have been here before, surrounded by things. Before each move I pack, sort, give away, and wonder: How did I accumulate all this stuff? There are my books--some I love, and some I feel compelled to love. There are my shoes in various stages of disrepair. There are my jackets, for it seems everyone has given me one. Then there are the odds and ends tucked into drawers, closets, and files.
As the child of missionary parents, I moved a lot. Each time our family uprooted, my mother said, “Moving keeps one light.” She was right. But moving also reveals my weight, the materials that hold me down, pin me to a location, complicate my life.
My mother was born in Finland in the midst of World War II. She lived in a home without running water, with an outhouse set in the woods. Her family carried water to the house, and the children picked blueberries to supplement the family income (her father was an Adventist pastor and teacher). When my mother came to America to attend graduate school, she carried a single suitcase off the plane.
When I set off for graduate school, I loaded up my car; then I loaded up the car’s roof rack. Still, when I arrived in Minnesota, a friend took me immediately to Target so I could purchase some plates and sheets and a shower curtain. Later I bought a desk, some chairs, a bookshelf, a bed--necessary items, all of them.
But when does necessity give way to luxury? What do we really need to own? What is extra? And who defines one from the other? Adventists generally don’t wear jewelry because it is an unnecessary adornment, and also because the money could better be used for charity. But is the money we’re not spending on jewelry really given to charity? And what about other sources of materialism? Are we observing a narrow definition of a standard and ignoring its spirit?
I grew up first in Uganda and then in Kenya. We lived a sparse life: no television, no phone, hand-me-down clothes, a limited diet. But we also had more stuff than anyone else in the community. We had books and furniture and, most important, running water. The latter my parents shared with the village below. Women and children carried water down the hill, buckets balanced on their heads.
It’s been more than 20 years, and still many communities around the world don’t have access to running water. Many don’t have electricity, or medical care, or proper shoes, or even food. We live in a world where the haves and the have-nots are separated by an ever-expanding chasm. The divide between the two seems insurmountable.
In one, there is technology, bulging home sizes, a plethora of unnecessary stuff, unlimited education, exotic travel, gourmet food, increasing life spans.
In the other, there is poverty, malnutrition, limited opportunities, early death.
How can the two exist simultaneously? The answer, of course, is complicated. War is to blame, and corruption and colonialism and exploitation and trade laws and racism and dictatorships and disease.
But what blame do individuals carry? Is it OK to be a Christian and tohave, while so many others do not have?
I ask myself this as I prepare to embark on a frivolous journey. I was offered an exchange lectureship at the University of Salzburg in Austria. I accepted with enthusiasm. I enjoy traveling to new places, learning about new cultures; and I love teaching. Next fall I’ll return to Minnesota (and to the stuff I’m leaving in a friend’s attic), and I’ll finish my degree. No one has rebuked my decision. On the contrary, everyone’s been excited, myself included.
Yet I’m also ambivalent. I would have had none of these opportunities if I’d been born in the village next to my childhood home. It’s not good that life is so polarized. It’s not fair. As I look at all my stuff, I realize that it’s not enough to acknowledge the injustice in our world. We must be proactive. One person cannot change the world. But we can each change the way we live our lives. Materialism is a bad habit, one we must try to shuck daily. Christianity calls for a radical commitment to giving to others; it calls on each of us to become a philanthropist.
Sari Fordham is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, currently taking part in an exchange lectureship program at the University of Salzburg in Austria.