Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Old blog post: "My thoughts on poverty?"

It's been quite a while since I wrote anything on here but an experience from yesterday has had me thinking and I'd like to write about it. A few disclaimers:
1. I will probably use the word "WE" often, talking about the American Culture as a whole. I include myself in this term. I consider myself no better a person in any way. 
2. These are my thoughts based on experience and conversations with others. Some will agree with me, others will disagree. While it is not my intention, some may even be offended. Too bad. If you are that strongly opposed, offer to buy me an orange mango smoothie from Startbucks and we'll talk about it and we’ll respectfully learn from one another. 
3. Some statistics mentioned are also quoted in a friend of mine’s blog from Kenya, Africa. His name is Daniel and his blog is worth checking out: The main source of the statistics, as well as others, can be found there. 
4. This is much longer than I thought it would be. Sorry, I have a passion for this. 
I was in Camden, NJ yesterday morning at Rutgers's University. It was hot and humid and I had the AC on and the windows up. As I rolled to a stop sign I heard this voice yell out, “YO!” I turned to my left to see a homeless woman (I can only assume homeless based on appearance and the following). Through my closed windows and radio on I heard her yell, while pointing at her stomach, “give me some money for some food!” I turned away and continued driving through the intersection. A short time later I parked my car and was walking around. As I was on my way into the student center the very same woman was outside telling people that she needed money for food and that she wasn’t going to use it to buy alcohol. I guess she knew the stereotype that she was facing. She came to me asking for money; I politely told her that I didn’t have any money on me. This was, in fact, the truth. My wallet was in my car. As I walked by I really thought about what she might be feeling. I remember childhood nights with my biological mother and sister living out on the streets. I know that feeling of hunger and not knowing when or where food will come from. It’s was a scary place to be as a child, I can only imagine how harsh the reality of it must be as an adult. On my way out of the student center I decided to buy her breakfast. I went to my car, got some money and headed to the sandwich cart nearby. As I ordered a sandwich and struck up a conversation about work things with the gentleman working, I could still see this woman nearby. There seemed to be a line in the sidewalk that she wouldn’t cross near this cart. I got the feeling (I can’t explain it, it was just a strong feeling) that she and this man in the cart had some trouble and she won’t come near his cart looking for food or money. This feeling was reinforced as I paid for the sandwich and water. I told him that I wanted him to keep the change and buy this woman lunch with it as well. He refused and finally told me that if I wanted to I could give her money myself but he didn’t want her nearby. I told him, “no, I don’t want to give her money, I want to give you money to give her food”. Still, he refused and I saw that I was not going to win this battle. I handed her the sandwich and a bottle of water, offered a smile and she began to cry. That was it and we both walked away. I sat in my car for a bit watching her in my rearview mirror. She didn’t eat the sandwich and instead continued begging for money; sandwich in one hand, money cup in the other. 
So, I need to ask this. Am I just naïve in my hope and desire for a change, or have we as a nation just become so desensitized to poverty that we do not even see it anymore. It seems that it is so easy for us to simply walk by without so much as a 2nd thought. I do not think that I am naïve. First of all, I fully understand that there are some who simply don’t want to be helped, so you don’t need to have some sort of intervention with me to lecture about this. But, there are a lot of folks in poverty that would like a change. If there is any hope for a change, I think that a few things need to happen:
1. We ne need to become aware of the situation. The fact is that studies have shown that Americans throw away almost 14 percent of the food we buy, while elsewhere a child dies every 7 seconds due to lack of food. One sixth of the world lives without electricity, while most of us whine and moan if our power goes out for an hour. A few weeks ago there was an accident here that took down a pour line. My power at home was out for about an hour or two that I was home for. As I think about it now, not once did I think about the car that hit the power line, but I talked to a neighbor complaining about not having power. There are places in this world where violence is so bad that women are afraid to even leave their homes. Not that it matters much because their own husbands are beating them as well. There are parts of the world where hundreds of thousands of KIDS are living on the streets, fending for themselves. I’ve walked through some of these places myself. I’ve prayed, “God, let that have been only a puddle of mud that I just stepped in”. I’ve seen firsthand what it looks like to cram over a million people into a little more than one square mile. I know that more than half of the world lives on less than a single US Dollar a day. In America, it seems that with every city of wealth, not far behind is a comparable homeless population. I’ll stop boring you with statistics now…
2. We need to be aware of what we have. Personally, I am a very blessed man. I have two awesome families. One of which is stuck with me forever {love you guys! } and one of which chose me {love you all too! }. I drive a nice car, I have a nice roof over my head every night. I have heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer in my house and my car. Sometimes, I even drive with my windows down and the AC on {yeah, yeah, lecture me on that one later }. I live on far more than a dollar a day. I have seen more of this country before I turned 21 than some see their entire lives, most of which was compliments of Uncle Sam. While I certainly do not make tons and tons of money at my job, I have a job. It pays my bills and then some. I could go on and on, but I won’t. But what about you? How many good things are going for you? Are your kids fed? Are you educated? Do you drive to work? Think about how many ways you’re blessed too.
3. It’s hard to look at the contrast between the 1st and 2nd point here without feeling a bit of guilt, isn’t it? Get over it. Guilt does nothing to help anyone. Here’s the deal, we’re very fortunate. If I all of a sudden decide that I’m going to stop living in my house and start living on the street, have I really done anything to help the 200,000+ street kids in Nairobi? No, no I haven’t. BUT, I should be able to look at my blessings and my fortunes and be thankful for them. 
As I reflect on my encounter with this woman in Camden, I wonder what else I could have done. I could have bought 2 sandwiches and shared a meal with her. Why didn’t I? Perhaps because I too fell into a common feeling with poverty - fear. I think that because we don’t fully understand poverty, we fear it (again, myself included). What was I afraid of? Maybe she would have asked me for more. Maybe she was a real “crazy” person and I would be able to excuse myself. How about the man who ran the cart? What was he afraid of? That she would be more visible to his customers if he allowed me to buy her lunch? That she may expect it every day then? I’m not saying that these fears do not hold validity. I’m just bringing them to light. Partially, I’m bringing my own fears to light for myself as well. It’s almost as if we take the stance that if we do not see the poverty, it must not exist. In West Chester (those of you in WC probably know what I’m talking about), we have a pretty well off businesses section. A few years ago, the city replaced the benches in this area with what mockingly became known as “bum-proof benches”. I am told that this was at the request of many business owners. These benches have bar through the middle of them separating them into two sections. This ensures that no one can lay down on them to sleep. So, the homeless population is no longer lying in town on benches. And if you don’t believe that WC has a large homeless population, go to the Holy Trinity Church on a Friday around 4PM to see how many show up for a free meal and fellowship. Drive down Matlack Street a block or two away from the courthouse and see the poverty yourself. It’s there. Take a trip to the various shelters during the winter months. Heck, walk into Starbucks on High Street and you will often find them there sipping a cup of coffee to escape the weather. 
So, how do things change? As good as it may feel to buy a meal for someone in poverty, what I did was nothing more than a bandaid for this woman. I only gave her one meal. I didn’t get to her REAL problem. You see, the problem with many impoverished people is not that they have no food, or no shelter. Don’t get me wrong, these are very real needs and I do not mean to belittle the benefit of short-term fixes. But, the true problem is WHY they are in such a state. There’s a guy from my church who runs a ministry in Philly that helps homeless people get licenses and state ID’s. Why? Because without valid ID you cannot legally work. For you and me, it’s not asking too much to shell out the $30 or so fee for a State ID. For the average person living on the street, that’s a lot of money. 
We send a team from church to Senegal, Africa. This is a medical mission’s trip; a doctor from my church heads up the team and they provide free medical care and medicine to the villagers. One could look at the situation and say that the need was for medicine. But it turns out that medicine was not the root need. It was clean water and access to it. Because this team took the time to ask the village what the needed they found this out. So, the team raised money and built water towers and pipelines. Now, the village is healthier because the water was the real need. The free medicine was a bandaid – a quick fix, but underneath the wound was still bleeding. Again, I don’t want to belittle those bandaids. Many times we need to focus on the immediate before we can think longer. I merely mean to say that in order for change to occur, we, at some point, need to go beyond the immediate. Ideally, those which we are “helping” should reach a point where they no longer need us. 
If you look at the ministry of Jesus you will find 5 very common words (or some variation of them): “He was moved with compassion”. He spent a great deal of His ministry with the poor and the sick. He certainly did not ignore the less fortunate and He didn’t walk by them without a 2nd thought. I have to wonder what it would look like if I was “move with compassion” more often. One of the things that struck me about Kenya last summer was not how little the people had, but how little they asked for. Most just wanted a hug, or someone to kick a soccer ball around with, or someone to talk with and share a smile. Simply put, they did not want someone to pity them, they wanted someone to show love to them. 
I’m not pretending to have all of the answers at all. I’m not claiming to be perfect. And I most definitely do not wish to be seen as some sort of savior to those in poverty. What I do want, however, is to bring awareness to this issue that is so prevalent not only in the US, but in our world. I desire to see a change. I desire to see the impoverished no longer be in poverty. I desire to see a more grateful attitude in my Country. I desire to see it more in my own life too! I don’t want to complain about the small things. I don’t want to focus all of my attention of the bad things that have happened in my life. I want to focus on the lessons that I’ve learned through them and move on! I’m often reminded of my friend Daniel Juma in Kitate, Kenya. We had the opportunity to repair a ceiling for him. Every time we told him something may not look quite right (paint color, crown molding, etc) he said one thing: “that’s okay, we’ll worry about that later”. See, he was content with what he had. He didn’t care if something wasn’t quite perfect. He was just so thankful for what he had. If he learned to be content in what little he had, why can’t we learn to be content in our bounty? Is enough ever enough for us? Or do we always need more and more? 
There is so much more I could write on this, but I’ll stop now. As you can probably see, I have developed a huge passion in this area. It wasn’t always there. I do not currently have plans on founding some sort of mission based organization to solve the world’s poverty issue. But I do want to bring attention to the issue. I challenge you who have taken the time to read this far to be moved by compassion. I’m not going to tell you what that should look like. That’s for you to figure out. Let’s just be aware of the issue. 

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