Guest Post: Amanda (Held) Opelt on Working with "Those People"


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
Transient

(Photo by The Voice of the Eye)

I'm so pleased to share this guest post from my awesome little sister, Amanda. Amanda lives in Nashville with her husband Tim and works for the Christian Women's Job Corp. When she was little, she went through this weird phase where she was convinced her throat was closing up, so she wouldn't eat anything. But as you will see in this post, it seems that these days Amanda's not really afraid of anything. I'm proud beyond words. 

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 Dateline recently ran a special with Brian Williams called "Hurricane Katrina: the First Five Days"  The images struck me afresh: families punching their way out of attics, the looting, bodies floating face down in the water.  

But the most alarming shots were perhaps those taken at the Superdome and convention center, where thousands of people were crammed like sardines for five days with hardly anything to eat or drink.  They had gathered in those designated locations at the request of the authorities, yet after Katrina hit, the authorities all but vanished, and day after day went by without any sign of help.  They were stuck.

With no sanitation and 95 degree heat, fear and desperation set in.  There are hours of footage of frantic mothers crying out to the mayor, the governor, or the president to please come and bring food for her children.  Old people died in their wheelchairs. And while the media was able to reach the masses, somehow, the national guard and FEMA were not.  As Brian Williams said, a few simple air drops of food and water could have saved lives.  But the help came too late.

As I look at the faces in that crowd at the Superdome and Convention Center, I notice that while the people there are of all ages, they seem to have a few things in common.  Most are minorities, and most appear to be low income.  It was, in fact, the poor of New Orleans, who had gathered in these "safe places"- the poor who had no cars to drive to Baton Rouge, no family members or friends to stay with, and no money for hotels.  

I can't help but wonder why America did not howl in outrage over the images that came in those first five days.  Why did we not demand that help be sent?  Was it that the people in the photos did not remind us enough of ourselves?  Did we mistake the video as being that of a third world autocracy?  

I worry that the evangelical community has a narrow understanding of what an "American" is. We tend to stick in our suburban, middle class sanctuaries- we are inundated by a world of upper class media and entertainment.  If we choose not to drive out of our neighborhoods, we have no way of knowing anything else exists in our country.  Yet in Nashville, 36% of families with young children live in poverty.  That's 73,000 people.   41% don't have a high school education, and thousands more go without food on a regular basis.  That's America.  

Transient

I began working at the Christian Women's Job Corp (a non-profit that provides education and mentoring for low income women) about 2 years ago, and have heard stories come out of this city that you wouldn't believe.  Just yesterday, I met a woman who was sexually assaulted by her mother's boyfriend for 5 years- finally, at age nine, she began to cut herself so that the boyfriend would be sickened by the blood and leave her alone.  I can still see the scars on her arm.  And we wonder why she has a hard time holding down a job!

I've met women who survive on tuna and peanut butter.  I've met women who've never slept in a bed of their own.  I've met women who remember burning crosses being staked in their front yards.  I've met women who sleep with their abusive boyfriends because that boyfriend is the only ride they have to work.  Those were the type of women who were stuck in that Super Dome, and for whatever reason, they were not worth an air drop.

A friend asked me the other day , "Do you ever get tired of working with 'those people'?"  I didn't have to ask what he meant by "those people"- he was thinking of a woman on welfare, probably with darker skin than mine or his, probably toting around 3 children, probably dressed in a mis-matched top and sweatpants- probably overweight (45% of women in poverty are overweight due to lack of fresh food at local markets and high levels of the stress hormone cortisol).  

But behind every woman like that you see on the street is a story, a lifetime of pain and a head full of dwindling hopeSometimes I do get tired, but I am convinced that poverty is not simply the result of laziness.  It is the result of generational deprivation, poor education, racism, class-ism, etc.......and then, of course, really bad decisions.  But those decisions are not made in a vacuum.  And I wonder if somehow my middle class lifestyle, and my ignorance helped to sustain that environment in which such dreadful depravity is cultivated.   

 Friday night, my husband and I were driving in a low income neighborhood, known for high crime rates.  I said, "This is not safe for us."  Tim said, "We shouldn't be here."  But then we looked at each other and realized what we'd said.  The truth is, if it's not safe for me and Tim, it's not safe for anyone.  It's not safe for that woman in her McDonald's uniform walking home from work.  It's not safe for that African American man with the grocery bags.  Their lives are worth just as much as ours, but I fear, were they to be attacked or robbed, no one would take notice.  

Last year, a little boy was shot and killed on the floor above one of my student's public housing apartment.  I did not hear a thing about it on the news.  The Dateline special showed a little girl from New Orleans crying out for her dead grandmother.  Do we not think that her pain is as real as ours?  Her dreams not as important?  Her life not as valuable?

I hope, in the aftermath of Katrina, we pay attention to what those waters washed up.  We saw the face of American poverty. We don't have to go to Africa or Asia to find people in need.  They are a mile down the road, and it will take all of us, every church member mobilized and moving in order to alleviate the suffering and need.  Someone once said that God is not looking for our spare change.  He is looking for our very lives.  Are "those people" worth giving it up for?

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Can you see why I am proud of my little sister? If this post resonated with you, please share it with your friends or consider making a donation to the Christian Women's Job Corp. I can assure you that the money will be well-spent because Amanda and her team will be the ones spending it! 

Do you think the evangelical community has a narrow view of what "American" is? How can we address this?

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