What I learned from being poor for a month

Right now I’m blogging about my El Camino experience. If you want to see David’s take, the link to his blog is here.

Traditionally, the pilgrim went on a pilgrimage with just his cloak on his back and lots of faith that churches and kind people along the way would provide for his every material need until he reached Santiago. (And yes, I specifically used “he” because there were virtually no female pilgrims back in the day, because of the bandits and sickness and extreme cold and maybe death).

We did not go with only our cloaks. As much as we liked to feel self-righteous about our “real pilgrim” poverty, we had warm sleeping bags, hiking boots that cost hundreds of dollars and enough money to eat pretty much every day. We even had sleeping pads for the three times we slept outside. If one of us got seriously sick, we could have bailed.

We were not poor. But at the same time, we were the poorest I’ve ever been. David and I had a set budget we had for the trip, and, yeah, we had emergency money, but when you’re coming from South Africa where one of you has been a teacher and the other a volunteer, and the exchange rate is R13 for one Euro… we really didn’t have money.

I’m a bit of a control freak. I like to know how much I have, and where it’s all going, and what the plan is going to be. When I’m in my normal life, I read that verse about not worrying about life, or what I’ll eat or drink, and I say, “Fine, then I’ll just worry about my masters thesis and my job and the whole world instead of food and drink.”

But on Camino, life was stripped down to eating, sleeping and walking. Only three things to worry about. Piece of cake.

Ah, but I was quite good at worrying. The whole first three days I was calculating and re-calculating what we had spent, and berating David for not keeping track of the receipts, and living with a spirit of scarcity. On the occasion we would splurge on chocolate or spend a whole euro on a packet of chocowheel biscuits, I would want to sneak off and eat them alone instead of in the communal kitchen where I’d have to share. Shameful, but true. I’m okay sharing when I know I have enough. But hello, these are my chocowheels, and I can’t just be extravagant with them and share them willy-nilly with those undeserving people who probably can afford to go buy coffee whenever they want.

I’m into controlling and managing and planning.

Something I’m learning is the Christian life is not just abstract pieces of truth for us to think about. It’s lived, and it takes practice. This is the joy of spiritual disciplines–you actually do something in order to reshape the way you think and act and live life. So for a month, I practiced the spiritual discipline of being poor.

And I began to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, and really mean it.

I began to be amazed that the words of Jesus, “Look, the birds don’t worry because my heavenly father feeds them. You don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink” really are true. Day after day after day, I saw how God did provide. Sometimes not exactly what I wanted (a picnic area we could sleep in rather than a cheap albergue), and sometimes not when I wanted. But it was enough.

I began to open my hands a little. I began to share. I began to look for people we could invite to share our spaghetti with us in the evenings, and when they wanted to chip in to the cost say, “No, don’t bother. There’s more than enough.” There was. There was always enough. There was even more than enough.

That was the lesson that pounded through my feet and into my heart over that month. There’s enough.

The massive table at Granon
The massive table at Granon

“Where in the States are you going?” asked the albergue volunteer at Granon. “I’ve been to the States and I loved it!”

“Where did you go?” David and I asked.

“Detroit. I was there in 2008.”

David and I looked at each other.  “And you loved it?!” we said. “Sorry, that’s just not usually what people say about Detroit, especially in 2008.”

“Well,” she said, “It reminded me of Camino. People were losing their jobs left and right, and no one had anything, but they just shared what they had, and there was so much joy and generosity.”

There is enough.

In South Africa, we live in this guilt-ridden “middle-class” space, where compared to the average person in the community of Sweetwaters we’re stinking rich, but compared to David’s co-workers at school and our friends at church we’re kind of poor. And in South Africa we’re always awkwardly wondering how much to spend, and on what. Like church friends inviting us out to do somekind of expensive social thing, and thinking, “No ways do we want to spend that much money on that,” but then feeling bad about saying no, and then when people press and say, “Is it a money thing? We can cover for you,” feeling even more awkward. Because we have money. We just don’t want to spend it all on movies or lattes or wine-tastings. And so then we have to wrestle with what we should spend our money on, and every time people offer us money to join them in some social activity, having that internal debate, “Should we? Shouldn’t we? Are we being selfish if we accept the money? Are we being selfish party-poopers if we don’t?” Welcome to the guilt-ridden middle-class life.

On Camino, I was free of any of those qualms. And it was wonderful. It was so freeing to be poor. I could just accept things, and I didn’t have to sort through guilt, or make decisions, or wonder if I was taking advantage of someone’s kindness. I needed it, I couldn’t pay it back, and I knew it.

When our recently retired Korean American friends invited us to go grocery shopping with them and then completely covered the bill, we just praised God and said thank you. And they didn’t do it just once, but several times, and not just for us, but for many pilgrims.

At Logrono.
At Logrono.

At Logrono, when the volunteers served us meat and potato stew, with piles of fresh bread and salad, and took us in an underground tunnel to the cathedral to pray, the volunteer host said, “Thank you for blessing us by coming. This is what we live for, when you come, you give us a great, great privilege. A privilege one that many people in their lives never have: the privilege of getting to serve and get nothing back. It is our joy to serve you here.” And I received.

When our Florida-Venezuelan friend Jesus saw me hobbling on my wooden hiking sticks and he flung them out of my hands and gave me brand-new, high-tech hiking poles (that we could never afford), all I could do was receive.

Jesus & me

When we met up with him at Santiago, and had bear-hugs and laughter outside the cathedral, and I tried to thank him, he said in his thick Spanish accent, “Ah, you know, after Granon, when everyone went around and shared why they were really on the Camino, and you said that you had been working in South Africa and that all you wanted was to just see Christ on this trip, it really touched me and I had been looking for a person to bless, and then I knew it was going to be you. So then when I saw you walking along with those terrible sticks, I was just so happy, because I saw exactly how I could help you. So thanks, man. You gave me a chance to give.” So I received.

When in albergue after albergue, communal suppers and breakfasts were set out for us to eat as much as we could, we dropped in our coins, but we knew that they could not cover the real cost of the meal, the hot shower, and the bed. The churches and volunteers running the albergues bore the real costs. We just received.

The amazing vegan meal.
The amazing vegan meal.

When we stayed at a cheap hostel and walked over to visit our friends at their hippy-commune hostel, the hosts said, “Oh, please stay for supper, it’s just donativo and we’d love to have you eat with us.” We stayed. And we ate curried cumin carrot soup, and home-made rye bread, and salad with avocado and home-made coriander lime dressing, and Japanese style eggplant, and vegan carrot cake, and a choice of oolong or jasmine or rooibos tea to finish it all off . And at every point, the volunteers wouldn’t let us leave our seats, “It’s our joy to serve you,” they said. So we received.

A volunteer at one albergue pressed a 30 Euro note into my hand and said, “My husband and I just wanted to bless you with this.” And I received.

And then I thought of how hard it is for me to accept things in normal life. And how hard it is for me to accept not just physical gifts, but spiritual gifts as well.

It’s hard for me to accept grace. I know in my head God loves me and has freely given himself to me. But in the middle-class morality of my Christian upbringing, I’m the rich man.

It’s hard for me to get into the kingdom because I think I’ve got something to offer. Thanks for this grace, God, but, you know, I have actually got something here for you, too. I’m a pretty good girl. Look at all these amazing things I’ve done for you. And then I get critical and judgmental with myself for not doing enough, and I get critical and judgmental of other people who are not doing enough. I’m not free to receive from God because my hands are full. It’s difficult for me to receive the way I received when I was poor—joyfully, and full of relief, and thankfulness, and with both hands outstretched.

These are two things I want to carry with me from Camino. Now that we’re looking for jobs, and it’s not just tomorrow I’m trying not to worry about, but all the days after that as well… I’m trying to cling to the truths that God pounded into my soul through the soles of my feet:

There will always be enough.

And blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Or, as Eugene Peterson says, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.

With less of you there is more of God and his rule”.

Side note for the literalists: So, I’m not saying with this post that life is just one big party of seeing God’s provision every day for people who live their whole lives in material poverty. We weren’t actually poor on this trip– we were materially poor for a short period of time. Material poverty leads to (& is part and parcel of) other kinds of poverty that are deeply dehumanizing, like shame and inadequacy, and lack of opportunity, and of course we should do all we can to break people out of the cycle of poverty. And we don’t do that just by giving hand-outs. If you’re confused, watch this video. End of sermon. 

6 thoughts on “What I learned from being poor for a month

  1. Good post. Everybody needs some money, but not too much. As a comparison, on my Appalachian Trail hike, I have enough money to spend an occasional night in a hostel, with shower and dry bed, versus just my tent. I notice the younger crowd tends to skip the (paid) hostels and the motels. But they have more energy than I do, so it is essentially even. They go faster; I can stay in more hostels/motels.
    Dad Ebert


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: