Unbeknownst to me, my views toward poverty were formed mainly from the media and by living and breathing the majority lifestyle in America. I grew up regaling friends of my “poor” childhood: we only got clothes from thrift stores, we only ate out on (very) special occasions, we rarely owned houses and moved around every couple of years. I thought I had a good grasp of what it meant to do without, and was grateful for when it didn’t have to be like that anymore.
The older I got, the more I realized we had been far from poor, compared both to the majority of the world and to a significant portion of America that lives in poverty. But even as a child, I understood the fragility of the equation that separates the haves from the have nots. Robert Coles, in his anthology on children entitled Growing up Poor, notes that children are well aware of their marginalized and fragile place in life, but they can also be bastions of hope and courage in dark situations.
I grew up, and our family became solidly middle class. We were grateful for everything we received and never took it for granted. My view of the poor became mainly focused on what was outside of America. The poor in India and Africa were romantic and idealized, powerless to stop the circumstances that had led them to their state. The poor in America, on the other hand, were a different story. Welfare abusers, addictive personalities, white trash and the urban black. I absorbed these images and sent money away to children in Guatemala and lived in my all-white neighborhood. I felt good about myself—until I started reading the Bible and questioning a gospel that thinly veiled the promotion of middle class rights. Become a Christian, fix your life, live abundantly and comfortably, and send your children to a good school. None of these ideas are inherently wrong, but neither are they terribly biblical. The early church was urged to forgo harmony for the sake of diversity, to strategically place themselves in uncomfortable situations, to expect spiritual blessings in lack of earthly ones. Marginalization, fragility, economic displacement—all of these things were promised to the church: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29). Suffering comes with believing.
I would like to say that my view of the poor has evolved based on the evidence of the Gospel, but upon careful introspection, I find that this is simply not true. About 10 months ago, my husband and I moved into low-income housing with the intent of changing the world with our simple gesture. Although we technically qualify for low-income housing (being full-time students with low-paying part-time jobs), we have begun to realize how little we fit in to our new community. We are the only young married white couple out of the three apartment complexes, we don’t smoke or have babies or yell at each other in the hallways. We moved into the complex in order to create community with the refugee population that had settled there—the idealized foreign poor, the African and Burmese who were helpless to escape their fate. What we didn’t plan on was the American poor: the single moms and Hispanic families, the recently post-homeless who still carry all of their belongings in shopping carts, the elderly African-American women living with their grandchildren and the mentally ill.
A lifetime of media and community prejudice has caused me to judge and withdraw from our situation. Why can’t he get a job? Why did she have a baby at age 14? Who thinks it is OK to scream obscenities at their three-year-old daughter? I think to myself: education, hard work and an attitude adjustment are the only things holding these people back. And then I realize what I have done, creating an I/them mentality that only further distances us from each other. The very thing Christ asks us not to do, to be exclusive, to retain the Gospel for only the privileged few who meet the requirements. I was once one of those not accepted into the club. Me, a sinner, unaware and proud, boasting in what I had done and what I had learned. But grace came and found me, just as I was, and asked nothing of me but belief. And with that belief comes a renewed mindset toward suffering.
I work a low-paying job that I am over-qualified for, in a situation many twentysomethings are now finding themselves in. I can identify with the feelings of hopelessness, of fear, of isolation associated with economic hardship. By identifying my fear, I am better able to relate with my neighbors, and to create a sense of “we.” I was waiting for the bus to take me home the other night, and a middle-aged Asian woman sat down next to me on the bench. She slowly rubbed her hands up and down her legs, and then she began to pound them with her fists, hard. I put on my iPod and buried my head in a book, wishing the bus didn’t take so long. A man walked up to me and began talking furiously, shaking a crumpled bill in my face and pleading with me to give him more money. I looked straight down at my book, and watched out of the corner of my eye as he approached the woman next to me, gesturing and yelling about how much he needed money. The woman made eye contact and shook her head, over and over again, until he finally left. Two minutes later I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Are you catching the number 17?” she asked. She pointed to the bus that was just pulling up. “Oh,” I stammered, “no, I’m waiting for the number 9.” “Me too!” she beamed, and I noticed that her teeth were gray and rotten, and that her smile was very beautiful. “We are going on the bus together!” she exclaimed, and I realized at that moment how glad I was of that fact.
I once heard that talking about racism only increases the supposed disparity between ethnicities and cultures. Talking about the American poor can have the same effect. But until we embrace the truth of the situation, of the hungry and sick and poor in our own cities, we will still have to continue on the conversation. Don’t know any poor people? Move to a new part of town. Don’t know how to be in community with marginalized peoples? Put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Don’t see economic and ethnic diversity in your church? Question the theology that has brought about that situation, and be prepared to make some changes. Challenge yourself to identify where your beliefs about poverty and suffering come from. Being a part of the majority culture in America might feel comfortable and safe, but we have been asked to put ourselves on the margins and to seek out community in the most diverse of situations.
We have been asked to gain our view of the poor not from our families or from our government but from Christ Himself, who saw the poor as an intrinsic part of the Kingdom of God.