Editor’s note: We asked our listeners and readers to tell us their stories about the moral and spiritual aspects of the economic downturn. In the coming months, we’ll be featuring some of these on SOF Observed an as part of our First Person project, “Repossessing Virtue.”
Jessica Sundheim reminds us that personal transformation and understanding happens at any age. She kicks off this first person exploration, and continues our series of interviews with wise voices, including Martin Marty, Prabhu Guptara, Esther Sternberg, Rachel Naomi Remen, and others to come.
Since I was very young, like just about everyone I know, I had a strong mechanism deep within that could smell injustice, layer upon layer of it. I knew at age three that going to daycare sucked, and I knew that my peers were favored because we were cared for by their mother. However, the complexity of greater social injustices didn’t really begin to sink in until I turned 25. Before then I think of myself as a protestor/whiner. I saw the injustice at face value and whined about it. Growing up on poverty and years of watching PBS documentaries of war demonstrations, the liberation of concentration camps, civil rights marches, The Wonder Years, and listening to my parents old LP’s of The Beatles and Janice Joplin had left their mark.
The tragedy of 9/11 took place just weeks after my 23rd birthday. It was shaking, like someone had struck a chord that had resonated for years and then on 9/11 someone struck a new chord, a chord no one knew. I quit my job to stay home with my kids. I flew home to Tennessee with my toddler and eight-month-old baby to visit family. We bought a new car. We waited. I was ready to act, but no direction came. I also began to seek out spiritual renewal and joined a very fundamentalist Bible study. Soon, my car was tuned to a different station, one that focused on my family and my role in it instead of news and the world. My head was filled with directives to isolate, seclude my young, and become as perfect as possible. My goal was to be Jesus Christ and to get everyone else to be just like me.
The mechanism that smelled injustice began to be tweaked. “Could it really be injustice if the person isn’t a Christian? God works for the good of those who believe in him.” Personal behavior and faith status became the stick with which I measured out those who suffered for no cause of their own and those who deserved it. No longer a sheep in the flock, I wasn’t even the shepherd; I was the butcher, me and about 5 million others. So when the war that I had been fated to protest for years came, I was blinded by a belief system that mandated an eye for an eye.
My belief system had little sympathy or compassion for people who could not control their sinful nature. I didn’t even believe in funding public schools, or that women should work outside the home. Our society was falling apart because of working women, sex, Godless public education, taxes, and fast food. I really, really believed in this.
Shortly after 9/11 my husband became the director of an environmental learning center. Two years later, when the funding was cut and the center folded my life changed. I started a cleaning business at seven months pregnant because no business would hire me, and I got a job as a coordinator for an after school program (in a public school). I also became vehemently opposed to any business that would have the audacity to discriminate against a pregnant woman.
My husband worked endlessly. He had three jobs. He went to tutor at the school at 3:00 p.m., from there he went to his overnight factory job at 6 p.m. He got home after working an 11-hour shift at 5 a.m. At 9 a.m., after four hours of sleep, he went on call as an EMT with the local ambulance service. He could still catch some sleep if he didn’t get a call. Without the paycheck that we had become accustomed to, public school began to look like a good deal, my dream of home schooling was fading. Something I had railed against for years (welfare) began to look like a social safety net. I’ll never forget the time I was at a Christian women’s meeting and the director of the food shelf leaned over and said, “You can go to the food shelf so many times per year. You should go.” She squeezed the life out of my hand, as if to say if you don’t go I’ll hurt you. I went.
I’ll never forget that experience. I, a hard working, educated, sober, business woman was going to a food shelf! The people were so nice. The form was one page, about five questions. I thought we’d get enough food for one meal, but I had to pull my car around so that I could unload box after box into my car. We were given so much, I couldn’t fit it all in my cupboards. We ate every last can of tuna, box of instant potatoes, and even SPAM with relish.
Humility is the basis of my new faith.
I do not look at the state of our country’s economy as a crisis in the same way as most. The state of affairs is an opportunity, in many ways. I still have a sense of justice, and so I think that someone should pay for the frivolous, machismo, arrogant politics and policies of the last 15 years. But, I know that for the most part the powerless, not the propagator, will suffer most in this mess.
However, poverty for me is no longer a judgment handed down to the lazy, uneducated, drunken, egocentric sloth. I no longer define poverty by neighborhood, class, education, or even bank account. Poverty is to lack the ability to help others as one would want to help oneself. Poverty is the inability to forgive — the blind, misinformed faith that isolates and secludes a person from joy, self-forgiveness, compassion, and love for one’s neighbor.
Our family has gone through a financial crisis much like what the country is facing now. We have learned a lot and I feel that we are better off. The leadership I am looking for at this time is a leadership that believes in everyday people. Leadership that doesn’t look at the person’s bank account or position of status to find value, but instead a leadership that understands the inherent value of every citizen of this country. A leadership that doesn’t seclude or isolate, but reaches out to all of us and in turn gives some useful direction, a map.
What am I doing differently? I am no longer a secluded housewife. My kids go to school. We moved to a new community. I am grateful for welfare, food stamps, and Medicare even though we no longer use them. The food shelf still rocks. Involved in my local political party, I fought hard for a candidate with real vision as a delegate to the DFL state convention. (I am the former chairperson for the Big Stone County Republican Party). For the last year I worked two jobs, helped plan a fundraiser, door knocked for Barack, had a house party, marched in a lawn chair brigade in many parades for my local candidate for Minnesota House Seat 10A. As the volunteer coordinator for A Center for the Arts, I naturally voted “yes” on the constitutional amendment.
I find wisdom at a unique church. The church is actually two churches, United Church of Christ and a Presbyterian church, which came together to worship in the same house when a tornado blew through town almost a hundred years ago. The six of us live in a two-bedroom house on the tracks in the “ghetto” of Fergus Falls, and I let the kids play with the neighbors. I could not be more different, or any further from my old idea of “perfection.”
I find leadership in my elders, veterans, the people who grew up during the Great Depression, and my grandmother. I also look for ways to be of use. I find spiritual renewal in many forms of art, but my favorite is dance. I enjoy other’s points of view and I don’t always know mine. I like collaborating.
I once called into an MPR pledge drive during SOF to protest the show and withdraw my membership. I am sorry. Now, I want to tell you thank you. This [essay] is humongous, but it’s been a journey and I wouldn’t be the person I am now without having listened to the different ideas and perspectives (especially an interview with an Evangelical fundamentalist a few years back). Your show makes a difference, so I look forward to tuning in.
Jessica Sundheim was born during the Carter administration and lives in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.