Learning the Meaning of Wealth

Welcoming Table with tea pot and flowersFor the first nine years of our marriage, Mike and I lived the lives of students. We were married in college, then Mike did his Master’s degree, then I did my Master’s degree, then I began doctoral work. This meant that we lived very frugally during most of our marriage, by which we both learned a great deal for which we are very thankful.

During our time at Asbury Theological Seminary, where we did our Master’s degrees, after paying for tuition, fees, and books, the budget we had worked out was based on an amount that would have been considered below the poverty level at the time. Really, this seems to be to be such an exaggeration as a reflection of our quality of life, as our families were quite generous in helping with our irregular expenses, like buying plane tickets for our visits during the holidays or, one year, chipping in on a minor surgery I had. And for holidays and birthdays, they sent cash our way, which Mike spent on beer and homebrewing supplies and I spent on clothes, shoes, and coffee. So we were never lacking food or warmth, and we always had the sense that life was full.

A couple of years ago I realized this was the same fullness I had experienced as a child. According to my mom, early on, we apparently did not have much money. My dad was an enlisted G.I.; my mom held jobs as a short-order cook or bagger at the Commissary. She describes that time cheerfully: “When we wanted to go out, we would go to McDonald’s; and when we wanted to go somewhere fancy, we would go to Pizza Hut!”

As a kid, I don’t remember ever worrying about money, and I don’t remember my parents being anxious about it. When my mom relayed this tidbit to me, I was surprised to consider that there was ever a time when we didn’t have much more than we could have ever needed. I realize that the seeds for my understanding of abundance and meaningfulness and fullness were planted long before I intentionally began to think about what those things might represent.

In 2004 Mike and I met Susan Maina. Like the introduction to homebrewing, our newfound relationship with Susan was, for me, one of the single most significant influences for directing our path toward the life we are now striving to live. Susan and her family are from Kenya, part of the Kikuyu tribe, and Susan’s husband, Joseph, had come to the United States to study. He had been working on a doctorate in missiology at a school in Ohio, but by some chain of events (his mentor retired and the school decided to discontinue their doctoral program…?—I am notoriously awful at remembering these kinds of details, and I’m sure Mike would offer a much different account), he transferred to Asbury to finish his program. So we found ourselves living in a duplex next door to a family from Kenya, which became one of our richest experiences to date, particularly in learning the meaning of community.

Joseph was often out of town, as he had steady work with friends in Ohio and needed the money. He had lived in the U.S. for something like five years before his family had been able to obtain Visas (and, presumably, funds) to come to the U.S. Their eldest daughter had stayed behind in Kenya with her two children, but Susan came with their three other daughters (one of whom immediately departed to attend college in Texas) and their son.

I was not home when they moved in, but I don’t think the Maina family came to the U.S with much more than suitcases. Their home was furnished by the International Student Ministries at Asbury, and in order to accommodate the three children in the two bedroom apartment, Susan created a bedroom for Alex by partitioning off the dining room area with a sheet. I am relatively certain that there were days when they got up in the morning with an empty fridge, and though they had not mentioned it, by the end of the day, someone from their church or the seminary had placed bags of groceries on the door handle or concrete step.

And yet the Maina family was Kenyan, which meant that their home was always open. Susan was constantly cooking up delicious meals: samosas, ugali, greens, beans, potatoes (poh-tah-toesss)—whatever was on hand. On one special occasion, roasted goat. We learned to love British-style, Kenyan tea, which, for Mike, included inordinate amounts of sugar that made Susan laugh.

The first time Susan ever visited our house, I recognized the meaning of wealth. Mike and I had been married for about a year and a half. We did not make a habit of spending money on furnishing our place because we had never had the money to do so. But somehow we had plenty of stuff. Mike’s aunt and uncle had owned a furniture store, so for our wedding present, they gave us a brand new couch, coffee table, side table, lamps, and dining set; they are just plain generous people, but they had felt particularly burdened to do this as we were studying to be in “the ministry.” Also, Mike’s mom had a sweet set of antique Queen Anne chairs with beige, paisley upholstery, rose-patterned arm and head-rest covers, and solid, cabriole legs that she had grown tired of and given to us. And Mike and his dad had built a wide oak shelf for our CDs and records, which stood next to two bookshelves we had purchased for $14 each after the banana boxes we had previously used as shelves had finally worn out.

Susan had come over to ask something—it slips my mind as to what it was. But she paused in the entryway, resting her hands on the back of one of the Queen Anne chairs and looking around almost in wonder.

“This is a very nice house,” she said breathily, patting the chair and continuing to gaze steadily around the room.

Perhaps she was just being extra polite, and the cultural difference caused me to misunderstand her compliment as awe. Perhaps not. But I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed as I thought of their mismatched, used couches, the sheet hanging in the front room, the faded lampshades and the fullness of their lives. I felt ashamed at recognizing how wealthy we were, we who were living pretty close to the American “poverty” level, and how little we recognized that wealth. I discovered new clarity with regard to the meaning of economic wealth.

Sometime in the next year, as we continued to learn from Susan and the bags of groceries, I said to Mike, “It’s amazing to see how much faith she lives with every day. There are times when they literally have no idea where their food will come from, and then it appears. I wonder if I could have the kind of faith that Susan has.”

I think with wisdom Mike responded, “But you aren’t in a situation where you have to have that kind of faith. She has to.”

There were and are plenty of other ways that God has challenged and is challenging us to live faithfully. And we are endlessly discovering what that means. We have found this most of all as we are invited into lives and faith that we would otherwise never get to experience.

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