects not just on me, but also on my Savior and Lord. So I stopped and talked to Madonna, after handing her today’s contribution. She remarked on my running gear and I explained about my training, telling her I had never done anything like this before, but now I had the time. She was complimentary and enthusiastic, as she always is. I began to feel a bit of the ease return to our interaction. As I made to leave she asked again if I had watched the video, and I smiled my reassurance. “Oggi” I promised – today. After all, if I had the time to train for a 10K run, certainly I had 10 or 15 minutes to watch a video.

So that is what I did. I did my post-run stretching on my very expensive, double-thick yoga mat, laid out in my spacious company-financed apartment and watched her DVD on my big flat-screen TV.

The contrast took my breath in a way that no run ever could. Her home in Romania looks like an abandoned farm building. Only one room has a fully intact roof and walls, and it is furnished with one hutch, one chair, and a large couch. In it are seated her two children, her sister-in-law and her three children, and her mother-in-law. The only other “room” in the house has gaps between the walls and the rafters and thatching that make-up what there is of a roof and contains only large piles of fire wood and a rudimentary kitchen with some cupboards and what I assume to be a wood-burning stove. There is no electricity, no running water, and no plumbing.

She also explains that her children do not go to school because they cannot afford it. Her 6-year-old could presumably go to public school but that requires money for books, for school meals, for clothes, and for other fees. They do not have any money, so he cannot go to school. She does not say it, but it is an unavoidable conclusion that he will be trapped forever in the same poverty he lives in now, without even the basic education with which his father cannot find work.

Madonna’s sweet voice and smile narrate the film, and it is not a hard sell. It is just an account of her life, and her expression of gratitude for what I have done to help her. She and her children smile at her friend’s video camera and wave good-bye with a chorus of “Ciao Bella.”

And I sit in shock. How could I have just stood in front of her in my expensive jogging paraphernalia, holding a bag of confections with no nutritional value, chatting about the luxury of training for a race, and finally condescended to watch her thank you video after a month of procrastinating. I took a minute for self-recrimination before I moved on to the even harder question. What could I do now?

Her need is desperate. There is no doubt of that. She and her husband came to Milan to seek a better life for their children, but without work their poverty here is still desperate, even if their home here might have complete walls or electricity. But what can I do?

I have only two resources. The first is money. But the money they need to really change their lives is far beyond what I can provide. Tyler and I are certainly comfortable, but we don’t have enough excess to permanently support another family.

The other resource is knowledge. But I don’t seem to have the kind of knowledge that can make a difference. I don’t have any way to connect Madonna’s family to more sustainable support. Tyler and I have no connections that can offer her husband employment, and I don’t have the least idea what social supports exist for her in this embattled and bankrupt state. As someone whose career (prior to this move) was in the fields of anti-poverty research and advocacy, that ignorance is humiliating, but difficult to remedy. In any such effort my language barrier combines fatally with the confusion and opacity that characterize the Italian social system, which Italian friends have told me make the system nearly impossible for even native Italians to navigate. The election held in Italy over the last two days has apparently decided almost nothing and the national and European economic pressure is certainly not the context for expansive relief programs for undocumented immigrants, so I doubt any of the parties of coalitions have any solutions in mind for Madonna.

There is nowhere to look for a solution to Madonna’s problems, and I am left sitting on my comfortable couch, in my warm apartment, typing on my laptop computer about how I don’t know what to do with this juxtaposition of privilege and pain. I know there are lots of social arguments out their about personal responsibility — not having children if you can’t support them; taking the legal road to immigration if you want to work; doing whatever it takes to earn an honest living — but I can’t blame her as a way to escape from her pain. She’s a human being. Her children are innocent victims of an impossible situation. They will probably never experience the comfort I take for granted every day. And I don’t know what to do about it.

And so, I have written this entry. It doesn’t have a pithy conclusion where I tie it all up with my moral of the story. It doesn’t chronicle any momentum decision I have made that I think worthy of sharing. All it does is give witness to the injustice of the contrast between my life and Madonna’s. If I can do nothing else, at least I can give witness.