I’ve just begun a book that has quickly caught my attention: Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant. It’s a book about the Mississippi Delta, one that portrays the great charm of the people there, but it begins with a rather damning description. “The Delta is our Haiti. It’s the Third World right in the middle of America. Crime is bad. Corruption is bad. It’s 70% black and the poverty is hard core. Whole towns are basically caving in and rotting away. And you’ve got a bunch of rich white farmers living the good life right in the middle of it and trying to pretend like everything’s normal. It’s the South. We’re great at denying reality and the strain of it makes us weird sometimes.”
Those words, sounding much like words Jesus would use, take me back to an experience I had over 30 years ago driving through the Delta. I was listening to a speech about the ills of poverty and our failure to respond as a nation to the dire needs of a great number of people we refuse to acknowledge as brothers and sisters. The speech described the very rich living right beside the very poor, the words writ large in the landscape of the Delta as I drove: plantations amidst shacks and hovels. The power of the moment was such that tears welled up involuntarily. Tears, in fact, began running down my cheeks and clouded my vision to the point that I had to pull off to the side of the road for a while before I could resume driving. I vowed on that drive, as my adult years lay out in front of me, that I would be part of the solution.
All these years later, I read about rich people living in the midst of poverty pretending things are normal and I realize that, not only have I not been part of the solution, I’ve actually been part of the problem. I live in a very nice house a few blocks away from people living in dire poverty. I ride down my street and watch with great suspicion young men walking through the neighborhood. I wonder where they are going and what they might be up to. I think of the things in my house and suspect those young men of being potential thieves. I don’t see them the same way I see my family and friends. And then I pull into my driveway, watch the security gate close behind my car, and go inside and pretend things are normal.
I can only do so much I rationalize. I’m very busy and many people depend on me. I only have so much time, energy, or money to make things different. I even tell myself, probably pretty accurately, that were I to give all my time, energy, and money I would change very little about poverty. I may even make things worse and create dependency among those I hope to help. I shrug my shoulders, occasionally feel a tear well up, shake off the feelings of inadequacy and guilt, and return to my world.
“The poor will always be with you,” Jesus once said. He sure got that right. But what did he mean? Did he mean that poverty is a hopeless pit? Did he mean it’s okay to ignore it? Did he mean poor people made their beds and have to lie in them? No, I think he meant something else. He meant for me to weep when I see poverty. He meant for me to see the poor as brothers and sisters and have regard for them as fellow human beings. He meant for me to help, to serve. He meant for me not to believe it’s just normal for some people to have less. He meant for me to spend my life trying to make a difference.
One of the things I love about St. John’s is that we’re right in the middle of some poverty we might prefer to ignore. With homeless people regularly worshiping with us and 50 or so people each week walking into our office asking for financial assistance it’s impossible to ignore poverty. It’s real and it’s insidious. While it’s not accurate to say that you and I are exclusively to blame for poverty, neither is it accurate to blame poverty on the poor. Circumstances have put us in different situations. Destiny has put us living close together, sharing the world as fellow children of God.
I cannot make poverty disappear. But I can examine my choices and ask if I am doing anything at all to make things better for the poor. I can catch myself when I pretend it is normal and acceptable for me to have most everything I desire while others go without food, shelter, or basic necessities. I can confess the sin of thinking I deserve my riches while others deserve their poverty. I can make sacrifices. I can call for laws and policies which make the playing field more equal. I can admit my prejudices and ask for God’s help in making me more compassionate.
Living the good life is something Christ himself invites each of us into. But when I do that while hoarding possessions and money, and encourage actions which make it impossible for some to live that same good life, I have fallen short of the image of Christ I am also invited to live into.
Pretending that my being rich right in the middle of others being poor is normal is just downright offensive to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As people of God we are called to a different way of seeing the world.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
All Saints’ Roll of Remembrance
On All Saints’ Sunday, November 6, we will read the list of names of parishioners and family members who have died in the past year. If you have names you wish included on that list, please notify Fay Worrilow (firstname.lastname@example.org).