This past Monday my wife and I went down to the HSBC Arena along with my colleague Julianne Wallace (pictured with me here) and the CCVSC folks to volunteer for the day on the Martin Luther King Day holiday. We were treated to a lovely breakfast at the arena and then after some disorganization we headed out to the first ward to install window insulation units in people’s homes for the day.
It’s always an interesting time for me to participate in a project like this because I come from a lower middle class household. We weren’t poor by any standard but I could see some of the same traps that keep people poor that I used to see in my own neighborhood. Big screen TV’s were in almost every house but little kids didn’t have proper beds or the cleanliness of the rooms would be atrocious. It would be easy for any of us to look down on these people and accuse them for not having their priorities straight.
But we all have that luxury of doing that from a place of safety, a place where we’re not grasping for a higher status with desperation. Friends of mine would report similar stories about people living in poverty in Appalachia. Trendy cars would be in the driveway but children would be going hungry. While misguided and unfortunate, don’t we all play a little bit of a role in keeping people poor? Society in general, espouses certain values that lead others to think you are of a certain status. Perhaps even not having something places you in a lower status and the pressure to conform is great indeed.
An example: Cable television was just coming into the fore when I was in elementary school and was nearly standard for most home by the time I was in high school. My parents just got cable TV a few years ago. I remember people in high school thinking we were weird because we didn’t own cable tv or have a vcr. There’s a slew of movie references I still don’t get from the mid-80s because I didn’t see them when everyone else was watching it on cable or renting it at the video store. My parents had their priorities straight, cable TV or college fund? Not a hard choice.
But society today has placed a value on these “things.” If someone has an iPhone don’t we think a bit more highly of them? Doesn’t a nice home give someone an extra rung up the ladder over others? A huge TV or nice furniture or even a Mercedes Benz gives off the impression that you are more important, or valued. Even a fancy title like “director” or “pastor” or “commissioner” leads others to think that you are someone and that others are simply someone else.
So why are we surprised when the poor accumulates these things that society tells them are the ways to status even above the things that they should prioritize? We claim education is the key, but perhaps ignorance of these status symbols might be more blissful indeed?
50 years ago, John F. Kennedy envisioned a better country and hoped we would play a part: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It seems to me that in a “me-first” generation we’re still asking each other if we are really willing to do for others before others do for us. Are we willing to sacrifice a bit so that others might have a little bit of what we enjoy–not cable TV or fancy cars, but perhaps a nice home, food on the table and opportunity to grow and become more self-sufficient? The better quote from that famed JFK speech should really be:
“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
50 years later, JFK still inspires us along with Martin’s dream, that dream of a free society for all. A dream that inspired us to come out this past Monday in sub-zero weather to make a small dent in the problems of poverty. Many of us were uncomfortable in the homes of those we served. Many were unkempt, others clean, but modest. Some people were embarrassed to accept our help. And some even asked if we could come back another time when they were a bit more “put together.” Embarrassment indeed is no stranger to the poor and often becomes a great motivator to pride.
Ignatian spirituality tells us that the slippery slope to sin is often fraught with going from riches, to honors, to pride (one of the 7 deadly sins). But pride comes from also being lacking in riches and therefore deprived of honors and then grasping for any semblance of pride.
And that deadly sin lies with all of us, not merely, the poor that is victimized by our notion of honors and riches.
Therefore, we issue a new challenge to this new generation of Americans and global citizens. Are we willing to go to those impoverished people that most won’t go to, to ensure the blessings of liberty to all of God’s people?
I hope so. Let Martin and John and all those who inspired us to dream of a better way rejoice with our commitment this year to making poverty a distant horror and peace an unshakable certitude. Amen.
By the way, 50 years later…it’s still a great speech. Take a listen:
And part 2.