Experiments in Justice: How Some Middle-Class Church Folks Tried Living on Minimum Wage for Lent
by Tim Cole
Ever wonder what it would be like to try practically identifying with the experience of being poor? A group at the Bristol Vineyard in England did just that. Here's a report of what happened:
A group of us from Bristol Vineyard met together as a 10-week study group to read and talk about what it would look like for God's justice to increasingly break in to the world. We worked with a variety of texts, from biblical passages such as Psalm 72 and Isaiah 58, and with extracts from the writings of people like Ron Sider, Walter Brueggemann, and others.
One of the results of meeting together was an invitation we issued to the rest of our church community to join us in a challenge for the duration of Lent 2002. The idea came from the group Church Action on Poverty to live during the six weeks of Lent on the amount of disposable income you would have if you lived on the minimum wage (to learn what minimum wage is in your state, go to: http://www.dol.gov/esa/minwage/america.htm). Some in our church community, of course, already lived off the minimum wage or less. Many of us, however, lived off considerably more.
Our aim in doing this was to experiment with a number of ideas. First, we saw this as a chance to personally identify, in some small way, with those who live on a minimum wage. For some of us, this act of identification was a political one, and resulted in letters to local and national politicians calling for structural change. Second, we saw this as an opportunity to experience in greater measure the joy of giving. As a result of living off less, we aimed to give away what we had "saved." Third, we saw this challenge as an opportunity to intentionally pursue the spiritual disciplines of frugality and simplicity for six weeks. By intentionally living off less, we sought to invite God to change our attitudes towards money and possessions. And, finally, we saw this as a prophetic act calling others in our church to reflect upon the meaning given to money and possessions, and our attitudes towards compassion and justice.
We were very aware that this was a spiritual discipline we were pursuing within community. So alongside personally journaling our reflections on how this challenge was affecting us, we also met together to talk about the things we were discovering and experiencing. Here are some extracts from my Lent diary:
I have some confessions to make: before Lent I filled the car up with gas [editor's note: gas costs approximately four times as much in the U.K. as it does in the U.S.]. I also did a big shop at the store to fill our cupboards and the fridge! I feel a bit bad about the shameless stocking up on gas and groceries. But I was conscious that we were having people over for dinner, and a friend was arriving to stay with us for a little over three weeks. I was "scared" that living on the minimum wage wouldn't allow us to be hospitable.
Money was tight this week. Didn't have to buy any more gas for the car yet, but if we had that would have put us over our limit. On Saturday we had a wedding (it was local, so travel costs were minimal, and we had already paid for a present, so it was cheap entertainment!) But we did have my sister-in-law's birthday, so we bought flowers for her. One of the things we have talked about with the other guys doing this is how we are suddenly so much more sensitized to how much of our "entertainment" – going out for dinner with friends or to a movie – is potentially exclusive simply because of the cost. We have all started to experience having to say "no" to invitations to go out somewhere because we can't afford it on our minimum wage budget. Or worse still(!), friends say to us, "Oh, you are doing the Lent thing, so let me buy you a drink!" Which is kind of nice, but also kind of weird.
Had an interesting talk on Sunday afternoon about our experiences with some of the other folks who are doing this. Even doing simple stuff like not getting a take-out coffee feels like a "sacrifice" – giving up something that feels like a "right." It's interesting to think about the kinds of things that become "rights" so easily and quickly once your salary hits a certain level. My wife and I spent some time on Sunday talking about where we are going to give the money away, which was fun. That is the exciting bit of this whole experience, but something, of course, that long-term minimum-wage earners could not look forward to.
An expensive week feeding 9 people, rather than the normal 2, for parts of the week. Spent loads on groceries. The end result was quite a hefty overspend. But the good news is that we got an unexpected check through from the bank which cleared our overspend. It was interesting going shopping earlier this week to get a present for our niece (a Disney video). I felt repulsed by all the stuff there was in the shops. I stood in the store and looked around me and thought, "Absolutely none of this stuff is essential." I guess this exercise has made us think about what are the absolute essentials, and then what are some of the small treats that we have been allowing ourselves (we bought Ben & Jerry's ice cream last week!). It has meant that we haven't bought non-essentials. I don't know how to express it, but I almost felt nauseated by all this stuff in these shops, which all the people around us were buying, most of which was totally pointless and unneeded. I think as a couple we have always tried to live a relatively simple life, but doing this has made me think more about the difference between necessity and stuff which is unimportant and unnecessary.
We talked some more this week about where we wanted to give the money we've saved, which is so enjoyable. It's funny: intentionally living off so much less makes you realize just how much you really can give away. And it makes you look at what you normally give and realize that it is far from being sacrificial, and actually pretty miserly. We are hoping and praying that the envelopes of cash that we will be giving away to a few people in a couple day's time will be to them what that surprise check from the bank was to us.
Tim Cole is on the pastoral staff of the Bristol Vineyard, and is a professor of history at Bristol University. He is also the editor of AVC-UK edition of THE CUTTING EDGE. This article appears by kind permission of THE CUTTING EDGE editors. For an index of their past issues, go to: http://www.vineyardusa.org/publications/newsletters/cutting_edge/index.htm