Tag Archives: poverty

beautiful-sky“Different from what?” someone might legitimately ask about a title of this sort. “You need a ‘than’ or a ‘from’ if you’re going to say different.” You can’t just say different unless you’re talking philosophy, as if you were the famous twentieth-century philosopher Jacques Derrida and you’re talking about la différance—the idea that words can only have meaning in terms of what they are not, in terms of the way they bump into and off other words to create meaning, or really the pursuit of meaning, meaning that is itself continually put off, endlessly differed. And that is la différence (note the change in spelling from la différance). So, if we look closely enough, we can see that even Derrida would admit—not only admit but welcome—a “than” or a “from.”

Yet unlike Derrida or just anyone who might object to this title, I would like to speak about something very different, so different that it defies being compared to anything too directly, however implicit a comparison is when the word different or difference is used. And what is that difference? Well, it happened to me on a street corner this morning, that of North 15th St. and Colcord Avenue. And there I stood at those crossroads, for I was trying to assist someone to find a place to park. Then a lull. Then an elderly woman was trying to cross the street and spoke to me. “What a beautiful day!” she said.

“Yes, it is,” I replied.

“Anjubilee-marketd it’s a great day for the neighborhood. That Jubilee Food Market is going to make all the difference in this neighborhood,” she said. “I remember when there were just drug dealers here, and prostitutes. But Jimmy came in with his mission and cleaned it up, it all up. And now a grocery,” she said. “It is going to be so nice to be able to walk here to buy groceries.”

“And at a reasonable price,” I added, for I knew a bit about the grocery store that community leader and mission director Jimmy Dorrell had put so much effort into establishing, in particular how one of the goals was to provide the neighborhood with an opportunity to buy nutritious foods at a good price. I felt as if I were awkwardly offering an advertisement for the new market. Perhaps I was. And that was enough for the woman, and she began to go on her way.

“You’re a nice man,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “I don’t even know your name, but I know that you’re blessed.”

“What is your name?” I said, genuinely interested, hoping to garner at least that much before she departed.

“Bertha.”

“Bertha, may you be blessed, too.”

And then she paused, and drifted back toward me for more conversation. “What about yours?” she said, “What is your name?” The sun beamed down on her, on us both, warming us on that beautiful, if brisk, December morning.

I told her, before adding, “Do you live locally? Will you be able to walk to the store?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “It will be such a blessing. God is good,” she added, “so good! He has provided this store, provided so mercifully for me. When my husband died two years ago, I thought it was all over for me. But he is good! He loves me, and has shed his mercy upon me.”

“And has,” I added. “He surely does love you.”

To which she added, “Amen,” and then more. “He loves you, too.”

To which I added, “Amen.”

“And his mercy never ends,” she said.

“Amen,” I responded again.

amenAnd this kind of liturgical exchange went back and forth several times in a cadence that was something between preaching and conversation, something between one human talking to another, and two people at once talking to God. It was, to be sure, a kind of sidewalk liturgy. Here and there, too, there popped up, in the midst of it, another or two quotations from the psalms, or various citations of the words of Christ from Mathew, Mark, Luke or John.

“Now that was,” I thought to myself five minutes later, as Bertha walked away, “something quite different.” It was not exactly praying, not exactly a conversation, not exactly singing; it was remarkably different. It was two people from vastly different backgrounds who might otherwise never have had occasion to speak, talking to each other (and to God) about the blessing and provision of God that they had differently—but not so differently—experienced in their own lives. Both of us had suffered losses, both knew pain, but, as Bertha pointed out just before she left, “We know Him; we know Him.”

And this was the close of the liturgy, a fitting one, I thought, a bold claim, one that defies logic. Perhaps it could even frighten someone, or, after having read what is above, even cause someone to say, “Those folks who blew up the twin towers were very religious, and look where it got them. Look what a terrible toll religious fervor wreaked that day upon humanity. My advice is to take your sidewalk liturgy and. . . .” Well, you can fill in the rest.

To that honest objection, I can only say this: on that street corner I was not experiencing any religious fervor, nor was I laying claim to any perception or misperception of divine revelation. Rather, I was only sharing a moment, a unique wrinkle in time in which an apparent gap was mystically bridged between an elderly African American woman who had grown up and lived much of her life in less than generous circumstances and a white dude (me), who, though he hailed from a background of less than prosperous Welsh coalminers, had himself never known poverty. Yet bathed in the warming sunlight of a December morning, we indulged in a sidewalk liturgy, the shared experience of a generous and prodigal God. That brief encounter, that unlikely experience washed away all external differences and blessed us both there on the corner of 15th and Colcord.

“King David wrote,” Bertha added, “His mercy endureth forever. Mercy never ends, love never ends.”

“Amen,” I said as I thought to myself, “And that makes all the difference.”

jubilee-food-market

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Via Dolorosa—Thoughts on Poverty & Sacrifice

The via dolorosa. The way of suffering. Though the adjective meaning “of suffering” is rare and occurs only rather late in antiquity, I have thought about this phrase many times. One such occasion occurred, I can recall, when I was a graduate student in Philadelphia, walking well beyond University City near West Catholic Preparatory School toward the Holy Apostles and the Mediator Church on 51st Street.

episcopal church
Holy Apostles and the Mediator Church, Philadelphia (51st and Spruce)

There are row homes all around, and some of the surrounding neighborhoods were then, and still likely are, starkly poor. I was young, and though I had no money myself, my heart went out to those living in what I then perceived to be poverty, because I knew that for me, in the end, there was a pretty good chance, with all the education I was privileged to be getting at the time, life would likely work out somehow; but for many of those living there, it might never change, might never turn out well.

 

They might in fact be held in a less-than-living wage category for their entire lives, with no hope for a future. Theirs, I then thought, was the true via dolorosa, the true path of suffering. Theirs would most likely be a life of subsistence living.

row house
West Philly row houses

On the one hand, save one letter, I wasn’t too far off about that being the via dolorosa. Truly it is hard for someone stuck in an impoverished situation to break the cycle of poverty, whether they live here in America or anywhere else in the world. Yet the letter I was missing was a ‘T’, as I was confusing the life of suffering (vita dolorosa) with the way of suffering (via dolorosa). Those row houses, row upon row upon row, had all the earmarks of underprivileged living, poverty mingled with poverty, sadness dripping more sadness. That would be the life, not the path or way of suffering. And that was all merely from the outside. For in any of those row houses, I’ll wager, there could have been, and very likely was, a real home, a place of warmth and care, love and acceptance. And that is real wealth, real prosperity.

On the other hand, no sound-thinking person could say that poverty is a desirable situation to live through year in and year out. And, on that same other hand, one has to realize that poverty is often on a sliding scale. What I was calling poverty in Philadelphia, genuine as it was and still is in that city, is still not the same as poverty everywhere.viewfromKM2

I was not too long ago—just two years this month—in a country, Ethiopia, where poverty is much more severe. There we visited a family who lived in a small hut with a small not very private, at best, semi-isolated area alongside of it that served as a bathroom. There was no running water in the hut or the makeshift bathroom and it was a long walk to the nearest well. The floors were beat-down dirt with a rug over a portion of the dirt. The possessions inside the hut were meager. A few pictures. Stick furniture. Something that served as a bed. A very modest life, and no hope, no way out—ever. Not what we in the affluent West call poverty as it most often manifests itself in our culture; something worse.

neighborhood in Addis

Yet by the time I got to Ethiopia, all those years after wandering and pondering in West Philly, I knew that what I saw in Africa was not the via dolorosa (way of suffering), which had in fact led me there, but rather the vita dolorosa (life of suffering). The latter can occur anywhere, but obviously can be quite acute in situations that offer no opportunity for improvement, no hope for change for the better. The former is a frame of mind. It is a choice to embrace pain, not to run from it. It is, as anyone who knows anything about Christendom will be aware, peculiarly poignant, even palpable, this time of year. It is not the right to bear arms (too often a pet issue for American conservatives), but the right to roll up one’s shirtsleeves and work with those less fortunate. If it is a burden, it is a light one, because it is a choice. It is the choice willingly to give away much of one’s material wealth to help the poor, hopefully empowering them that they may discover a way out, that they may get the opportunity to improve their situation; it is a choice to spend time with the disadvantaged; it is a choice to embrace a friend in need and to help to carry his burden. Even if some Christians might self-effacingly deny that it is a choice—after all, what happened to Simon of Cyrene does not seem to have been much of a choice—it nevertheless can feel like one. In Simon’s case, he bore a small burden for the One who would bear a much heavier burden on that very cross. We can do so, as well.

SimonofCyrene
Simon of Cyrene by Titian

So I close with these thoughts a day earlier than usual, for I offer this blog not on a Saturday but on a Friday, a very good, if a very dolorous Friday. These reflections about poverty are couched in a discussion of the distinction between the life of suffering and the way of suffering. Though there can sometimes be joy in spite of it, the former is unfortunate in any culture; the latter, by contrast, is desirable, the only truly desirable outcome for a life well lived, at least for those who seek to follow the path that Simon of Cyrene trod. That path led Him, whose cross Simon bore, to the quintessentially heroic, propitiatory sacrifice. For those of us on that path, we shall find that it leads not to but through personal sacrifice surprisingly to joy, and it does so in a relatively short time. Though in this life it may seem to us to take an eternity, it will turn out, in fact, merely to be a span of three days.

empty-tombAs the Devoted Life website says,
“Easter changes everything.”

Happy Easter!