LBTL – rich girl, poor girl – day 1: cost control

It’s only half way through the first day of Live Below the Line – rich girl, poor girl at the Sanctuary, and already the effects are palpable. But they don’t relate to the physical experience of what has been eaten and drunk so far. Instead they are all about the emotions that have surfaced during the preparations of the last few days…

rich girl  poor girl

The images say it all. The contrast doesn’t even really need to be spelt out.

Around £30 simply buys you a lot more than £5. And then of course, if you’ve forgotten something during the week or you go out with friends, or need a bit of a boost on a heavy day, you are free to top this up.

There’s variety, colour, freshness, nutrition, health, plenty and even one or two luxuries…

It’s not in any way excessive. In fact, it’s probably on the modest size compared to many UK shops. Plus it even allows you to speak up for the poor and the environment – Fairtrade tea; locally sourced meat, cheese and eggs…

But it’s hard to look at next to just nine basic and unappetising items.

Especially with the weight of that statistic behind them – 1.4 billion… every day… suddenly it doesn’t seem so moderate.

Poor girl reflects:

‘Last year I was doing this exercise with a friend. This year I’m alone. And the cost is already much higher.

‘First up it’s the practical stuff. £5 for one simply doesn’t go as far as £10 did for two. Economy of scale is biting this week.

‘I do gain control though. The cost of not doing this in community is that I have less food and less variety than I did last year. But I also have more control over how that money is spent – I can decide to play to my strengths and weaknesses.

‘So I’ve opted for less food and variety in order to have things like a bit of lemon juice for my hot water – a ‘luxury’ I was denied when I did this exercise in community last year.

‘But even as I think about this sense of control, I feel uncomfortable. Because that’s the whole point isn’t it? I am in control. I’m choosing to do this.

‘I’m not one of the 1.4 billion people doing this for real – with little or no choice. And little or no control. At any point I can choose to stop.

‘Doing my food shopping was isolating. Rich girl filled her basket separately while I combed the aisles with my calculator in hand – trying to choose between cheap cheese spread for my pitta bread or chilli and garlic to flavour my dal spin off…

‘It’s a spin off because would you believe it? I couldn’t afford lentils and rice… so I’m using yellow split peas instead. And I couldn’t afford spices either so I’m not particularly looking forward to having it for lunch and tea today, and every day this week.

‘Making every decision on my own was tougher than I’d anticipated. But this was still ok.

‘The worst thing has been the emotion.

‘I spend a lot of time looking at these issues, and hearing the stories of the individuals behind the statistics. I pray about poverty; write about poverty; try to act and give to change poverty; and bring poverty into my song-writing as much as possible.

‘I guess I spend a lot of time imagining what it’s like to be in the shoes of those who have so little – both in terms of material resources and opportunites – and I feel a great deal of compassion already. In all honesty, I have made a lot of radical changes to try and bring change.

‘So why is this exercise having such an impact on me?

‘Last year, in some small way, I got a taste of life below the line – food became fuel and I was low on energy. I “looked” at what it might be like to live in poverty in a different way. It was helpful but it was ok.

‘But this year I’m heartbroken.

‘I’m imagining what it’s like to be in the shoes of those who have so little looking at those who have so much. And the problem is that means I’m looking at me.

‘When I look at rich girl’s food, I’m looking at my food. Somehow, looking at them both together prevents me from looking away when I’ve had a bit more of the injustice than I can stomach.

‘And it’s that emotion I’m already finding hard to control. That is the true cost of this week for me. That and facing up to the potentially transformative question, where on earth it will lead me next week and the week after?’

It seems as if, rich girl and poor girl are already having more similar experiences this week than they might have expected given their different roles. Because rich girl is also troubled by the emotions rising from the two contrasting  images in front of her:

‘What I feel most so far is shame. A deep sense of shame. And a desire to hide what I really consume in the light of others that have so little.

I wanted to crop the image of my food, to cut back a bit on what was there, to make it seem less excessive in comparison to the nine items beside it.

‘Yes it’s hard having so much more than my friend. But she’s in control. She’s making the choice to pay the physical cost of this experiment this week. But the people sitting behind her at the table aren’t. And that’s deeply troubling me in a new way.

‘I don’t have too much to say today. I guess maybe I don’t feel I have the right. I’d rather be one of the voiceless ones today than own up to the fact that I know how privileged I am and yet don’t always act with that in mind.

‘I’m already thinking… it’s just because of where I was born and the family I’m living in. The education I have. It’s all because of opportunities…

And if so, what are the responsibilities that come with that? Am I fulfilling them? Because God doesn’t care more about me than each of those 1.4 billion – I have no more right to my life of privilege.

If I have it, surely it is to share it – to lay it down. The  real question is how much is too much?

So yes, this week is uncomfortable already. Perhaps no more than we were expecting. But certainly more than last year.

The inequality is offending us. But this isn’t a bad thing.

We don’t want to be ascetics. We don’t want to not enjoy the good gifts we’ve been given. We’re not suggesting we should become malnourished ourselves.

But equally… we’re constantly questioning what is enough? Especially when our excess could be distributed to meet someone else’s need, to help others enjoy the good gifts too…

There’s a scene, right near the end of the film, in Schindler’s List where the protagonist is fleeing ahead of the liberation of the camps. He completely breaks down. He throws his wristwatch on the floor – thinking how many more jews he could have saved from death or a living hell if he had gone without it.

This is the tension we’re feeling.

Yesterday, our pastor was preaching a crucial sermon. He tweeted beforehand that he wanted to ‘leave everything on the field’ – an analogy meant to mean that you give everything to the game and hold nothing back for yourself.

If we only have one life, and we want to live it for Christ – fully and completely – it should surely affect everything.

On this journey of a lifetime of learning more about poverty, God’s broken heart for the individuals affected by it, the injustices and human causes behind it, and our power as pray-ers, givers and campaigners to change it… we want to know that here – as well as everywhere else – we’ve given everything we could to the kingdom of love, justice, kindness and transformation.

When it comes to our usual food shopping – rich girl and poor girl alike – we’re already wondering, is that what our lives look like?

A prayer of (dis)comfort

Lord, the table we’ve come to sit at today is uncomfortable –
Not because of the meagre rations on one side
But because of the comfort on another.

We want to get up and leave it,
To look away and return to our last stage of revelation
Where we were comfortable with our current level of ‘sacrifice’.

But we won’t.
Because it reminds us of another table – yours.
Where everyone has the same bread and wine because of the incredible cost you paid.

And so in the pain and shame we feel, we’ll stay sitting here –
Not because of a commitment to see this week out
But because we long for our whole lives to be transformed and to bring transformation.

Lord, we want to work towards a different table –
Where we thankfully have just enough
And generously and joyously share the rest so there is no more 1.4 billion not invited.

But we don’t know how, and we need you in this – as in everything
To show us what is enough. And above all to ensure
That in our reciveing and our giving is grace, grace, more grace and always love.

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