What Do You Have?
Genesis 41:16-36 & Mark 8:1-9
by Marian Olson
July 15, 2013
I teach English to adult immigrants in Plainfield and I want to talk to you about them and how the Bible informs my work with them. My students and the classes are two of my favorite subjects, and I’m delighted to have a captive audience today to hear about them.
First, a bit about the students:
They are adults, mostly from Central America – Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic – with a few from Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. About three quarters are women with young children; the rest are men and older women. Often the men, and sometimes the women, have left families behind in their home country.
By and large, these are home-loving people who could live for generations in one place and never think to leave. On average, they have about a 6th grade education. They are not at all adventurous. Out of 100 students who come to my classes, only 1 may think of immigration as an adventure. Most think first about their duty to their families. When asked why they left home and came to the U.S., the answer almost always is, There was no work in my country. I need to help support my family back home, and I want a better life for my children.
Why is there no work in their home country? And why should we as Americans care? And what can we learn from the Bible about what is happening today?
We just heard about Pharaoh’s dream. Remember, Pharaoh dreamed about 7 fat cows followed by 7 skinny cows, and the skinny cows swallowed up the fat ones and stayed just as skinny.
Then there were 7 good ears of corn followed by 7 blighted ears, and again the bad swallowed up the good.
Joseph was brought out of prison to interpret the dream. He said that God was revealing to Pharaoh that there would be 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine. Joseph advised Pharaoh to collect 20% of the harvest during the good years, and shrewdly positioned himself to be the “discerning and wise” man in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. During the good years he “gathered up” grain, amassing such a surplus that eventually he stopped measuring it – it was beyond measure. The text is not clear whether he paid for it or simply took it, but no matter – the price would have been very low during the good years because of all the abundance.
Eventually the good years came to an end and famine arrived. When the people cried for bread, Joseph opened the storehouses and sold food to them. The famine continued. When the people had no more money (because now Pharaoh had all the money), they traded their livestock for food. And when their livestock was gone, they gave their land itself, their last means of livelihood, over to Pharaoh and became his slaves. They were no longer self-supporting. In 7 short years, they had fallen from independent landowners to sharecroppers dependant on Pharaoh’s goodwill.
So what does this have to do with Central American immigrants? Well, I would argue that trade policies between developed and developing nations (not only the United States) have created situations something like that in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund require that developing countries prioritize GDP and exports over self-sufficiency. Corrupt governments take land from indigenous peoples for mining and industrialization. Sometimes our own agricultural policies are at fault, as in the 1990’s when corn subsidies allowed U.S. farmers to export corn to Mexico at below-market prices, destroying Mexico’s corn industry and forcing farmers off the land.
What Joseph and Pharaoh did allowed Egypt to survive the famine. They also, cunningly and slyly, used the insight that God gave to them in Pharoah’s dream to increase their own power at the expense of others. There was no jubilee tradition at that time to restore the fortunes of the impoverished. I don’t know what the Egyptian attitudes were about the oppressed and the oppressors. It could well be that ethicists of the time would have applauded Pharoah’s actions; considered it the best and only thing to do, and in fact what they themselves would have done in the circumstances. Why would a person or a nation not turn a situation to their own advantage?
But still. Joseph and Pharaoh used their God-given insight not for the betterment of all, but to gain advantage over others and increase their own wealth and power. From my perspective as an American in the year 2013, they could have dealt more justly with the people who came to them seeking food. They could have used their insight to supply food and still preserved the independence of the petitioners. And yet, this story is pivotal in our faith history. The famine brought Joseph’s brothers to Egypt in search of food. Joseph would not have been reunited with his family otherwise. And this is the story of how the Israelites eventually became enslaved in Egypt, because they thrived and multiplied and the Egyptians came to resent them. And the story of how God brought the Israelites out of Egypt has sustained and inspired oppressed people for over 2000 years, and was dearly loved by American slaves and their descendants in the civil rights movement.
So God worked through Joseph and Pharaoh, and supposedly is working today through the economic oppression that drives simple, uneducated people away from their homes and extended families to find a better life in the U.S. Of course, the immigrants in my classes don’t think of their situation in terms of global forces. They are humble, they focus on immediate needs, their attitude is something like, “if God put me here in this time and place, who am I to question it?”
So that’s who the students are, and one possible Biblical connection to the meaning of their situation. Now, how am I involved with them, and why am I telling you about it? Here we come to our 2nd story: Mark’s account of the feeding of the 4000. I like that the author of Mark thought so much of this story that he included it twice: once in chapter 6 as the feeding of the 5000, and again in today’s reading in chapter 8.
In this version, Jesus initiates the conversation about the hungry crowd. The people have been listening to him for 3 days; he is worried about them; he has compassion for them; he’s afraid that if he sends them away hungry they will faint on the way home. The disciples ask, “How can one possibly feed all these people – with bread – in the desert?” And Jesus answers their question with another question, “How many loaves do you have?” In this case, the answer is 7. As in the other versions of the story, Jesus has the people sit on the ground, gives thanks to God for the seven loaves they have, breaks the bread, and gives it to the disciples to distribute. He does the same with the “few small fish” that they had; and the people “ate and were filled,” and had 7 baskets of leftovers.
For me, the core of the story is Jesus’ question. I’ve often found that Jesus’ words are specific to the situation. In this case, the need is bread, and he asks, “How many loaves do you have?” My husband Jeff uses an apt phrase when people discuss the difficulty of a situation instead of taking steps to improve it. He calls it “admiring the problem.” In our story, Jesus identifies a need, and the disciples immediately begin to “admire the problem” — “It’s impossible to feed a crowd this size! Where will we get bread? Who will pay for it? We’re in a desert, for Pete’s sake!”
And Jesus, patiently (I imagine), redirects them with a question, “How many loaves do you have?” He invites the disciples to stop “admiring the problem” and to take a step, however small, to make things better.
Okay, in this case the need was bread, and the question was about loaves. In other situations I often paraphrase the question as “What do you have?” What do you have that could improve the situation?
But you’re still wondering what this story has to do with teaching English in Plainfield, New Jersey? For me, the invitation to focus on what I already have is liberating. I can think about a way to contribute, in whatever small, simple way, rather than trying to solve the whole problem in all its magnificent complexity. When we “admire the problem,” we limit ourselves to grand gestures; we expect to do it all. But as Mother Teresa reminded us, “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.” When I remember the story about feeding the 4000, I can trust that it’s not all up to me; that God will work through others to do other things, both great and small. In The Powers That Be, Walter Wink writes, “History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being.” By applying what we have to the need we see, we can bring about change.
So the way this has played out in Plainfield is this:
In 2007, when we started the classes, there was clearly a need for English classes. Plainfield is about 40% Latino; many people have lived there for years and never had the opportunity to learn English. What did I have? I had teaching experience, and I had Monday mornings.
But how to connect with students? How to get the word out? I didn’t have any community connections, but I did have enough Spanish to write a flyer, and I knew that Latinos frequent grocery stores and laundromats, so I started there.
The first Monday there were 4 students. Pretty soon there were 12 students, and they asked for a 2nd day of classes. And it has grown from there until now about 45 committed students (and about 40 more on-again-off-again students) meet 4 days a week. At this point, I can no longer talk about what I did, or what I decide. The students, our host church, and now our volunteers and partners all have a say in how we operate. Our mission is to provide free, effective, efficient instruction in basic English to adult immigrants, in an informal atmosphere that fosters life-long learning, cooperation, self-reliance, and critical thinking.
Over the years we’ve faced a number of needs. And at each step the questions are What is the need? and What do we have? Sometimes it helps to define the need in terms of what we have.
For example, as the class grew, so did the student/teacher ratio. Before long, students were having to wait an unreasonable amount of time for teacher attention. So what is the need? Is it for teacher attention? Or for student involvement? When this problem first arose we were still an unfunded enterprise with no volunteers (except me). If we had focused on the need to find funds to hire teachers, or to find volunteer teachers willing to commit the time required, we might have been “admiring the problem.” Instead, we thought about the second part of our mission, to create life-long learners, which is what our students will be. As adult second- language learners, they can expect to be learning English for the rest of their lives. Over time, they will learn much more from one another than they will from any teacher.
So we (I) began planning lessons that required students to work together. Students sit at tables of about 6. We follow whole-class instruction with round-robin table activities, whole-table collaboration to ask and answer questions, individual or pair work where students then compare their results with others. Students expect to give and receive help from one another. These solutions advance our secondary mission of enabling students to learn outside the classroom.
Another need: Students need more practice. They can only get 7½ hours of instruction per week in our classes. The lucky ones get practice at work, but some don’t know anyone outside the class who speaks English. What do we have?
Two things: we have a space for students and classes, and we have connections with other programs. With the space, we can offer afternoon sessions, with activities that do not require teacher-led instruction. Through our connection with the Plainfield library we can offer access to a computer language learning lab, and opportunities for conversation classes and the opportunity to move into GED classes.
And so one thing leads on to another. Just as the “few small fish” appeared as the disciples distributed the bread, new opportunities arise. We’ve entered partnerships with two immigrant advocacy groups, that will give students more opportunities for community information and involvement. We have a program through the library that gives students access to conversation classes and the computer lab. One of our new volunteers wants to use music to teach English; another would like to teach a class on her own.
So we know that, whatever situation we are in, there are forces beyond our control and beyond our understanding. We know that God calls us ‘to bring good news to the poor,
release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ God call us to believe the future into being. And always, in any situation, the first question we are asked is, “What do you have?”