Book Review: Junkyard Wisdom

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When I was a teenager I had the unique privilege of traveling with my church youth group to rural Belize on a Summer service trip.  We visited a village called Armenia and stayed at a center called Jaguar Creek, which I later learned was one of the first Christian environmental preserves.  Our group’s aim was to serve and learn from the locals as well as gain a global perspective.  For a high school student on Summer break, it was quite an adventure.  I can vividly recall the long, hot days constructing a playground in an impoverished community, the overwhelming experience of exploring the rainforest, and the once in a lifetime chance to be on the receiving end of insanely generous hospitality during a two night home-stay with a Mayan family.  As I look back on my life’s trajectory, I’m convinced that being exposed to the people, poverty, and perspectives of Belize was one of the most formative experiences of my youth, especially for my young faith.

As incredible as our trip to Belize was, I still remember the challenge of coming home and realizing that I was rich.  While I went back to my “normal” life filled with instant access to food, shelter, education, healthcare, technology, and entertainment, our new friends back in Belize would still struggle.  Why do I live here, and they live there?  What does it mean for me as a Christian to be considered rich by global standards?   What’s my role in helping the poor? 

The tension of these questions has remained with me ever since.

The organization that facilitated and hosted our group was founded and overseen by a guy named Roy Goble, who I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from and become friends with over the subsequent years since my first trip to Belize.  If you know Roy you might know a few things about him:  he’s wealthy, he’s deeply involved in social justice and philanthropy, and he’s a Christ follower.  Roy’s work is one of paradox.  Some days he may find himself making real estate deals with other millionaires, and other days he’s walking the streets of a slum in the developing world.  Roy lives in the tension, and has been wrestling with what it means to be a rich Christian called to love the poor for his entire adult life.   That’s why I was super excited to learn that he would be writing a book that wrestles with these very issues in depth.

I first learned about the book that would later become Junkyard Wisdom: Resisting the Whisper of Wealth in a World of Broken Parts, when talking with Roy about our work in Myanmar.   As a respected non-profit and business leader, I had reached out to Roy to pick his brain with regards to starting our own non-profit, Bridges Myanmar, a 501c3 that works to alleviate poverty through education.  He was extremely helpful, generous, and supportive of our vision.  So a few years later when Roy asked if he could travel with us to Myanmar, I was ecstatic.   I not only looked up to him for both his experience and accomplishments, but it was in part because of his work in Belize that my worldview and faith developed a concern for global poverty and injustice, so having him as our guest in Myanmar was a no brainer.  (Not to be too braggadocious, but Roy’s time in Myanmar made it into the book!) Also, Roy has a dry, sarcastic, and sometimes cynical sense of humor that would pair well with a good scotch and inappropriate jokes.  Those are all things I like.

Junkyard Wisdom is essentially a series of stories and reflections surrounding the tension of being rich (which includes pretty much anyone living in the global north), being connected to the poor, and being a Christian.   Through numerous compelling stories, Roy takes his readers around the globe as he explores the often uncomfortable realities of poverty and wealth.  Roy is honest with his questions and authentic with his conclusions.

One of my favorite sections of the book is when Roy considers whether or not he is called to “sell his possessions and live with the poor”.   Using Shane Claiborne as an example, a guy who lives in inner city Philadelphia among the poor, Roy describes the lifestyle of radical simplicity and service.  As he wrestles with the idealism of this potential pathway, Roy points out that giving everything away, though seemingly noble, would actually be the easy way out.  He concludes that for him, he’s called to live in the tension, by being in relationship with the poor, and leveraging his wealth for maximum impact in the world.  The best part was a footnote left by Shane which illustrates the tension:

“Hey, this is Shane Claiborne. Roy gave me this book to read, and it’s true:  God doesn’t call everyone to sell everything and move to the inner city or some foreign country.  Or even to have dreadlocks like I do.  For the record, I don’t think God is calling Roy to sell his business and give everything away.  But that’s not say that he won’t someday.  Careful, Roy!” (56)

Here we see the type of tension that Roy invites his reader into, one that wrestles and questions, and remains open.  Though he’s concluded that his role is to steward his wealth for the greatest good, he leaves space for possibility that God might someday still call him to sell it all.  This is probably the main idea of the book, or at least the one I was left with- that when it comes to wealth, poverty , and the way of Christ, we can’t get comfortable.  We must ask the hard questions, and we must always strive to be in closer proximity to the suffering of the world.  If we don’t, we run the risk of letting our wealth insulate us from the needs of those around us, something that juxtaposes the essence of Jesus.  This is something I have seen Roy intentionally choose to do over the years, something that he could have easily avoided, and something that I greatly respect him for.

If there was one area of the book I found a little lacking, it would be a discussion around excess.  In my own life, though I fully admit that I am rich by world’s standards, I have found myself inwardly very critical of the rich.  If I’m honest, this probably even includes people like Roy who are much wealthier than I am, which I know is wrong because if it wasn’t for people like him, my life would be very different (as evident by my formative experience in Belize).  That said, I wonder if those of us who are wealthy can still steward our wealth for the greatest good, but live in a more simple way that doesn’t require excessive lifestyles?  I know excessive is a subjective term and that I run the risk of sounding judgemental (which I’m sure in part comes out of envy), but I struggle when I encounter what feels to me like excess.  Again, I know that I’m subjective in what I perceive as excess, but it’s something I wrestle with.   I often wonder if we can’t have the same or even greater impact helping the poor if we had one TV instead of two, two cars instead of four, or a four bedroom home instead of a mansion and a vacation home?  While Roy touched on the fact that excess is often relative and easy to judge(60), I do think a more frank discussion on how much wealth is actually necessary in order to live full and happy lives would be worthwhile.  Overall though, I think Roy is right, we must live into the tension, but I also think that we as the global rich often live in excess and could probably scale way back.

All in all, Junkyard Wisdom was an awesome book.  It’s engaging, enjoyable, and thought provoking.  I’m proud to call Roy a friend, and I believe his writing will be helpful to many people.  I would recommend this book to anyone who might want to reflect on wealth, poverty, following Jesus, or learn about interesting and inspiring people in dynamic international settings.

Cheers to you Roy for living in the tension and being honest about your journey with Jesus!

You can pick the book up on Amazon here:

https://www.amazon.com/Junkyard-Wisdom-Resisting-Whisper-Wealth/dp/1940269970/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1474865755&sr=8-1&keywords=junkyard+wisdom

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