I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty and the responses I hear from time to time in my work as a professor and in my life as a member of the trying-to-be-faithful community of Jesus’ followers.
Two responses from students over the past few years have made quite an impact on me. Both were very honest statements, but both troubled me deeply. In responses to study abroad trips I led to Latin America, I received responses I hadn’t anticipated (this often happens!)
The first: the student told us (the class) and me (the prof) that for years s/he had desired to work among the poor and to be an advocate for them, living with them. However, as a result of our trip and after having actually spent time with people who were poor (not the most desperately poor, I might add), s/he concluded there was no way s/he could do it. How could they live the way they do? How could they dress, act, smell, the way they do? And why do they beg and ask me for money?
S/he confessed to feeling shocked and horrified by his/her reactions. Nevertheless, they were real responses, very honest, and I have no doubt that this student returned home having learned something about the world and about his/her own self that was quite unexpected…and troubling.
Secondly, another student, after returning from a study abroad trip I led, came to the conclusion that in the face of poverty and the “underdevelopedness” we saw, s/he was ” glad to be an American” where we enjoy certain physical comforts and social benefits.
Again, this was some honest reflection, but not what I would have hoped.
Two initial comments: first, neither of these students is a bafoon. Both are intelligent, thoughtful adults, both well into middle-age. Secondly, I’m glad I teach at a seminary where there is not as much peer pressure to appear pious and holy as there is in other settings. It is not institutionally dangerous for a student (or a faculty member, although a little more here) to say, “I don’t believe that just because it is in the Creeds,” or to conclude that they struggle to do what they think they’re supposed to do.
The first student’s response has caused me to think about how even the very good hearted among us often regard persons as categories (I’ve been helped here by Jeorg Reiger’s challenging book, Remember the Poor). No one wants to say out loud, “I don’t care about the poor.” Of course not. Of course we “care about the poor.” However, the social realities of many of our lives is such that most of us don’t know the name of a single person who is, in fact, poor. The poor people are: “the poor.” They are not, my friend, Dania, or even, my enemy, that nameless kid who held a pistol to my head in Cuernavaca. They are abstractions and, as such, they do not really exist.
When faced with the real opportunity to touch humanity as a person with a face and a name, the terms of the experience change dramatically. There are no longer “the gays and lesbians,” for example, but rather, my friend David and his spouse, Jeff. They are not abstractions. All those who are so easily and quickly reduced to non-existence spring to life.
However, from time to time, when we actually meet a real person who concretizes a category for us we are not always prepared. They are not saints–sometimes they are not even nice. They are people. Sometimes we like them and sometimes we don’t. But who can ever be prepared for an ideal to materialize? A romanticized (positively or negatively) vision will rarely disappoint, if we can keep it as a vision.
Many of us, for example, are unprepared for the latent racism that simmers and swells from time to time within us–and I’m not talking about “those bigoted folk.” I’m talking about those of us who, on a good day, believe we are shining examples of evolving humanity!
What do we do with this when it comes?
Of course, the easiest thing to do…and potentially the most visibly pious thing to do, is to support “the poor.” Preach/speak/teach about the value of “the poor,” “the oppressed,” “the widows and orphans,” etc., and even make them the objects and recipients of our charity and financial generosity. But for God’s sake, don’t get close.
A couple years ago a speaker came to our seminaries and spoke eloquently and inspiringly about the work his congregation was doing in the greater Washington, DC area in lobbying congress on behalf of the rights of Latino immigrants. But my level of impressedness sunk to UNimpressedness after I heard this pastor’s response to my question. I asked, is anyone in your congregation learning Spanish (or does anyone already speak Spanish) and how much direct contact does the congregation have with the Latino community? Nada.
The second student’s response has also given me much to think about.
Why was I disappointed with the “I’m glad to be an American” response? Am I hoping my American students will be ashamed of their citzenship and consider renouncing it? Do I hope they’ll be indifferent? I wonder about this about about my motivations, but I don’t believe it is shame or indifference that I’m after. However, some reflection is in order. Is it really so simple as “God has blessed us?” (we’re rightly hesitant to finish what could be a complete thought: “…and has not blessed them.”)
I’m not an economist, but have a friend who is so I’m hesitant to play in the backyard of a discipline about which I know very little. Nevertheless, a simple meditation on what is required to have some of the things which I enjoy as an American ought to give me pause.
As I write, there is still a hemorrhaging oil pipe in the Gulf of Mexico which is not only threatening US coasts, but also coasts in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Veracruz. The image of this pipe is, for me, a profane modern Crucifix. “The pipe is bleeding for you and for me. ” It is, in all the terms appropriate to some theologies, an offering for me on behalf of my actions.
I realize full well that staring into the face of poverty is painful, particularly when one meditates on the possibility of being complicit in its existence.
Where is grace and how do we think about grace in such matters?
….more to come