When We’re Entirely Too Comfortable with the Existence of Poverty (Part 2)

I heard this happen:

In the midst of boarding a plane, I overheard the row of people behind me striking up a conversation. They were talking a bit loudly, but initially, it was kind of refreshing to hear them make so many connections to each other. They were each strangers to one another and were introducing themselves and finding some commonalities. At one point, the man sitting in the window seat said, “Now I don’t want to get too controversial, but there’s a lot of ignorance out there these days.” They were talking loudly enough that it was kind of hard to tune out their conversation, but I didn’t hear what he was referring to or why he made the statement.

It’s just kind of interesting because…

Once the flight took off, the woman in the middle seat asked that man in the window seat, “So are you a Jesus freak?”

“Oh yeah, I’m a Jesus freak!”

I wondered where this was going to go. I never heard the man in the aisle seat speak again. Maybe he wasn’t a “Jesus freak.”

At first, they talked about Christian music and bands that they liked, but quickly after asking this question, the woman in the middle seat said, “Once, I was in the airport, and this man wearing a turban approached me! This was right after 9/11, so I was really scared, you know?”

Keep in mind, they are talking really loudly. Do they consider that this might be hurtful or offensive to someone?

“I had a Jesus shirt on. He came straight up to me, and he asked, ‘Are you a Christian?’ And I was like, ‘Oh Lord, help me. What is this?’ I was really scared. Then I said yes, and he said, ‘I really love Christians!'” Then they started laughing.

Then they started talking about immigration. Lord, help me.

“Now I don’t want to get political,” he said, “but we need to do something at the southern border.”

“That’s right,” she chimed in.

“I have no problem with people coming here, if they do it the right way.” He gave an example of somebody coming here in what he determined to be the right way.

This is a pretty common statement from people, but I wondered, do they have any idea how hard it is to come into this country “the right way?” Do they know, or do they care, that this administration is refusing to renew the visas of people who are already here legally and entered the country that way? Do they know that it’s a completely legal process, and more importantly, a human right, to present at the border and seek asylum? Are they willing to consider or have empathy for the violence and poverty people are fleeing? Are they willing to consider the history that the United States has helped destabilize the nations they’ve left, creating some of the very dynamics that have plunged their lives into violence and poverty? Are they willing to have any sense of commonality and connection with immigrants, or is their identity as “Jesus freaks,” less overarching than their determination of who is a citizen (and deserving of it) and who is not? For them, where does the ultimate commonality lie?

All of these questions were swirling around in my mind as they continued to talk, and I admit I was getting angry at the “Jesus freaks” who had no qualms talking loudly with fear and anger about people with brown skin.

“I paid thousands of dollars in taxes last year,” he said, “And that should be going to pay for my Dad with a disability. But it goes to them. They don’t pay any taxes, but my taxes go to them.”

No, his taxes don’t go there. Undocumented immigrants are completely ineligible for government social services, by policy and because they don’t have a social security number. And what’s more, if they are employed, unless they’re being paid under the table, they’re all paying taxes. Undocumented immigrants paid hundreds of billions in taxes, no small number, in 2018. See here and here.

“Yes, it’s just so wrong,” she said, “They are just stealing. Stealing everywhere all the time.”

And that’s when I couldn’t take it anymore, not only because their information was wrong, and not only because they were talking loudly without any concern that their words might hit home or hurt someone else (though definitely that) but also because the “Jesus freaks” were completely willing to stereotype and accuse people different than themselves this whole flight so far.

I turned my head in their direction and said loudly (a bit more exasperated than I intended to sound, though I indeed was) “Immigrants pay taxes too!!!”

They said nothing. Then they said nothing for the rest of the flight. In fact, they soon fell asleep.

I didn’t regret saying that, which was only one tiny piece of a response. But I didn’t feel good about any of this either. The whole thing just felt so yucky.

But I’ve been reflecting about it ever since.

Renee Roederer

This piece is connected to another as well:

When We’re Entirely Too Comfortable with the Existence I’d Poverty (Part 2)

When We’re Entirely Too Comfortable with the Existence of Poverty (Part 1)

cardboard hosue

I saw this happen:

Last week, I was walking down a busy street, and along one of the city blocks, a number of people without shelter stood or slept against the wall of a building. In this location, they were also positioned underneath an awning which kept them dry from the rain. Some of the people had created makeshift shelters with cardboard and tarps.

I had already seen this city block of people when I walked by a couple of hours before. This time, as I made my return, I noticed a person driving a vehicle which was cleaning the sidewalk. My assumption is that this happens at regularly scheduled times.

I might not have noticed this, except that the driver was trying to clean the section of the sidewalk that runs up against the wall, right where people were standing or sleeping. I couldn’t avoid noticing this because one of the people standing began to scream at a woman who was sleeping.

“WAKE THE ?!&* UP!!!” he yelled loudly.

She remained in her cardboard and tarp structure, still asleep.

I don’t know what eventually happened. I stood somewhat nearby for a just a bit, and I think that the driver of the vehicle gave up. That’s when I let myself imagine… how might people respond to hearing this story?

Might we say, “Well, that man nearby shouldn’t have been yelling at her like that. But she also can’t just stay right there. What are we supposed to do? Not have the street cleaned?”

Sure, it’s important to have clean streets. Not saying I would want the opposite, including for the woman who is sleeping there. But I found myself wondering if we would emphasize the situation about an uncleaned street — “We couldn’t possibly have this situation” — above any reaction to the fact that a woman (and many others) are living on the street. How can we possibly have that situation?

This made me wonder how often I assume and normalize the presence of poverty and homelessness as if this is just a natural part of the landscape, forgetting that this is devastating and does not have to be the case. I know I do this too often.

How can we possibly continue to have this situation?

Renee Roederer

The Last Words


Today is the 10th anniversary of the loss of David, one of the most significant people in my life. Over the last few years, I have shared some stories about him on this blog, like here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. (He’s a great person to spend time with, so you won’t regret re-reading any of those! And if it’s helpful to any of you, there are lots of reflections here from me about grief, loss, and an experience of continued love).

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been some days, and one in particular, where I felt great sadness as this larger date approached. Though this made complete sense (after all, I was reflecting very purposefully) the strength of the feeling took me by surprise a bit as well. But today, the 10th anniversary of the day he died, I’m not feeling particularly sad. I’m feeling grateful. I’m feeling connection. I find myself reflecting upon the impact of our relationship in the ten years that have followed this loss.

As I approached this anniversary, the date that hit me hardest this year was December 29. It’s a date I always mark in addition to this one. It’s the date of our last conversation together, one that was so lovely, and one that has sustained me for ten years now. These last words are on my mind and heart again as I begin this day, this time, not with sadness, but with gratitude. So I want to share them with you:

David had been in treatment for a rare, aggressive form of prostate cancer for nearly two years when he went into the hospital with pneumonia on December 29, 2008. Though we lived in Texas at that time, Ian and I happened to be in Southern Indiana on that date, where we both grew up and where David lived also. Sadly, this was also the date of Ian’s grandmother’s funeral. After finishing the funeral, we received a phone call that David had been admitted into the hospital. We were told that he needed treatment for pneumonia, but that after two weeks or so, he’d recover fully thanks to some heavy-duty medicine.

So Ian and I went over to the hospital. This was our last day in town; the next day, we would get in our trusty car and drive 22 hours all the way back to Texas. Unexpectedly, this was also the last day that David would be fully lucid. I’m so grateful we were able to be there.

When we arrived, he was still in the ER without a longer-term room, so we were told we could only have a few minutes with him and just two people at a time. Two people stepped out so that Ian and I could have that bit of time.

When we walked into the ER where he was lying in bed, David greeted us and then first made a funny, crude joke that I won’t even repeat here. His sense of humor was certainly intact! While I’m sure he wasn’t happy that he needed to be in the hospital, I think he was relatively hopeful and fully himself.

Then he began to take care of us. He asked about the funeral and took interest in how Ian’s family was doing. He also wanted to make sure we’d be okay for that long drive the next day. This was the bulk of our conversation in that makeshift hospital room.

But since we knew we couldn’t stay long, we also began to say goodbye. While I stood in that room, I assumed we’d make our drive back to Texas and that I’d talk to him the next day on the phone. But in that moment, we shared our last words together. This was such a sweet moment, and for years, I’ve felt grateful for it.

As we were ending our time together, I said,  “Do you know how much I love you?”

“How much do you love me?” he asked in reply.

“I love you so much that I am going spend the rest of my life loving you by loving everyone I encounter.” I said this playfully but also sincerely, genuinely more sweet than sappy. And at that, he just kind of gathered me to himself and kissed me on the forehead.

We stepped out of the room and said goodbye to the others who were there, and once I walked out of the hospital, something in my gut told me very clearly that I had just talked to David for the last time.

I was right. While in the hospital with a weakened immune system, David developed an infection from sepsis. He was not often lucid, but he pushed on for many days until he died on January 11, ten years ago today.

As I experience this anniversary today, and I as I consider those playful but sincerely loving words we shared, I can’t help but think about all the love that has come into my life over the last decade. Or to put it another way, and with language I remember David using once in a sermon (he was a Presbyterian minister), I think about all the Loves who have come into my life over the last decade. “God’s extravagances,” he called such Loves.

People come to mind. People with names. The kinds of people with whom I am now in life-long relationships. Whole communities come to mind too, people and places to whom I belong. These are God’s extravagances to me.

They’re also connected to him.

I’ve done a lot of reflection over these ten years, and I always come to this: The best way I’ve known to honor David Nelson Roth is to incarnate pieces of our relationship into all my relationships. And this happens all the time. This is also how I experience him as present. He shows up all the time.

I tell stories about him and quote him to others here and there. So sometimes, this connection is obvious. But most of the time, his way of living shows up in the ways that the many people behind these relationships — God’s extravagances — keep choosing one another. If I could have one more conversation with him, I know I would speak to him about these many relationships by name, along with what it has been like to choose one another.

I miss David, and I wish he were still here. I waited a long time to have someone like him in my life, and I lost him when I was still pretty young, hoping for many more years with him. But he was such a catalyst in my life and in ways that make his influence so actively present. The course of my life was altered and deeply enriched because he chose me. He chose to make me family.

In response, I chose a pathway — one that is so human, rich, imperfect, messy, and loving — to experience community and build our own family entirely by choice. Because of him, I have chosen and been chosen many times over.

He chose me for a lifetime of choosing. I haven’t loved perfectly — far from it, in fact — but in a very real way, I have truly loved him in my love of others. And I hope that somehow, he knows it.

Renee Roederer





I Love This Story About Fred Rogers


I’ve started reading this wonderful, new biography about Fred Rogers, entitled, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King. In particular, I love a story in this book which I’ve never heard before.

Once, an intern who was working on the Mister Rogers Neighborhood television show traveled with Fred Rogers to Boston. A very influential executive at the Boston public television station had invited them to dinner with the rest of his family. The executive arranged for a limousine to pick up Fred and the intern and bring them both to his home. Once the limousine arrived at the house, the driver asked what time he should return to pick them up again. But instead of sending him away until a later time, Fred Rogers just invited him to the dinner! And the wife of the television executive was completely caught off guard and bewildered by this.

Then after the dinner was over, Fred Rogers sat up front with the limo driver and spent time getting to know him. His name was Billy. After connecting so wonderfully, Billy invited Fred and the intern over to his parents’ house. While there, Fred played the piano and people from the neighborhood kept coming over and joining the spontaneous time together. And Fred and Billy stayed in touch. A few years later, Fred learned that Billy was in the hospital and dying, and he made a personal phone call to say goodbye.

Connection, friendship, and kinship can happen at any time. And I suppose if we want to live in a world where they transform us, we have to be willing to do the unexpected and upend the labels and class structures that divide us.

Renee Roederer

This story is found on page 39 of The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers. It comes from an interview with Elaine Rogers Crozier, Fred Rogers’ sister.

The Mirror Box


Today’s piece is a re-post, but I like visiting it again because it’s a good metaphor. It’s also an incredible medical breakthrough.

V.S. Ramachandran designed an experiment that was utterly brilliant in its creativity and its simplicity. Most importantly, it worked. It was life changing.

Ramachandran is a neuroscientist who is famous for a variety of discoveries about the human brain. In particular, his work has helped reveal the incredible qualities of its plasticity and malleability. Decades ago, he designed an experiment to alleviate phantom limb pain by using two simple mirrors.

Phantom limb pain is a kind of curious thing in and of itself. Documented in medical literature for more than 500 years, many physicians had written about the challenging phenomenon some patients had after losing limbs. For years, even decades, these patients continued to feel a painful sensation in the limb that was missing. Some felt as though their lost arm or leg was held permanently in an awkward or painful position. They remarked that they wished to move it back into a more typical, comfortable position. Of course, that was impossible.

In a flash of curiosity, V.S. Ramachandran created a mirror box. He placed two mirrors together at a right angle and invited people to step inside the box. Suddenly, those who, say, lost their right arm, could see their left arm projected on the right side of their body. Inside the mirror box, it appeared that they had both arms. Then, they could “move” their missing limb into a better position by simply moving their remaining limb. And shockingly, this led to actual relief of the phantom pain! For many people, this was a permanent shift.

I love this experiment. I love that it worked. And if you’ll allow me, perhaps we can also enter this as a bit of a life analogy also:

There are times when we face one another too, and our human brains also have mirror neurons. When we see the emotions of the person standing in front of us, the neurons in our own brains begin to fire and sync with the other person. Isn’t that an incredible thing? (By the way, V.S. Ramachandran has done work on this too.)

At times,
we recognize each other and smile,
we demonstrate need to one another,
we marvel in the presence of one another,
and at times,
we present pain:
broken and insecure attachment,
grief and longing,
fear and anxiety.

In all of these, in ourselves and in others, we can choose the intention to see one another well. Certainly, with our vision, we can’t save anyone into wellness. But by choosing to mirror back what is true — love, belonging, acceptance, openness, our own humanity and vulnerability — we can create conditions that allow us to see each other and see ourselves with more clarity.

We can see each other with more truth, more safety, and more healing. And sometimes, we can reconnect or reconfigure our relationship with what we’ve lost. This too is brilliant in its creativity and in its simplicity.

Renee Roederer

The Power of an Invitation


Mother Teresa used to say, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to one another.”

I certainly don’t need to remind anyone that we have many ways of forgetting that we belong to one another. At times, we neglect our shared belonging; at other times, we create barriers purposefully, excluding some people and labeling some people, marking them as ones who stand outside our community circle.

For this reason, perhaps we underestimate the power of an invitation and forget how transformative it can be. I’ve been thinking of this after hearing a meaningful story that I would like to pass along to you today. I extend my own invitation for you to listen. It is well worth the 8 minutes:

The Transformative Power of An Invitation

The Rev. Bill Golderer talks about the rhythms of invitation at Broad Street Ministry, where people regularly hold dinner parties, extending to everyone in their neighborhood and including people who are rarely invited to other community events. The story above talks about what happened when a couple decided to share their wedding day with the whole community at one of these spontaneous dinner parties and what it was like to be invited.


Renee Roederer


I Recommend Enjoying Something You’re Terrible at Doing

The photos above probably give it away: I went to a Bob Ross Paint-Along, and it was so much fun!

And… I’m terrible at painting. I mean, look at it…

Yet I enjoyed the attempt very much. I joined some student friends at the Ann Arbor Public Library to watch a half hour video of Bob Ross, who led us in the creation of a scenic view. Unfortunately, he never said the phrase, “happy little trees,” but we created them nevertheless.

Now don’t let Bob’s soothing voice fool you. He may be calming, but gracious, he moves fast!

My first mistake was that I put waaaaay too much water on my canvas at the beginning. Bob typically uses a clear, oil base across the canvas at the beginning. We were instructed to use brushstrokes of water instead. I was too generous with this, so once I started painting in earnest, my initial, happy little trees were remarkably waterlogged. They were more like a big blob of green, floating, meh, non-trees. And the rest “took shape” from there.

It’s possible that I painted in middle school art, though I don’t remember that. I never took an art class in high school or college. The last time I clearly remember painting was when I was using watercolors at preschool age. Does it show? As an adult, it’s also clear to me now that I’ve always had some sort of spacial reasoning deficit too (fun fact: I can’t do jigsaw puzzles… like literally cannot do them. It’s intriguing!) so these things do not set me up to paint well.

But I loved the experience.

And I just want to say that it can be wonderfully refreshing to simply play, thoroughly enjoying something you’re terrible at doing. I want to recommend this in whatever the equivalent may be for you.

Too often, we’re focused on results and outcomes for their own sake. We also get caught up in comparison and competition with others. But process matters. Play matters. Enjoyment for its own sake matters. And it can be especially fun to do it with others.

Do something terribly.

Enjoy it thoroughly.

Renee Roederer