Money Choices and the Rightness of Grapes

I have a confession to make.


I pay someone to clean my house.


And that’s not all.


I am white. And the woman I pay to clean my house is brown-skinned and speaks so little English (and I so little Spanish) that we communicate mostly by gestures, or through phone calls to her daughter who translates for us.


And that’s not all.


I paid this woman to clean my house for 10 months when my income was under zero.  That is, during a time when I was spending more on my new business than what I was bringing in. 


Elitist?  Racist?  Irresponsible?  Maybe.


In any case, I’ve found that in most social justice and religious circles moral judgement intersects with financial decision-making all the time.


And in my experience the right/wrong judgments we make about how we, and others, use money often cause more harm than good. In fact, I’ve found that often what looks “right” might actually be closer to “wrong,” or at least not helpful to ourselves or the world.


One story from my past stands out as a turning point for me in relation to my thinking on this topic.


In 1989, I was a new teacher at a school I often describe as being “founded by flower children.”  It was a small private school in Chicago that served mainly low-income families and we, the teachers, subsidized the cost of tuition with our extremely low salaries.  Working at this school was my introduction to the world of liberal social-justice-oriented Christianity, which was a far cry from the socially, politically and fiscally conservative Christianity I’d grown up with. 


Anyway, all the teachers and administrators at the school worked extremely hard for very little money because we believed that all children should have access to an amazing education.  We wanted to change the world, to make it better.  But many of us were also quickly burning out.


I remember one day I was having a conversation with another teacher from my school.  In addition to working at our school, she was living in an intentional community, sharing a house, money and other resources with other adults who were doing various types of social justice work around the city.


I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but I do remember this.  She had decided that it was okay for her to buy grapes.


The grape boycotts of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were started in support of California’s grape pickers, who were working under terrible conditions.  So, good social-justice types were not supposed to buy grapes.  Her statement, in this context, was surprising, even shocking. I’ve never forgotten it.  Not because I was horrified at the thought of her grape-buying.  At the time, I was new enough to the social justice community that I don’t think I even knew about the grape boycotts.  What was shocking to me was that she’d opened the possibility that a “wrong” decision could be “right.”


The values behind the boycott were values that my friend believed in—fair pay and humane conditions for immigrant farm workers—but what she had discerned was that in that particular moment, it wasn’t her battle to fight.  At least not in that way.  And she risked the judgement of her peers when she followed her heart, rather than the “moral right checklist.”  But she also protected her heart, her ability to love, by accepting her limitations.


Here’s the thing.  We humans, we’re amazing, AND we are limited.  We live in bodies that need rest and play and nourishment.  We live with hearts and souls that also need rest and play and nourishment.  My friend had realized that she was wearing herself out analyzing every small decision she made.  She needed to pause and hear from her heart about what it was that was hers to do in the world.  And to do that.  Just that.


At that moment in her life, she sensed that the grape boycott was taking energy away from her ability to do the work she felt clearly called to do, her work with children and her work for peace.


She had to let it go. 


She hadn’t stopped caring about the needs of those workers.  She was just admitting her limitations at that moment. 


When we first hired a house cleaner last summer, freeing up 16 hours a month was way of honoring my work as I step out into leadership in new ways.


It was a tangible way that my husband demonstrated that he believed in me, an investment in my work to support teachers, moms and minority college students, my work for social justice and to nurture love and healing in the world.  


He could have argued that since I was working from home anyway, and wasn’t making much money, I should do the cleaning too.  Logical in one sense, by the rules of frugality, but not in another.


Please don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t think my work is “more important” than cleaning.  It’s just that doing the work I’m called to do is more important than doing work that I (or someone else) thinks I’m “supposed” to do. 


Like my friend, who began buying grapes so many years ago, I remain committed to fighting the unjust systems that make it easier for me, a middle-class white woman, to be in the position to pay for a house cleaner and more likely that the people I hire will be women of color. 


I also want to be fiscally responsible. 


And though internally I am at peace with my choice to hire someone to clean my house, I still feel uncomfortable saying the words “house cleaner” out loud. 


Someone could make a convincing argument that my choice to hire a house cleaner has been unethical, irresponsible, and/or racist and elitist.  They’d probably be right.  And also, wrong. 


I’d love to hear what you think.


Here’s to thriving.