A Letter to My Students: On McDonald's, Faith, and Dignity

From time to time I send emails to my classes after lectures and then share them here. This is one I sent to my Psychology and Christianity class last semester:

Hi Class,

I'll occasionally send you emails when I want to supplement something we talked about in class, or to provide you places to explore something I've shared.

On Thursday, I mentioned a book I read this summer by Chris Arnade, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Backrow America.

I'd mentioned a few things about Arnade's travels through poor (what he calls "backrow") American cities and towns, urban and rural.

The first observation was from his chapter "If You Want to Understand the Country, Visit McDonald's." This chapter will give you wholly new eyes for the fast food chain.

But you're on a college budget, so if you can't buy or check out the book from a library, here is an online article "McDonald's: you can sneer, but it's the glue that holds communities together" written by Arnade.

Also check out this recent article by Adam Chandler in The Atlantic, "What McDonald’s Does Right".

To be clear, I'm not sharing these to promote McDonald's or fast food. The articles are, rather, sociological windows into a part of America you've might not have ever known about or seen.

The other chapter I mentioned in class from the book is "God Filled My Emptiness" which recounts Arnade's first-hand experiences witnessing the power of faith in the life of the poor, addicted, and marginalized. As Arnade shares in the book:
When I went into graduate school for physics I spent six years studying the big questions--how the universe started, what it was made of, and what is our place in it. I embraced the belief that humans can understand and figure out our world, and that there was no question too big that we couldn't solve, accepting an implicit arrogance in mankind's ability to rise above our surroundings...

I was not alone. Most of us in the front row [the wealthy, privileged parts of America] had decided that it was impossible to identify absolutes, that any moral certainties in religion were suspect, and that all we could know or value was what science revealed to be quantifiable. Religion was often seen as an old, irrational thing that limited and repressed people...

Yet over the years I kept finding myself in churches, as I kept finding myself in McDonald's, going there for one reason: because the people I wanted to learn from spent their time there.

Often the only places open, welcoming, and busy in back row [poor, marginalized] neighborhoods were churches and McDonald's. Often the people using McDonald's were the same people using the churches, people who sat for hours reading or studying the Bible at a table or a booth...

This is how it is on the streets. Faith is the reality and the source of hope. Science is the distant thing that doesn't necessarily do much for you.
Quotes like these are what was sitting behind my comments in class about science and a godless view of the cosmos being a poor source for mattering and hope, especially if you're living in poor, back row America. Faith provides a source of dignity, value, meaning, and hope when all worldly metrics inform you that you're worthless, a loser, a piece of trash. This power is highlighted in the quote from Dignity I shared in class:
Takeesha was standing alone by a trickling fire hydrant, washing her face. She was working, wearing thigh-high faux-leather red boots, leopard-print pants, waving at whatever car or truck passed by. I had seen her before, and she had always smiled at me or waved...

We talked, and over the next half hour she told me her life story. She told me how her mother's pimp put her out on the streets at twelve. How she had her first child at thirteen. How she was addicted to heroin. I ended by asking her the question I asked everyone I photographed: "How do you want to be described?" She replied without a pause, "As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God."
I'm reminded, as I read Takeesha's self-description, of something Jesus said to the religious, church-going people of his day:
"I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do." (Matt. 21.31)
Have a lovely weekend. I'll see you next week.

Grace and peace,

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