The car was old—a 96 Honda—and battered. The odometer stuck at 225,000, we had no idea the real mileage.
The driver’s seat wouldn’t slide. Not bad for me as it was stuck in the back position, but short people had to stuff pillows behind their back to reach the pedals. Our friend Molly,* barely 5 foot, looked cute and comical driving it.
Friends had given it to us; eventually it became a loaner car for our friends, Jeff* and Molly. His old Caddy constantly breaking down, he would borrow the Honda for work, doing Uber Eats. The adventure began! Tickets started showing up—speeding and parking. When the Honda broke down, we’d rescue him.
Favorite story: Jeff delivered Uber Eats downtown but couldn’t remember where he’d parked. He looked for hours, finally calling in tears. It took a couple of days, but Diane had the brainstorm to call the traffic ticket office. Sure enough, it was ticketed; we barely beat the impound crew to it.
We wised up and gave them the car—now their expense. Well, actually we gave it to Molly. Their relationship imploding, we wanted to make sure she got it.
She was proud! She decorated it—things hanging from the mirror, fake white fur on the dashboard, seat covers. Money needed for other things, but the desire for something to make beautiful often trumps financial sense. Beautiful treasure compared to ratty possessions in a roach-infested motel room.
Unable to keep up financially, the Honda became home for a while. She was willing to work, but between crippling mental and physical illnesses, work was impossible to sustain.
Having a car made Molly queen. She could get around and had a place to sleep, the envy of many. Way better than a shelter, a bridge or a bush.
I think of the 96 Honda and contrast it to our former world. What a huge gap! Right now, Lexus is running their “December to Remember” sales campaign. Luxury SUV’s, sedans and sports cars—all pitched as Christmas gifts. Love someone? Give them a “December to Remember.”
Buy them a Lexus, discovered Christmas morning, out front, red bow on the roof.
Its not just Lexus. Other car makers join in, some ads cute and creative. Mercedes has Santa in one red car in the back, six black cars in front—Santa and his reindeers. Last year’s version had a cute puppy; this year’s a young reindeer tentatively nosing a Mercedes. Immediately, his nose glows and he becomes Rudolf!
GMC has one—a lean, good-looking man sits in a sleek modern home. His equally lean and beautiful wife comes in and says, “I bought us early gifts,” sliding two elegant Apple watches—one red, one black—across the counter. He smiles and says, “I got us something too.” They go outside; there sit new vehicles, a black truck and a red SUV. In a cute twist, she heads to the black truck and says “I love it!” He sputters that it is for him but she simply repeats, “I love it!” He shrugs and says, “I like red.” Beautiful people, in beautiful houses, buying beautiful gifts, a Christmas warm-up. Makes you wonder what the real Christmas gift will be!
The ads must work—Lexus runs virtually the same one every year. Most auto makers run them around Christmas. Even Hyundai!
Gotta admit that these ads—even in my former life—grate on me. Though cute and creative, they communicate this: True love is shown by buying expensive cars; true happiness comes from owning expensive cars. All done as though money is no problem. A snapshot of our world’s adoration of stuff.
Now, living on East Colfax, these ads remind me of the enormous gap between two worlds—the poorest of the poor and the middle/upper middle class.
Advertising is interesting. Does it work? Do people go out and buy (or finance) a Lexus because of these ads? I have seen hundreds of Lexus ads while watching football and I haven’t. And, while many from our former world drive expensive cars, many others—like us—get along in lesser vehicles. Though not many in a 96 Honda!
However, advertising succeeds in two ways. First, it taps into and deepens the discontent many of us struggle with. If only I had that (Lexus or Hyundai), surely I’d be happier.
Second, it powerfully shapes how we think about wealth. Ads get us to compare ourselves with those above us on the money/stuff ladder. We see Bill Gates, 100 rungs above us and we conclude this: Bill Gates is wealthy, not me!
Same thing with others—friends, family, co-workers—who are a rung or 3 or 5 above us. They are wealthy, not me! That was certainly true for me; lots had more than we did. They are wealthy, not me!
Coming to East Colfax forced my eyes downward, to those on rungs far below. Our friends are poor, desperately so. The reasons are complex and not easily solved, yet the reality is simple—they struggle to survive. Even the working poor barely get by. Others—facing huge obstacles—limp along, food and shelter constantly in doubt. Life here is grim.
East Colfax revealed an uncomfortable truth: I am wealthy!
Most likely, you are wealthy too! Having a roof, vehicles, food, smart phones, a job, makes us wealthy. Wealthier than most kings and queens. Even without a Lexus!
Some who have taken our journey—from middle class comfort to urban poverty—become angry, harshly judgmental towards their previous world. I don’t feel that way. Issues around wealth and poverty are enormously complex, defying simple solutions. Yelling doesn’t help.
That said, can I encourage you to do something this December? Take your eyes off those above you on the ladder—looking there breeds discontentment. Then, look at your own wealth and thank God. That grows contentment.
Finally, look down the money/stuff ladder to those far below, those on the bottom rungs. Enter their grim world. Imagine for a moment that 96 Honda as your home. Imagine it being even worse. Let the harsh reality of our friends’ lives pierce your comfortable bubble.
Perhaps, just perhaps, looking downward will create a holy discontentment in you with a world so broken and motivate you to do something.
Please, please, please remember the poor. Find space in your life for them. Not doing that will rob both them and you of the beautiful work God does in the presence of extreme poverty.
PS: By way of contrast, Molly sold the 96 Honda similar to the one pictured above for $500 to a homeless woman; she is currently living in it. The Lexus SUV pictured, with the sports package, runs north of $100,000.