Friday, June 07, 2013

Poverty 101

Today at Annual Conference I learned that some of the affluent white United Methodist congregations in Indianapolis have been hiring a white middle class guy in Indianapolis to teach "Poverty 101."  When I asked the person who was coordinating this why they did this in this way she said it "helped the people in these congregations know more about poor people and relate to them."  I can imagine the relief of people who don't have much money that people who have more money now can "relate" to them.  Yikes!

I asked the person talking to me about this if she thought a class about women would be best taught by a man - or a class about African-American folks would be best taught by a white Englishman?  She wasn't quite sure.  Really?  I very much doubt that those things would happen - but we would easily pay someone who is not poor to teach another group of people who are not poor about what it is like to be poor.  This, of course, misses the whole irony that people who don't have much money (i.e. - the poor) could really use a job - and especially one that they are eminently qualified for, i.e.: teach us what's it like to not have money.

Over and over again I'm struck with how much in our society we construct ways to think that people who don't have money are a different species.

I was watching "The Daily Show" tonight and saw one of their correspondents take a trip to Iran to visit our enemies there.  The people that they showed visiting - were thunderstruck that people would think that hated Americans, of course they didn't.  They didn't laugh at jokes making fun of Jewish people and they didn't fall into any of the stereotypes that people would expect them to meet.

I think if people went into the homes of people who didn't have money (something I often do) they would discover that the people they are visiting are in all ways, except that they have less money, exactly like other people they know.  They would discover lively 80 year olds, and parents struggling to figure out how to do the right thing, and young people who are full of energy, excitement, and dreams.  They would discover that most people who don't have much money - do, in fact, have food in their cabinets.  They just don't have a lot of extra food.  They would discover that they have a lot of bills - but also that they have art work up on their walls, and certificates from their child's school celebrating achievement, and the delicious smells of the flowers on the front lawn and the baking going on in the kitchen as you talk.

As Christians you would think that they trust there is abundance in these places - you would be expecting to meet healers, and teachers, and thinkers.  You would expect to meet poets, and musicians, and philanthropists.  But not if what you are expecting to meet is poor people - rather than beloved children of God.  But that's what these Poverty 101 classes do.  They make the poor a group of people to be studied, rather than sisters and brothers to share life with and learn from and alongside.

I hope that we'll (that is "we Christians" to begin with) stop studying the poor and start hanging around to see what God is doing in and around the poor.

I wrote a piece that I presented at worship a few months ago - that I hope captures this more clearly.

Light burst into being...and God saw that it was good.


A couple of years ago Matt Tulley wrote a story in the Indianapolis Star about
the band at Manual High School.  People filled the auditorium.  Randall Shepherd
the Supreme Court Chief Justice sat on the floor so others could have seats. 
They had to expand the nights of performance so that all could see and hear and
people were thrilled.  Money poured in from around the city and support has
grown.

Matt Tulley saw the dedication of the teacher, the head of the band.  He saw
that he was doing something difficult in difficult circumstances. 

But here is what he did not see.

He did not see the parents getting their kids up every morning to go to
school, before they headed off to work, or as they came home from their night
shift job.  He did not see the one who despite the fact that they didnt have
electricity in her home - got her son out on the front porch every afternoon to
practice the clarinet.  He did not see the father who borrowed money from every
member of the family so that he could get a drum set and put it up in the
basement from the time her daughter was aged five.  He did not see the brother
who was responsible for getting his brother up and out of bed and headed to
school because their parents were already on the bus out to the IHOP on
Pendleton Pike to work.

He did not see the kid who got up sick and headed out to school, because he
loves his classes and he loves his music and the two feed each other.

When God said let there be light and saw that it was good - God intended for
that light to be used to shine on the places where no one ever sees.  Not only
the schools, but the homes.  Not only the leaders, but the invisible ones, the
parents, and students, and grandparents and siblings.

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