Last Friday the good folks at Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services did our community a great service by hosting the “Bridges Out of Poverty” workshop. What follows is one guy’s reflections on the day. Full disclosure: I grew up as a generic white middle-class suburban kid. Stability was rampant. We never had a ton of money, but we never really did without. I’ve since flirted with the federal poverty line and received my share of help, but so might anyone who works for a non-profit and has a large family.
Money is only one factor of poverty. “Bridges” defines poverty as “the extent to which an individual does without resources” including: financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, support systems, relationships, and “knowledge of hidden rules.” Deep down we know that we can be rich in money, but poor in faith, hope, and love, and worse off than the “needy.”
The workshop was essentially cross-cultural training for people like me, who have mostly-middle-class experience and values. Like many, if not all, in the room, I long to be a blessing to my community, to my neighbors, and to whoever God sends my way, but I often don’t know how to relate to those who “aren’t like me.” Do I just give up and stick with my own tribe? Tempting, but Jesus has a much broader definition of who my neighbor really is (which is the lesson of the story of the Good Samaritan, found in the Bible at Luke 10:25).
One of the goals of the workshop was to give me a “new lens” to see the world through, especially the world of those experiencing generations of poverty. Like the inevitable results from an overdue visit the eye doctor, it was time to have my lens adjusted. For example, I learned that “every action takes five-to-seven times longer to complete” for someone lacking resources. At first glance this seems absurd. But take the example of laundry: some of us spend just minutes doing a load of laundry (load it up, and do something else while it runs), but others need to take hours (pack up the kids, walk to the laundromat, and wait). Some of us spend a couple hours a week getting groceries (piling it all in the van), and some of us spend a couple hours every two days (you can only carry so many bags). The list goes on. The takeaway from this lens adjustment? Patience, understanding, empathy.
Another: life in poverty is generally one of constant “survival-mode.” I’ve had a few rounds of survival-mode, mostly due to health crises, but to be in survival-mode as a constant way of life is exhausting to even consider. This leads to constantly living-in-the-moment, and each aspect of life is under stress yet interconnected. Baby gets sick? If you have little help, you may lose your job, and the web comes unraveled. The surprising take-away from this lens adjustment: a life of survival-mode leads to being motivated by relationships. Whether your relationships are good or bad, when it all hits the fan, they’re all you’ve got. Aunt Betty needs my last $400 to make her rent? No hesitation. She, or someone else, will get me next time.
While I doubt many of us would sign up for the grind of constant survival-mode, something about being motivated by relationship caught my attention, especially when I contrast relationship-motivation with middle-class achievement-motivation. How many of us on our deathbeds are going to savor our achievements over our relationships? Relationship is essential. Achievement is optional. We often think of those “stuck in poverty” need to be “lifted up” to join the middle-class (the achievement class), where birth-rates are lower, paychecks are higher, but misery-rates are about the same.
Your high-achieving neighbor may have access to all the resources she needs, but is her soul stable? Your dirt-poor neighbor may have little, but is his spirit content? Jesus himself was materially poor, but spiritually rich. Is it not possible to thrive as a human being no matter our circumstances? I think Jesus would say “Yes” because he lived, died, and rose again so anyone who has life-transforming faith in him can be brought out of spiritual poverty, and forever be blessed by God. Does this means following Jesus will bring you out of material poverty? No, but being set free from guilt, shame, and fear, and being adopted into a loving spiritual family is priceless and life-changing.
So we as a community can do much to overcome the barriers to resources, and help more of our neighbors thrive. I earnestly hope we can continue to do so, but without the unspoken drive to make others look and act more like us. I earnestly hope we remember what Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”