And so, eventually she got curious about me and asked and said, "You're from New York City." I told her I was from New York City.
She said she would love to go there. And I said, "Well, you're college age."
She said, "Well, I'm going to college here at East L.A. Community College. And I need to stay here because I'm my mother's translator."
Her mother was a Mexican-American immigrant. And, like a lot of immigrants, the oldest child is the one who speaks both languages and is necessary to fill out forms, navigate the country.
So, she was making a decision that I think we as a broader culture should applaud. She was staying there for her family.
But I think we look at people's decisions in what I would call a "resume arms race." Everybody has to be building a resume. And, in that process, which is a very narrow way of thinking about success, it's all about getting credentialed so you can make more money.
It's a very, very material definition of success.
For people who don't value that, who don't want the value of that very narrow framework, you have to give up the non-material forms of meaning like place, family, and faith, because those are considered to be in opposition to this arms race of building the best resume. And so, I think it's particularly an elitist view.
Being materialistic is very much an elitist view of the world because one of the things we're all gifted at birth is these values and these meanings that don't require a resume to have, like family, like place, and like faith. You don't need a resume into the church. You don't need a resume to find beauty in your local community or to be a member of your family.
Chris, could you talk about faith in the back row?
I came into this project an atheist. I certainly wasn't a nasty atheist. I was very always respectful of other people's faiths and views. But, in the back of my mind, I would have laughed at somebody who was religious, or at least thought maybe they should learn a little. And then, certainly by the end of the project, I wouldn't call myself religious, but I do go to church.
In the project I spent a lot of time in McDonald's because that's where the people I was learning from spent time. And likewise with churches, I spent a lot of time in churches because that's where the people I spent time with went.
I went to every denomination. I tried to try to go to the denominations that were most reflective of the community I was in. I tried to go to the churches that I guess, I think, theologically would probably be considered in the back row.
Places that had improvised spaces. So, there was one that was a former... I think it was a former Kentucky Fried Chicken, had been turned into a church. Another was an old gas station that had been turned into a church. Another was an old furniture store in a strip mall. Another was someone's house.
I came away personally moved by the experience... this was a very important part of people's lives. It was just wrong of me at many levels to dismiss it as nothing more than just a silly way of living, but also, at a personal level, I came away realizing that there was a lot there that I didn't appreciate.
What is important when churches minister to back row America?
I mean, I think from a purely pragmatic standpoint, I think the most important thing about the church is that they get people they're preaching to.
You go into a nonprofit in these communities or you go into these secular institutions, and they're not made up of people from the community. They're often outsiders who are well-intentioned. There's nothing wrong with that, being an outsider who's well-intentioned, but with a few exceptions, most of them haven't gone through a rough life, haven't experienced a lot.
You go in the churches, and it's their people. It's their community. They get them, at not just at an intellectual level but a lived reality level.
Also, that faith is a way to live that gives people guidance. Answers that give people a structure.
The first level of academica getting religion is pragmatic. They'll simply view it as something that's useful. I think the second level, which is much deeper and much more real, is to see it as something that isn't just useful but also so powerful and true. My own intellectual journey was getting beyond the first level of, "Oh, it's just a useful thing," a scientific solution, like, "Oh, these poor people have religion. That's good for them because it's useful," and moving on to the next, which is to see a religious worldview as equally valid to how I think about things.
I think to a large degree that the Catholic Church has done a pretty good job of understanding the people it serves.
I often went to Catholic churches as well, because I consider myself Catholic, and when traveling, I would like to go to different churches, and I think one of the things that did frustrate me is I can walk into a church and within half a minute tell you how wealthy the neighborhood around me is. You can just see by the amount of donations given. I mean, the donation differences are just staggering. You get some churches that collect $7,000 a week and others that collect $35 a week.
I think some outreach between [rich and poor Catholics] would be helpful. I think... and certainly, the people in the wealthier congregations and parishes having a little more understanding of their privilege and how the experience of being a Catholic might be different if you're in El Paso, for instance.
Do you have expectations for how things might change for the back row as a result of where we are right now, in terms of the pandemic and the resulting economic collapse? I’ve hoped it will lead to a greater sense of solidarity among people.
I'm probably about as cynical as I've ever been about it right now. I hate to try to throw water on your fire, but I mean, I'm looking at how the pandemic's playing out, and it's becoming a disease of the poor. All the solutions we proposed, as much as I agree with them, are pretty comfortable for the wealthy and pretty uncomfortable for the poor.
Sheltering in place, I think the word “place” covers a lot of ground there that we tend not to think about, but I certainly hope at a philosophical level that we come out of this, that people who can shelter in a nice place maybe understand that that's a privilege and that it's much easier for them to do that — come out of this with a greater awareness of how hard this is for a lot of people.
What can people do?
I mean, that's the problem is, with a pandemic, there's not much we can do right now other than recognize privilege and hopes going forward that we take that into account when we think about judging other people for not doing what we're doing, or scolding them for taking walks outside, or wanting to go to church in some capacity when the pandemic eases going to some sort of limited service.
I think we need to get back to being social again, probably before the credentialed experts tell us is a good time. I respect people enough to believe that they can make their own choices and see what's right.
I think, in the longer term though, one of my biggest frustrations with my book, and I think a lot of readers’ frustrations is I don't offer solutions, because I'm not sure I know them.
I don't know how you get people en masse to start saying, okay we need to value things differently. I think, one person at a time. If somebody in a comfortable suburb recognizes that their parish or their congregation is well off and others aren't, I mean that's the first step. Make a personal decision about how you think you can best address that.
I think it's important to treat people, everybody you meet, with respect, and again not pity them. I think many people look at those who are in the back row as people who need to be saved or changed, and maybe the best thing to do is just listen to them and give them the dignity of actually treating them like an equal.
That means sometimes not liking them. You don't have to like everybody. When people ask "What can I do with the homeless person?" And I say like, "Have a conversation with them. Treat them like a normal person. If you don't like them, you don't like them."
Chris, if you don't mind my asking, having gone through this experience, what do you pray for and what do you encourage other people to pray for?
What I pray for changes. I still hear from a lot of people who I wrote about in the book, who have my phone number and text me all the time. I pray for them, and for my family.
I guess, my greatest hope from this whole thing is that the reader comes away with an understanding that, in very rare instances, almost everybody who reads this book is going to have more privilege than the people in the book. And so, a little perspective. When it comes down to it, it's the old phrase, "Before you judge somebody, walk a mile in their shoes." I pray that message gets into people, that they can see that they themselves probably have a lot better than they realize.
And before you judge somebody, again, know what they've gone through.
This was an edited excerpt from a longer conversation between Chris Arnade and CNA. The entire conversation can be heard here.