Hungry Teenagers.

This post is written as a contribution to the Mustard Seed Associates "Lenten Synchroblog" - a clever little online conversation organized by Christine Sine intended to encourage discipline, reflection and community during the season of Lent.

In order to support my blogging habit, I work part-time as a youth minister at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Factoria, WA - a suburban community just to the east of Seattle. A few months ago, before signing on for the synchroblog, my interns and I had decided to try out a slightly shocking object lesson on poverty and wealth that I learned from another youth minister. In one of those strange synchronicities, the date and lesson lined up perfectly with the suggested Lenten activity for the week - a fast where no more than $2/day is spent on food, in solidarity with the 50% of the world that lives on that much or less.

Each Sunday our youth group has a dinner together - usually high-carb, high-fat teenage fare such as pizza, tacos, nachos, pasta, etc. This week, after an anxious buildup, our group was provided with a more normal meal by world standards - a bowl of white rice - the cheap stuff, cost $6.00 for a meal for 20.

I told their parents beforehand, but I'm pretty sure that all of our youth were surprised by the meal. My intern Evan noted that he was tracing the "Five Stages of Grief" throughout the evening: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. The most common responses immediately after an explanation of why we were doing it were "I'm not eating that" and "Can we have some Soy Sauce?" and "Why didn't you get better rice?".

After dinner, our group moved through three "stations". The first was a visit to the thrift shop that operates from our church property for a firsthand look at the excess that our culture produces. After expenses, the shop has managed to give away over a million dollars to non-profit organizations during its operating run, selling only old, used, donated items that at some point an American couldn't live without. Then we watched a clip from an old video called "Affluenza" about the high cost of overconsumption, and concluded with a discussion of Jesus' suggestion that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Then I spent 45 minutes trying to keep them from breaking into my stash of junkfood.

I wish I could talk about the profound lesson that my youth learned from this - I always go into this kind of situation trying to teach. As a youth minister, it's a big part of my job, and I like to think that some level of learning happens at the events I organize. As the old cliche goes though, the teacher who pays attention to their students will learn as much as they do. The thing about this kind of experiment is that teenagers speak without the filters or reservations that come along with adulthood, and they honestly and vocally reflect back at us the values that we have been instilling in them, consciously or unconsciously. Bearing that in mind, probably the most valuable thing I can do to close this post is to pass on a few comments that were made by the group as they were going through this experience. Without me tainting your thoughts with commentary, think about the weight of these ideas as a representation of what it means to be affluent and Christian:

"But we live on the side of the world that doesn't have to eat just rice!"

"That's just how it is, you're not going to be able to change it."

"That's not true, a lot of people together could change it."

"Do we really have to go sell all of our stuff and give it to poor people?"

"I think that Jesus means you have to help people - you have to give them what they need, not just give away all of your stuff."

"Poor people have to have better rice than you gave us."

"Give us salt and sugar or we're going to tell our parents you were abusing us!"

"Can we just play a game instead of talking about this?"

"We should make our government help more people."

"How do you know that charities aren't just taking your money and spending it on themselves?"

"I think that when you have a lot of things, it means that you have to help people who don't have a lot of things."