Wealth: A Mennonite’s experience in London

Pedestrians on the London Bridge during the evening commute out of the City of London

I’ve always known I’ve had a problem with The Rich. I had a bias against The Rich for a long time. It also took me a while to notice I was one of them. I had expected to have inner conflicts by traveling to “third-world” countries (low life expectancy, low standard of living, low literacy rates, high poverty) and being faced with extreme poverty – not only an opposite lifestyle than I was used to, but also a lifestyle that was in direct relationship with my lifestyle : my demands had caused their poverty.

I’ve also known that Mennonites have appeared to favor missions and outreach to places with high levels of poverty and have had few resources to spend for missions and outreach to the upper echelons of society. I knew for this reason that living in one of the highest affluent areas in London could prove interesting as a missionary. I hadn’t, however, expected inner conflicts and deep moments of pain and sorrow as a result.

Have you tried living in the world’s most expensive city while having a deep theological and personal foundation of identity in walking with and learning from the Poor of the earth? It’s trying and tiring.

I look out my window on this unseasonably sunny day with a clear view across the way to a Palace. Literally. It’s named Alexandra Palace. I pass by multi-million dollar homes with painted white facades, pillars, and marble steps on my way back from my choir practice. I do not have some of the luxuries many people in the U.S. deem necessary (car, air conditioning, own bathroom). Yet I am still living in a wealthy neighborhood, in a wonderful house, in the most expensive city in the world. In some ways, it is good to face up to what society I am really a part of – no matter the details (living on stipend, volunteering work), I am a part of one of the highest echelons of London society. From what I know, ‘normal’ working people cannot afford to live in the city of London, let alone in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods.

There are times, however, where I notice that there is an even greater gap between me and the highest echelons of society here in London; times in which I almost feel “poor” in comparison. I was walking along Brompton Rd, south of Oxford Circus, having extra time before my choir rehearsal in South Kensington. Due to various events of the day, I was eating my packed supper as I walked – carrots, celery, crispbread and an orange with peanut butter. I noticed the people walking around me – all in at minimum professional business wear, and at maximum “to the nines”. I felt like a dirty mutt who straggled into a world premier event such as the Oscars – I was clearly in a place where I did not belong. I wasn’t in ragged clothing, nor had I forgotten to perform my daily hygiene rituals. Yet the feeling within me was clear: I did not belong here. At the same time, the entire experience was surreal. Where in the world was I? And why was I here? And how and where does Christ work in this part of the world? I was chomping on my crisp orange carrot, occasionally adding some protein with the peanut butter, as I walked along a street whose shops would charge their customers easily £300 for their on-sale shirts. Eventually it was time to turn around for the choir rehearsal, but the feeling was quite palpable, and has not left me since.

However, that time on Brompton Rd was not the only time I felt as if I was in a different world where I did not belong. I had the feeling many times: in Highgate village, on the tube, riding the bus through nice neighborhoods. I was shocked, amazed, and deeply saddened that this wealth was present in the world. I was even used to considering myself among the top 2% in the world … I hadn’t realized how many people likely made up that 2% in the world – and what gaps of wealth could be present even among that 2%. And seriously, if all that wealth is held in the top two percent of the entire world, something is fundamentally and irreparably wrong with this world – something inhumane has happened over time. I should take that back – I shouldn’t say irreparable, because even within a cynic like me, I operate my life on optimism and faith that one day Good will transform Evil and that Love will finally emerge as the dominant world power. I must say, though, struck with this wealth – I wonder which direction it will turn me – to apathy or to action for change. I sincerely hope for the latter – but I must admit that even after years of activism I am still asking myself what can I do and what can one person do and how will it ever make a difference?

It strikes me as well that my wealth is the source of my liberty of time to consider how best I shall live my life. Is it not often the middle-classes and higher economic levels of societies that take time to wonder into philosophy and reflect on how we should live? Or who are able to go through higher education to gain slight distance and a critical eye for the world in which we live? We are not constrained by the everyday choices of food or shelter. My wealth therefore gives me the burden (or privilege) of change on which to act or dismiss.

I wonder, I cry, and I hope that I will be moved to some sort of effective and compassionate action for change – towards acknowledging wealth disparities and mourning – through actions – the wealthy’s sins.

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A few points to recap and encourage discussion (I know it was long!):

How and where does Christ-of-the-people work? “The healthy do not need a doctor” (Matt 9:12) often leads us to think Christ came preferentially for the poor, but are not the wealthy also sick?

If all that wealth is held in the top two percent of the entire world, something is fundamentally wrong with this world – something inhumane has happened over time.

My wealth gives me the burden (or privilege) of change.

How do other YAR readers and writers feel about wealth disparities in the world and your “place” in society? In particular perhaps, how Mennonite (and Anabaptist?) emphases on simple living and attending to people’s basic needs have affected your thoughts and feelings on the subject of wealth.

Photo by Tim Nafziger, April 2014. From series: London Bridge Portraits

Comments (5)

  1. jdaniel

    Sharon,

    Thanks for this post. I am grateful for the Anabaptist emphasis on simple living. However, even with that emphasis, many of us been lulled by the siren song of wealth and comfort. I echo your desire to not grow complacent or apathetic, but admit that it is a struggle and good answers and freedom from hypocrisy are not fully in my grasp. (That’s not an excuse to give up!)

    Earlier today, before reading your post, I noticed this BBC article online: Richest 2% own ‘half the wealth’.

    jdaniel

    Reply
  2. Hootsbuddy

    One touchstone of faith for me has been the Catholic Workers. I became aware of them in 1963 when I came across a copy of The Catholic Worker paper, priced to this day at one cent. The life and work of Dorothy Day is a study in how wealth and power puzzle together with politics, wealth disparity and living a life of faith. She has been dead now for some time, but the movement she began in the thirties, a hybrid of Socialism and Christianity, was manifest in a faithful Roman Catholic who was a thorn in the side of the Mother Church all the years she lived.

    You might find it helpful to read about how that movement comes to terms with the inequities you describe.

    Reply
  3. BeccaJayne

    Sharon-

    It’s encouraging to read about others’ struggle with a world that puts so much emphasis on material wealth. I, too, find myself overwhelmed when trying to think how and if we’ll ever wake up. I’ve been thinking about St. Francis a lot recently and the way he chose to live joyfully in simplicity. Living simply can be grating; we are constantly told that we are different, strange, foolish for not saving for (fill in the blank here). I lived in Leeds, England for a year as a Rotary Int. Ambassadorial Scholar; I was expected to attend black-tie functions, appear as a “barbie doll” in public, and give speeches about American culture. Ironically, it was 2001, so there I was talking about the power of non-violence and simple living, offering up an alternative view of Americans. But like your entry explored, I felt weird b/c I felt very uncomfortable most of the year. At Christmas, I remember thinking that finally, I would be getting away from the materialistic madness of the Holidays–as you know, I was in for a rude awakening! Know that you’re making a difference in the way you choose to live your life. If you’re anything like me, you can begin to think about EVERY decision, which can be dangerous. Be gentle with yourself. :) I do miss the mulled wine and mince pies at Christmas–enjoy them!
    Thanks again for your thoughts…hope to hear from you again.

    Reply
  4. TimN

    Sharon,

    I dealt with many of the same questions you raise while I was in London and I’d second what Hootsbuddy says. One of the things that helped me tremendously was getting involved with London Catholic Workers. They are a community committed to radical hospitality and have been working for years to buy their own house to host folks who need a place to stay. In the meantime they’ve been doing soup kitchens in Hackney.

    Most conveniently, they meet at St. Joseph’s in Highgate which is only a 15 minute walk from the Mennonite Centre. Check them out:

    London Catholic Worker

    Reply
  5. Veronica

    Hi Sharon, I just stumbled on your blog through Tim Nafziger’s. One thing I struggle with is the economic inequality even within our little Mennonite church. Ed and I are not rich in terms of average UK income but we are very comfortable and never have to worry about money. I’m so aware this isn’t true of others in the congregation. And I don’t know what to do about it, without embarrassing people. Help!

    Reply

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