Stop Complaining About People in Poverty (At Least Around Me)


I was out shoveling the snow a few days after the most recent blizzard, and it gave me a chance to catch up with my neighbor Aaron. He lives across the street. He’s an older, African-American fellow, really nice, and we always wave and chat for a bit when we see each other.

Anyway, we were out there shoveling, and he was telling me about how he has to get up at 4am to catch his ride to go for dialysis. His kidneys are failing. He had gotten the call just the other week that they had a kidney for him, but then plans changed, and it didn’t happen.

“Man,” he said, taking his time with the shovel, “I went all day without eating or drinking. Then they called and told me I couldn’t have that kidney.”

He shook his head with disappointment.

“That must be rough getting up at 4:30 in this,” I said, motioning to the mountains of snow. “Must be cold at 4:30.”

“Nah,” he said, smiling. “By 4:30? Things are starting to warm up that late in the morning.”

He laughed and shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe how gullible he was, believing his own words.

* * * * *

I walked across the street and gave my shovel to a woman trying to clear her sidewalk of two feet of snow with a dust pan.

“Looks like you could use this,” I said.

She smiled.

“I have to keep this sidewalk clear,” she said, embarrassed that she had to accept my simple offering. “My friend has a lot of medical issues. I have to make sure she can get out to an ambulance, if she needs to.”

“No worries,” I said. “If you need anything, let me know.”

* * * * *

I noticed an older woman two houses down. She was really struggling to clear the snow, so I went down to help her, and we started talking.

“My doctor said it’s okay for me to shovel snow, as long as I take lots of breaks,” she said.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“My husband and I, we both have cancer,” she said quietly. “But I’m doing better.”

* * * * *

This city is full of people in poverty. When you live in among them, when you become friends with them, when you see how hard they work and how little they get in return for that work, it will change the way you think about poverty. It will change the way you think about things like food stamps and disability, minimum wage and benefits.

I know single moms who walk their kids through the snow in the early morning dark, over a mile, just so they can get them to preschool. Then they walk to work at McDonald’s or the convention center or wash dishes for $8.75 an hour. They work as many hours as they can, and they’re always on the lookout for a second job.

I know dads who race home from working construction or warehouse jobs so they can coach their kid’s flag football team. The team my kid plays on.

I know parents who send their kids to these city schools, the ones we flippantly refer to as “failing schools,” because they don’t have other options. They don’t have the money for private school. They’re not in that massive place of privilege you have to inhabit to be able to homeschool. And they stay up late helping their kids do homework, and they wake up early and do it all again. Every. Single. Day.

* * * * *

Don’t talk to me about the people gaming the system. Don’t talk to me about how we should be drug-testing everyone on food stamps. Don’t talk to me about how the economy would collapse if we raised the minimum wage.

I’m tired of listening to my right-wing conservative friends complain about people in poverty while drinking their boutique beer and Instagramming their latest vacations. We live in a dream world, my friends. Of the billions of families on this planet, we were born into a place of extreme wealth. We’ve been given opportunities beyond most people’s wildest dreams.

If we choose to squander those blessings by sitting in cafes and restaurants with our buddies and arguing over theory, arguing about the latest political situation, arguing over why “those people” are taking taking taking too much, well, I’m afraid we will have hell to pay. If not today, someday.

If you have a problem with people in poverty, stop complaining about them. Partner up with them. Make yourself useful.

* * * * *

My friend Aaron got real quiet while we were shoveling. I looked over at him, and I was sweating under all my winter clothes. He stuck his shovel in the snowbank and gazed down the street.

“I sure would love to get out of the city, though. Get a place with a little more space, somewhere there’s not traffic going by all the time.”

His voice trailed off.

“Gotta get this kidney taken care of first, I guess.”

He picked up his shovel, and he went to work clearing a bank that was way taller than him, a bank he could barely see over.

From Auntie Anne to Angela: Today’s #LettersToThoseWeHaveLost


Today’s “Letters to Those We’ve Lost” is brought to you by Anne Beiler, founder of Auntie Anne’s Soft Pretzels. It just so happens that this week marks the 28th anniversary of Anne opening her first location (pictured above). She lost her daughter Angela Joy Beiler at the age of 19 months and 12 days on a warm summer day in 1975.

To our dear Angie,

Oh, how we miss you. It’s been 40 Christmases since we’ve seen you or held you. It seems so long ago, and yet your life as part of our family is still very much alive. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about you. Sometimes I sigh when I think of how long it’s been, and how much longer it might be until I see you. I often wish there was a way to visit you just for the day, and then come back to be with my family again.

Your sisters have beautiful children and I love being with them, too. LaWonna has three children: Trinity is 15; Ryan is 11, and Mia is 9. LaVale has one son, Cristian, who is 18.

You were here for only one Christmas, which I am sad to say I remember very little about. Your only Christmas with us. You were 11 months old at the time. What I remember clearly is the first Christmas without you. At the time, Angie, my pain was so deep that even Christmas couldn’t cheer my spirit. I could hardly mention your name because if I did I would fall apart. I tried to be brave and strong, but I was so scared and weak. Scared because I didn’t know how to live without you, weak because I didn’t have the strength to keep it together all the time.

I have heard it said that “Time and God are your friend,” and I agree now that it’s true. Time has helped me see things more clearly, and if you had stayed with us I would never have become the person I am today.

I often imagine what you might be doing in heaven? In my dreams you told me you wer eplaying with all the children, picking flowers and sitting on Jesus’ lap. Sometimes, though, I think you may be all grown up now…could it be true? I have so many questions.

One thing I know, sweet Angie: I will see you again and when I do, that will be the most glorious moment. We’ll be together forever and we’ll never have to say goodbye again.

Until then

Your Mom

Anne and I co-wrote a book about her life, Twist of Faith. You can also check out the other powerful letters people have written to those they’ve lost HERE. Please feel free to email me your own letter, and I’ll see if I can post it here at the blog.

Sometimes It Seems Like I Am the Ghost in the Room

Photo by Jean-Pierre Brungs via Unsplash
Photo by Jean-Pierre Brungs via Unsplash

The first Advent Letter to Those We’ve Lost is written by Rebecca Mast. Her husband Daniel died in a tragic accident in May of 2013, and while I never met Daniel, it’s clear to me that he was a talented photographer, a doting father, and a loving husband. Daniel and Rebecca had two children when he died, and she went on to deliver their third child in the months after he passed away. Here is the letter from Rebecca to Daniel.

* * * * *

Beloved Warrior,

It’s lonely here. The busyness and cheer are loud in my aching ears. I used to love this time, love the gathering and drawing close, the excitement of family and gifts and time to hold each other against the cold. Trying to find space to both grieve and celebrate is exhausting. I don’t want to drag anyone else down into the dark that pulls at my soul, but it’s isolating to feel so singular in this season of together. I want to make good memories for these three little faces that look to me for their cues, but the weight of performance, of responsibility, of expectation…it’s all too much. You were my social buffer, the safe place in the crowd, the reassurance from across the room, the anchor in the storm of activity. I feel untethered. Lost in the crowd. I can drift to the outside and observe the melding of families and feel like I’m melting away. I am not my best self without you.

Sometimes it seems like I am the ghost in the room.

We will hang your stocking again this year and the kids and I will write you letters to put in them. I will make space for them to miss you and try not to insist they feel what I feel. I will try and let myself cry – and also let myself laugh – without being afraid of everyone’s opinions on how happy or sad I am. The pressure to be well, to be better than last year, to have pulled myself together “by now,” is overwhelming. And maybe it’s all in my head. All my own expectations and disappointments. But grief is not linear and healing doesn’t come like it does with a physical wound; rather, my heart is sewn up and split open repeatedly. There is no space to fall apart and the terror of ruining the Holidays for people you love because of your emotional mess is debilitating at times. I want to be okay but I don’t want to pretend. I miss you.

I miss your eyes – seeing how you saw our children. These particles of us that have become so much more than reflections of our own selves. I need someone else to exclaim over the growth and change and wonder of watching babies become children and children become more adult. I need to step back and observe you loving on them, observe your adoration and enthusiasm for their lives and beings. I get so caught up in the daily overwhelming of caring for their needs that I forget to see them in the whole. I miss the rhythm of our life together and I can’t keep up with this new life with which I’m left. I wish I didn’t have to do this without you.

I keep looking for the hope that Christmas is supposed to represent and it’s been hard to find lately. I’m still waiting for you…despite knowing you aren’t walking through the door again. But I see your love in your son’s hands on my face when he says he loves me. I see you in your daughter’s smile and your other son’s laugh. I feel your love in your parents’ hugs and your siblings’ laughter. You are here in the cracks – I wish it was enough. I miss you, Beloved.

Your Beauty


* * * * *

Please feel free to leave a note to Rebecca in the comments if you’d like.

If you’d like to know why I’m running this series of letters during Advent to those we’ve lost, you can find the answer HERE.

If you would like to write a letter to a loved one who has passed away, feel free to send it (500 words or less) to the Contact tab at the top of this page. I’m sorry but I can’t guarantee it will be published because I’m not sure if I’ll continue the series or not. But feel free to submit one if you’d like, and I promise I’ll read it.

Finally, we’ve completed the first season of the podcast, The Story of My Death. Caleb Wilde, Bryan Allain, and I recorded three different episodes in which we interview people who tell compelling, intimate stories about death. Caleb tries to give away a Hearse. Bryan rarely stops eating. The episodes are funny, sad, poignant, and heartwarming. You can check out the first season of episodes HERE.



When Your Country is a Prison – Ahmed’s Story #RefugeeStories

Photo by Glen Noble via Unsplash

It was early afternoon and my wife, the kids, and I were in North Carolina, preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving with Maile’s family. I had to hide away in one of the upstairs bedrooms to find a quiet place to make the call.

I had emailed back and forth with Ahmed but we hadn’t spoken yet. The entire time I listened to his story I could hear the hum of laughter and shouting from the rest of my in-laws’ house. The holidays were in full swing for us. His story reminded me that in many parts of the world, the approach of Christmas means something else entirely.

Here is Ahmed’s story.

* * * * *

I live outside Philadelphia now with my wife and my five-year-old daughter. I’d rather you didn’t use my real name. Perhaps you could just refer to me as Ahmed.

Conditions here are much better than where I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. There are over 23 million people in Karachi, and it’s the second largest city in the world. I was born and raised there and my life was always life in the big city. Everything there is very busy. Very hectic.

98% of the people in Pakistan are Muslim. The remaining 2% are other religions. My parents, my grandparents, all of my ancestors – they were Christians. I am a Christian, too, and that made it very difficult for me in my city.

What happened to me there? So many things. I worked as a lab technician in a hospital after graduating, and I was the only Christian there. My supervisors made it very difficult for me. They thought that I should convert to Islam, but I am satisfied as a Christian.

“That’s not possible for me,” I told them, and this turned them against me. That’s when things got much worse.

There is a law in Pakistan against blasphemy. If someone says a bad word against the prophet or the holy book, or if someone tries to convert someone to anything besides Islam, this is punishable by beheading. Not all Muslims there are like this, but some of them pull a few words from the Koran to justify this. The people I worked with threatened me, threatened to use this law against me. Then someone published an article in a religious paper that I was propogating Christianity, trying to convert Muslims, and this simply was not true. But I knew if certain people read that article, it would not be good for me.

Religious scholars put out a fatwa against me, which technically means it is their religious duty to catch me and kill me. Anyone. Not necessarily the officials. Anyone. They wouldn’t wait for legal procedures. They would do it themselves.

Many Christians live in Pakistan in fear.

A few years ago I applied to US universities and was accepted, but it is not easy getting out of Pakistan. The country is like a prison for us. You’re not welcome there, and you’re not always free to leave. If you apply for a passport, you might get one, you might not. If you apply for a visa, you might get one, you might not. You often must bribe officials simply to get on the plane to leave.

But even Christian countries don’t always welcome Christian Pakistanis. Christians living in Muslim countries are often caught between.

I will graduate from the university this December. I hope I can stay here after that. I applied for asylum through Church World Service and am now waiting for the interview.

It is not easy to go to church in Pakistan. You have to be very careful. My wife likes it here for that reason – she is free here to go to church whenever she wants. She likes it in the US. My daughter, too, is happy here. She is comfortable.

We don’t face any problems here in the US. Everyone is kind to us. I’m comfortable with my classmates and teachers. I was able to get work authorization which makes things much better for us.

So I’m waiting for an interview call. Once that is scheduled then something will be clear for me. Right now, nothing. I don’t know what my future will be.

* * * * *

Other refugee stories:

A Muslim Refugee in Amish Country – Miriam’s Story

* * * * *

Church World Service helps refugees like Ahmed with many things: relocation, integration into society, finding employment and housing, and covering their legal fees to apply for asylum, immigration, and green cards. Asylum applicants who have a lawyer representing them have a 70% success rate; those who do not have representation experience only a 17% success rate.

Here’s how you can help:

  • Will you give $10, $20, $50, $100 or more to help cover the legal costs for asylum-seekers like Ahmed? If you can do that, please go HERE to make a donation towards CWS’ legal services.
  • CWS is in need of local family law attorneys willing to take on cases like Ahmed’s pro bono. If you are willing to do this, please email me.
  • Would you be willing to get to know the refugees who live close to you and be part of a team who supports them as they try to start over in a new place? If so, please email me!
  • Like the Church World Service Facebook page.

Questions Regarding Waves of Terror and Walking on Water

Photo by Austin Schmid via Unsplash

My son sat in the passenger’s seat as I drove our truck into one of the poorer sections of our city. We pulled a small trailer behind the truck, and it was loaded down with three dressers, an end table, a dining room table, and a few other odds and ends. Two old African-American women sat on their porch and stared at us as we drove past. One young man used a leaf blower to clear the sidewalks. Other than that, the street was empty. Other than the leaf blower, the street was silent.

We pulled to the side and looked for my friend Melissa. She was meeting us there, introducing us to a Ugandan family, recent refugees to the United States. They had lived in a refugee camp in Africa for seven years before making the trip to the southern end of the city of Lancaster. Seven years. Three of the children had been born in the camp and knew nothing of the world beside temporary lodging, prepackaged food. There are ten of them now sharing the house.

We are new to them. This place is new to them. They don’t completely understand the way we live. When Melissa first joined a team of people from CWS to help this family with their transition, she soon learned they were taking their clean clothes from the dryer and sorting them into garbage bags. They didn’t get the concept of folding, of putting clothes away neatly until it was time to wear them.

When Cade and I got there, the father greeted us, though he could speak little English. The son, 24 years old, grinned and nodded and grinned and nodded and spoke occasionally. When he saw the largest chest of drawers, he insisted we take it up to his room. All the way on the third floor. Up two very narrow, very steep staircases.

We fought that piece of furniture, he and I, and eventually it submitted. We wrestled it to the top of the house, he and I against it and gravity, and when we finally had it in place, the look on his face made it all worth while.

“Thank you,” he said, his dark eyes shining. “Thank you.” He nodded his head up and down, up and down, and there was something of the miraculous in the whole situation. Strangers had arrived out of nowhere and given him this fabulous gift. He stared at that dresser the way a typical American 20-something would stare at a new car. It was another piece to the puzzle of his life in the United States.

* * * * *

I tell this story today because I have had the chance to begin to meet the refugees who have chosen Lancaster as their home. They are hardworking people. They do not require much. Their houses are cleaner than most. They are happy. They are good neighbors.

Why do I feel I must justify our willingness to let them into the country?

I tell this story because now, so soon after terrorists have worked their wicked magic, it would be easy to let fear guide us. It would be easy to pull into our protective shell. It would be easy to shake our heads, sigh, and say, “No more.”

No more Muslims.

No more Syrians.

No more Strangers.

It is, after all, the logical thing to do. And our professional pundits, our aspiring politicians, they all agree. They are, after all, peddling fear. They always are. Unfortunately, we are usually buying.

“Giving asylum to Syrian refugees is ‘the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,'” said Sean Hannity.

“I’m putting people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration, that if I win, they’re going back,” said Donald Trump.

Protecting ourselves, protecting our best interests, that’s the logical thing to do. Even if it means turning away people with legitimate needs.

But it’s not the Christian thing to do.

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us…”  1 John 4:18-19

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Luke 10:27

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 5:43-45

It’s actually rather upside-down, rather silly. But that’s the Kingdom of God for you, because the Kingdom of God doesn’t make sense. In the Kingdom of God, we do good for those who hate us. In the Kingdom of God, the smallest of things can move mountains. In the Kingdom of God, we are told to return violence with non-violence. The first will be last, the last first. The meek will inherit the earth. It’s a Kingdom that belongs to the poor in spirit.

It’s a Kingdom that doesn’t make any sense.

What does make sense? Well, it would make perfect sense to stop welcoming refugees – after all, they might be ISIS! It would make perfect sense to stop taking in the needy, the orphans, the widows – after all, they might simply become freeloaders! It would make perfect sense to turn our back on those we consider enemy, those we consider other, those we don’t understand.

My life is fine as it is, thank you very much.

All I want is to be left alone.


They should sort out their own country instead of coming here.

It would make perfect sense to turn inward. But it doesn’t make Kingdom sense.

The Kingdom of God insists, “Love your enemies!”

The Kingdom of God implores, “Love others because God first loved you!”

This upside-down Kingdom shouts, “Get out of the boat and walk to me on the water!”

Can we do that? Can we leave our safe places of security? Our comfortable places? Can we stand on the moving waves of these terror-filled days and somehow maintain compassionate hearts?

Can the power of love somehow manage to overwhelm our fear?

* * * * *

Also read:
A Muslim Refugee in Amish Country

What Kind of a Mother Leaves Her Children? – Miriam’s Story, Part 2

Photo by Maria Stiehler via Unsplash

To read part one of Miriam’s story, go HERE.

* * * * *

What kind of a mother leaves her children?

We sat there in the silence of that question, Maile, Miriam and I. It is such a heavy question, layer upon layer. Sadness over doubt over regret over guilt.

Tears formed in Maile’s eyes, and still no one said anything. It was warm for November, and the air moved gently around us. Miriam’s stories collided so strangely with that otherwise normal day. I could tell Maile wanted to reach over and hold Miriam’s hand, but she didn’t know what was proper, what was okay.

“You didn’t have a choice,” Maile whispered. “You had to leave.”

Miriam nodded in the way you nod when you don’t necessarily believe what the other person is saying.

“What happened next, Miriam?” I asked her.

* * * * *

I was very depressed. Very sad. Many of our friends and relatives had just been killed in the bombings. From my husband’s family, 22 people had died. From my parents’ family, five had been killed. Plus I had two or three friends who were killed.

Again my husband tells me to go to America. I finally gave in. I went to the US embassy in a neighboring country. Many people were trying to go there because it was so dangerous in our country. Many people want to leave.

The US gave me a visa. I don’t know why or how. It seemed like a miracle. After I got back from applying at the embassy and successfully getting a visa, my husband brought the children to the crossing point to pick me up. I would go home for a short time until we arranged for my travel to the United States.

I saw my family right there at the border crossing. My husband and my children. They were right there, and I just wanted to go to them, but four or five people with guns came to me.

“You have to come with us.”

They wouldn’t let me go to my family.

They took me to an office at the crossing point. My husband asked many questions but they wouldn’t tell him anything. They held me for five hours and took my bag and the officer asked me many more questions.

“Why were you at the US embassy?” he asked.

“I want to go see my family in America.”

“No, you are a spy with them,” he insisted.

“But I have permission to travel!”

“Why would they give you permission? No one else is getting permission! You are not allowed to go to America. You are a spy. Don’t leave the country, and if you write anything about this, we will kill you.”

Then he leaned in close and whispered into my ear.

“You have to say goodbye to your kids.”

I was very sure then that he would kill me that day. I thought that was it, that my life was over. But for some reason they did not kill me.

After that they let me go home. I don’t know why. I couldn’t sleep.

My husband said, “Miriam, you have to leave. Not just for a while. You can’t come back here. They will kill you soon.”

“I can’t,” I said, weeping. “I can’t leave. I can’t live that far away without my children!”

“You can go,” he said. “You have to go. You will be alive there. You will be safe. You can speak with your kids. To be far away from your kids is better than to be a dead woman for them. You have to leave.”

So I made the decision. I left, but I think it was very bad for me. I regret it. I miss my children. I often think I made the wrong decision. But I can’t go back now. They keep asking my husband where I am. He says I am not there. They say he has to bring me back or they will arrest him instead of me. Then what will happen to my children?

My sister told me I could apply for asylum here in the United States. I finally have asylum, and now I can bring my husband and my children. But at first he didn’t want to leave our country.

“This is our country,” he said. “This is our life. Our home. Everyone we know is here. All of our family is here.”

I think he still hoped that things would change.

But he can’t live without me, and the kids need me, and nothing is changing there. It is only getting worse. So he came around to the idea of living here.

“Okay,” he said. “I will come to live with you in any country.”

* * * * *

Miriam paused. I looked at my phone. We had been there for an hour and a half.

“We should probably get you home,” I said, and Miriam smiled, nodded. I stood up and went to get our kids. When I came back, Maile and Miriam were talking. We all got into the truck. The radio came on and it felt strange, again, to think that there we were, driving down the road on a beautiful day while all around the world people like Miriam lived a nightmare.

During the ride home we talked about what she liked in America, what kind of food she missed, what she was hoping for. We asked if she would come to our house for dinner sometime, and she smiled, as if the thought made her happy.

“Yes,” she said. “I would like that.”

When we dropped her off, I got out of our vehicle and walked over to the sidewalk. Maile got out, too.

“Thank you so much,” I said. “Thank you for sharing your story with us.”

She smiled. I got back into the truck, and I watched through the window.

“Can I give you a hug?” Maile asked. Miriam nodded, smiling wide. I said it in the post about us meeting, but I’ll say it again here: seeing a white, blond, American woman in American clothing hugging a Middle Eastern Muslim woman wearing her headscarf and robe is an image I won’t forget for a long time. It is something we don’t see enough.

We are, all of us, more alike than we can even imagine.

* * * * *

Church World Service helps refugees like Miriam with many things. Relocation, integration into society, finding employment and housing, and covering the legal fees to apply for asylum, immigration, and green cards.

In fact, CWS legally represented Miriam pro bono because she had no money to pay an attorney. Asylum applicants who have a lawyer representing them have a 70% success rate; those who do not have representation experience only a 17% success rate. Without CWS, it’s likely Miriam would have had to return.

Here’s how you can help:

  • Will you give $10, $20, $50, $100 or more to help cover the legal costs for asylum-seekers like Miriam? If you can do that, please go HERE to make a donation towards CWS’ legal services.
  • Local refugee families are currently in need of dressers to store their clothing in their new-to-them accommodations. Please let me know if you have extra dressers or bedroom furniture, and I will coordinate delivery.
  • CWS is in need of local family law attorneys willing to take on cases like Miriam’s pro bono. If you are willing to do this, please email me.
  • Would you be willing to get to know the refugees who live close to you and be part of a team who supports them as they try to start over in a new place? If so, please email me!
  • Like the Church World Service Facebook page.
*I am not an employee of CWS and any political or religious views expressed by me or the refugees I speak with do not necessarily reflect the views of CWS or its employees.