On Keeping up with the Jones: Wearing Birkenstocks and other Reflections

A little known fact about me: I grew up in poverty. Not the abject kind, but the kind that meant my mom’s income was below the poverty line my entire life (except for maybe one year). The kind where I know what it means to go to a foodshelf; to not have any groceries.

The kind where I know what it means to have people give you dirty looks when you use food stamps or an EBT card to pay for groceries. The kind where kids make fun of your clothes because they are from garage sales. The kind where your parent knows where all of the community meals are and you get fed by people who are doing community service. The kind where you hear the adults in your life talk about “those lazy welfare people” and you know they are talking about you.

I also grew up deeply entrenched in my faith community. My spirituality was the lens through which I made sense of everything else.

And I was told that to be a Christian was to be a Republican.

I was taught, in essence, to hate myself. To despise those statistics like me…the ones who took from the system. The ones who were destined to have babies in their teenage years (yes, people did actually say that to me). I was going to be fat, on welfare, and a drain on the entire economy.

And internally I wrestled with this.

I was supposed to be Republican because Republicans were pro-life. Not like those anti-Christian Democrats…the ones who thought government should replace the church. The ones who loved the gays.

And yet, there I was: the only family in my church with a single parent. The one who recognized that my mom was always treated like a second-class citizen because she committed adultery. Clearly our poverty was a result of her sin.

Clearly I was doomed to repeat her follies.

I, the non-homeschooled. I, the female. I, the welfare recipient.

Yet, I was divided against myself. The very party I was told I had to vote for is the one that didn’t support my benefits. The one that said tax breaks would allow individuals to donate to charities that would then do work that government shouldn’t.

But I wasn’t born yesterday.

I was born in 1981.

And since then I’ve learned a few things.

Like that if you give tax breaks…very few people would give the charities any money. They would (as I do) use their money to do things like buy new toys.

Like the church that was supposed to care for the least of these never once volunteered to help my mom out with her lack of finances.

And so when in 2001 I sat at a table with Del Tackett (now President of Focus on the Family) I argued with him against the Bush-era tax cuts.

And yet, I…I have learned to pass.

Early on I learned this well.

-I did well in school to refute the stats that “people like me” can’t succeed.
-I didn’t get pregnant to prove that even without a dad around all of the time I could make my way in life.
-I didn’t date so that I could be a female with a future in leadership.
-I excelled in sunday school and know the Bible better than most men
-I got a job and I got promoted. I bought a house. I bought furniture from Crate and Barrel.

And now here I am. 31 years old. I am not your statistic. Yet my history is part of who I am.

And the Birkenstocks…why do they matter?

You see…I haven’t worn them in years. They have been up in my closet. They are no longer the trend. But I like them. I love the way that being a hippie is part of me.

I love that growing up poor continues to challenge me to get outside of myself and see the world.

I have tried keeping up with the Jones.

I have tried to play the game.

And then I have remembered. That up on the shelf, in my closet is a box with Birkenstocks.

And they remind me of the girl who fought hard.
Of the judgement I faced as a kid.
Of a mom who tried her best but needed welfare because without it she couldn’t have made it.
Of the section 8 housing I grew up in.
Of my gratitude to the systems that kept me alive.
Of how much I love school and how it has given me hope that a different future is possible.

And that above all…I am connected. To every man, woman, infant, child.

That my riches come at the expense of others.

And that their poverty is not because they are lazy.
That even pregnant girls at 15 matter in the world.
That my judgement should not be directed at those with less but at myself.

And that above all in this world…that each of us have a box in the closet. The part of our past that we have learned to hide.

And if only, if only we could pull our poverty out of the closet. To “come out” in the way we each need.

That our poverty and our humanity will allow us to truly live…
to live in compassion and humility and grace.

That when we see our poverty we can see our brothers and sisters, for we can see ourselves.

So I’m wearing my Birkenstocks as my act of defiance.

I am Sara. I am not a statistic. And I am done hiding.

To the poverty we all share…

20 thoughts on “On Keeping up with the Jones: Wearing Birkenstocks and other Reflections

  1. Thank you for writing this brilliant reflection on your past and your present. I can relate to so much of your upbringing, and I admire your perseverance and integrity. Your story should not be silent or hidden. You have pushed me today to want to treat all people with care, dignity, and understanding. The birkenstocks suit you well! Jenny K

  2. Sara, thank you for your courage in honesty! This is such a beautiful piece and I can tell you poured your hear out writing this, and it really is a powerful post to read. Oh my gosh, I can’t tell you how many times during this election year I’ve heard this polarized narrative of Christians on one side and Republicans on the other, and there can’t possibly be any Christians that are Democrats or anything other than Republicans, and that is simply not true. You’ve put a human face on why voting with care, research, and conversation matters. Thank you for inspiring me and countless others to be authentically ourselves.

  3. Sing me an anthem of my heart dear sister, and I will listen and sing along! Thank you Sara. I totally understand. I miss & love you!

  4. Sara, your post so resonated with me in more than one level. But not from my past so much but what I do and where we are at presently. I work with the people that are utilizing the system not b/c they are lazy but b/c their mental health is such that they can’t work. I work with people that have a multitude of disabilities that keep them stuck. I also work with those that would benefit from help but don’t qualify and what risk that it puts them in. I work with all the people that are “at risk” and multiple reasons why they shouldn’t be doing as well as they are. The faces and their stories are exactly why I am unaffiliated and probably labeled a “moderate”. I will never support “pull yourself up by the boot straps thinking” b/c it is not possible and it is not biblical. Then there is me and my family. We are both working full time and cannot afford to buy food or fill up our tanks in our vehicles. If I qualified for food stamps I would utilize it right now b/c things are so tight. I have utilized WIC. I have applied for daycare assistance. I have applied for Medicaid/CHP+. Like I said there is no judgment here. P.S. I would have loved to have been there to hear your conversation about the Bush era tax cuts πŸ™‚ That makes me smile just thinking about it.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing! It is great hearing from you. Part of my hope in this post was to encourage the idea that all issues are complex and always involve real people. Your sharing reminds us of that. Thank you!

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