Category Archives: Poverty

This morning I brought my cab driver to tears…

"This is the story of a cab driver. Not of a white, American woman."

“This is the story of immigrant cab drivers.  Not of a white, American woman.”

My cab driver this morning was pretty quiet, until he asked me what route I wanted to take (about 10 minutes into the fare).  I told him “I don’t care… you guys know better than I do what the traffic and construction is like in the city.  Take whatever route you think is best.”  That somehow seemed to open us up for conversation.

He began asking me the usual: if I’d always lived in Chicago, why I moved here, etc.  I find these questions are often an inroad for these immigrant men to talk about their own lives, so I’m always happy to oblige.  I answer their questions and then turn the same questions back on them.  He mentioned he was from India, but had lived in the U.S. now almost 20 years.

“What do you do for a living, ma’am?” was the next question.  “I work in technology.  Educational technology.”  He nodded in acknowledgement, then remarked about the scarcity of jobs these days, and asked if I thought getting an education was worth it any more, with college tuition now so high, and income so uncertain.  I responded with my industry standard (as someone who works in a for-profit educational institution) “I think the youth are going to have to focus on professions instead of liberal arts.”  And then I paused, because I was feeling a bit dishonest. “Liberal arts are important, and give you a broader perspective on life.  But it is very hard to start out in such deep debt.  I don’t know.  To be honest, my heart says kids should definitely get an education, but my head knows it is very hard to pay for.”

He looked at me skeptically in the rear view mirror.  “Look,” I said, “You are talking to a woman who did doctoral work, but is working in a completely different field now just so she can pay her student loans.”  He seemed surprised.  “You have a doctorate in technology?!?!” he asked with more than a hint of incredulity.  No, I reassured him. I studied theology.

He stared straight ahead and said nothing more.  Then I noticed his shoulders began to shake. A hand reached up and he wiped his eyes.  Finally, he simply pulled over, apologizing the whole time.  And that’s when I realized he was laughing.

“You spent 20 years studying theology and you manage a technology group?!” he roared, cracking up.  “That is the best thing I’ve heard in a long time.  This is the story of immigrant cab drivers.  Not of a white American women.”

And I had to laugh too.

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Epiphany…

Epiphany (from the Koine Greek: ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia,
meaning “manifestation”, “striking appearance”)

Today is one of my most favorite days of the liturgical calendar: Epiphany. In the Christian tradition, this is a time to remember the Wise Men who followed the star and found God in the most unlikely of places: a stable.

In my local congregation, the tradition of Epiphany is to follow the lead of the Magi (the wise men) seeking the Divine in the poor  and those in need of shelter. We do so by bringing gifts of warm coats, hats, scarves, gloves, disposable razors, and bus passes to the homeless shelter.

EpiphanyGifts

Gifts brought for the homeless shelter.

These are brought forward to the chancel during the final hymn of the service. And then taken to the homeless shelter.

Wise men know to seek God among the poor.

A cold neighbor

It is snowing in Chicago, and I’m indoors, observing the flakes from the warmth and safety of a comfy chair.  I’ve watched folks trudging down the streets, fighting the wind and cold, and have offered up murmurs of thanksgiving for a cup of hot tea, and the cat warming my lap.  My mind wandered back to a day a couple of years ago when I had an early 8 am dentist appointment one Saturday.  I’d walked to the dentist (a mere five blocks from my home), but while in the chair, a heavy snow storm hit.  Winds picked up.  It was near white-out at times.

When I left the dentist’s office, my face was numb: not only from the bitter wind, but also from the anesthesia I’d been given.  It had been a lengthy procedure, wherein old fillings from a childhood overseas were removed (having been deemed of poor quality) and replaced with more modern, quality material.  As I crossed the threshold out into the wintry mess, I wiped drool from the side of my cheek.  Ugh.  My eyes had watered during the procedure, and I was very aware of the mascara smudged beneath my eyes.  The sting of the wind was making my eyes water more.

I trudged the first block through about 8 inches of freshly fallen snow.  Beautiful, really.  But I’d not gone prepared, and my tennis shoes were slick and full of snow.  I glanced up and saw a man walking my direction and thought great… another one of the neighborhood’s homeless… expecting a handout.

As he approached I attempted to not make eye contact.  But he called out to me: “Lady?”  I glanced his way.

“Lady… you look really cold.  Could I buy you a sandwich? Or a cup of hot coffee?”  He pointed at the McDonald’s nearby.  And I stood there, gaping at the irony of my situation.  I mumbled a thank you, and he led me by the hand over a drift and into the restaurant.  I accepted a cup of coffee, and had an interesting conversation with someone from the neighborhood I would never have otherwise met.

He graciously mentioned that it was his faith tradition to help the poor and those in need.  I asked him what church he attended, and he pointed to the local mosque.  I smiled and mentioned I was baptist.  We rejoiced in the commonalities which bridge our faith, our neighborhood, and the human condition.

Winter in the city.

Winter in the city.

 

A pedagogy of the poor (part I)

I’ve an ongoing conversation with a dear friend of mine about the role of the church vs. the state when it comes to the poor.  Neither of us belong at all in the category ‘poor’–she is of an upper middle class white family who owns property, and has a graduate level education; I am a single middle class woman with graduate level education and a full time job. We tend to talk past each other when the subject of poverty arises, both getting defensive.  We’ve argued our own sides to the point of offending each other, then back off cautiously as neither of us wants to ruin a friendship.  At times I suspect we are closer in our opinions than we imagine, but I doubt we’ll ever completely see eye to eye on it.  I wonder if my status somehow as a TCK (third culture kid), particularly as one who grew up in the third world, however, colors how I understand the poor, as well as the potential role of government and church.

The fundamental divide, it seems, between her perspective and mine (and if she reads this, and I’m incorrect, she should correct me and help me better understand) is that she tends to think of the poor as ‘individuals in need of help’.  I’m uncertain if it is economic status, educational privilege, or mere ‘Americanism’ which posits her in the position of being the benevolent agent in these scenarios.  When she describes government subsidies and/or welfare, she regales me with stories of abuse: instances where entitlement is assumed and laziness is writ large.  I am unclear as to why it is that I react to her descriptions and responses with defense: as if I’m certain it is against me or my family that she’s making accusations or judgments.  Perhaps it is because I spent my childhood accepting handouts and gifts as missionaries, forever relying upon the proverbial kindness of strangers.

What must be equally accounted for is the fact that she accuses me of idealizing the poor. Whereas I hear her complaints against abuse accompanied by a tone of indignation (“the poor are stealing from me”), she hears my defense of the poor as coming through rose-colored lenses (a noble people, struggling in a noble fight).  It is likely the case that I do tend to idealize the poor, although I try to guard against it.  You be the judge.

John Steinbeck purportedly wrote that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Indeed, it seems that the American dream is alive and well–upward mobility is assumed to be an option, indeed assumed to be a good, and a failure to be poor (our value, intelligence, morals, etc. based on our economic status).  Not only is it assumed that we can move up, but it is our responsibility to move up. Kurt Vonnegut commented: “It is a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” ”

I’m unwilling, however, to assume that the American middle class is everyone’s ideal.  The underpaid working class seems to be caricatured into either  comic ‘redneck’ or as merely unwilling-to-pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps ‘lazy’ (or some mixture of both). Might it be the case that for those able-bodied poor who never shift into the ranks of ‘middle class’, the drummers’ cadence marches them to other ends?  Or that they never imagined their world to be otherwise? Or….

I believe the poor have many gifts for those of us who aren’t poor, but only if we are willing to have our eyes opened to critique.  What we learn is more often about ourselves than it is about the poor (much in the same way that African-Americans can teach me what it means to be white, because I function within the haze of privilege, oblivious to the graces and opportunities my skin color affords me.)  These are a people with feet in both worlds (knowing what it is like to function on very limited resources, but also living within the ubiquitous aspirations and standards of the wealthy.)  The media spreads the gospel of the upper middle class, wherein needs are not only met but excess is normative.  We are thus trained to accumulate, to stuff our selves and our homes (this coming from an overweight woman just days after thanksgiving!), regardless of economic status or class.

 

The burden of poverty

I overheard the following speculation about the fast-approaching winter weather between two of my colleagues at the office: “One nice thing about winter in Chicago…there aren’t as many homeless around begging for money.” His conversation partner nodded in agreement.  They proceeded to discuss how it was hard to walk down the sidewalk at times without being accosted by beggars.  The usual “they are just going to buy drugs and alcohol” meme was repeated.  These gentlemen parted company as I made my way to the coffee machine.  I found myself suddenly conscience about the spare change I was using to get that cup of coffee.  I muttered something to the effect that the homeless weren’t migratory birds.  That elicited some harsh looks and one colleague said “You know what I mean… the homeless are a pain.”

I was stunned.  Yes. I know exactly what he meant.  We’ve become so very self-sufficient that we view poverty as a burden upon the wealthy.  How’s that for turning economics and logic on its head? It isn’t the poor who are burdened by their poverty: it is the wealthy who are inconvenienced, temporarily made to feel guilty, and are forced into being arbiters of stewardship and grace.  The poor just have to be poor.  (Read that as lacking agency, autonomy, etc.).  It is their ontology.

Augh!

I said it before but it bears repeating here: When Jesus said in Matt. 26:11 that “the poor will always be among us”, it was not to let us off the hook and give us permission to ignore them because it’s a problem which just won’t go away. It was an instruction that we always have to consider the poor: plan to tend to them, make charity and generosity part of our daily lives.

In this particular season, remembering the words “the poor will always be among us” is to remember that their lack of visibility isn’t an indicator that poverty is being eradicated: to the contrary, the poor are dying to find shelter–quite literally.

To my grousing, nibbling colleagues who are making upwards of $100K, I ask you to learn to unburden yourselves of poverty, and instead embrace the burden of wealth (which is properly yours anyway).  Lay aside your claims to self-sufficiency and learn to recognize that the position you are in was not self-made. Be grateful for those who gave you a break: for parents who provided a home, guidance, an education; for health–both mental and physical; for employers who took a risk in hiring you for that first job; for congregations who provide you a spiritual home.  Remember that you didn’t earn everything you have.  Grace was afforded you when you least deserved it. Be an extension of that grace to others.