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From Dumpster Diving to the American Dream

Mar 21 2016
How do upwardly mobile Christians follow a downwardly mobile God?

My husband and I are unintentionally living our version of the American dream.

Our home and family probably look normal to everyone else, but it’s far from what I imagined back in college. As part of a “Claiborne-again” intentional community that eschewed individualism and excess, I learned to live extremely simply then. My housemates and I sat together on the floor (no couches or tables for us!) and ate food salvaged from the almost-spoiled discount rack. We shared clothing. We found ways to creatively use everything.

But after college, instead of giving away our last penny and living with the poor in some remote corner of the world, my husband and I did what most people do: we got jobs. We started accumulating wealth. While others got laid off in the recession, my husband stayed on, receiving generous raises as his company recovered. We didn’t feel God calling us anywhere else, so we stayed. It made economic sense to buy a condo instead of rent, so we did. Then, when we had a baby and outgrew our condo, we bought a house further out in the suburbs.

So here I am, the college kid that dumpster-dived and lived in a commune, paying the mortgage on a five-bedroom house and wringing my hands over a steady stream of disposable income and growing net worth. I’m rich (relatively speaking), and I’m really uncomfortable with my new status.

I look back at my old self with nostalgia and incredulity. Following Jesus was built into my lifestyle when I was living simply, sharing everything, and willing to go to the ends of the earth for him. What does it look like for me now?

Like many in the millennial generation, I remain passionate about social justice. And yet, I find myself on the advantaged end of an unjust social system. While my friends who are undocumented immigrants labor overtime without benefits for measly wages, we enjoy my husband’s health insurance, three weeks of paid vacation, and more-than-enough paycheck. While working-class families have their homes foreclosed and wages garnished when they can’t make payments, we know we have well-off family members we can rely on, not to mention a cushy bank account. Sure, we’ve worked hard to get where we are, but others have worked harder and gotten nowhere.

On the one hand, I am grateful. I’m glad we don’t have to fret over paying bills and that we can take an international vacation without penny-pinching for years. On the other hand, I feel embarrassed and guilty. Our enclosed suburban life seems a far cry from the account of the early church in Acts 2, where “all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” It feels wrong to enjoy more than I need while knowing that others near and far lack so much.

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From Dumpster Diving to the American Dream