The Poor Among Us

poverty crime

“You always have the poor with you; and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me.” – Mark 14:7 (CEB)

 

This week I attended the “Elevate the Debate” Greater Milwaukee Poverty Symposium.  The primary audience for the symposium was religious leaders.  The afternoon was a mixture of education, sermonettes and testimony.  There was also a time for us to work in small groups to begin crafting a letter to politicians and candidates regarding poverty in Milwaukee.  In addition to hearing the disgraceful statistics of poverty in Wisconsin, two things have continued to stay with me these last few days.

The first is that stories matter.

One woman shared her story of working for minimum wage at a fast food restaurant.  She needs to take two buses to get to work every day.  She cannot afford to live alone, so she lives with her daughter’s family.  She also can’t afford “to put teeth in [her] mouth.”

Another woman shared her story of losing her job and her health care coverage.  It was at this point that she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  She recounted her experience with Badgercare and other state agencies as she struggled to find treatment for her cancer.   At one hospital she was told, “it was people like [you] who were forcing the hospital to lay off employees.”  These women looked just like everyone else in the room.

 

The second is that these stories aren’t being heard.

One woman in my small group shared that her church just west of downtown has dwindled in size as people moved out to the suburbs.  They have a food pantry that serves approximately 500 people a week.  On Sunday morning, a different 200 people come for worship.  She lamented that, though the congregation supports this food pantry, there is an “us” and “them” mentality.  Though both “us” and “them” use this building each week, they never meet.

A gentleman from a very established congregation in the middle of downtown shared the extensive ministry they do within the downtown urban communities.  They host groups from suburban churches to assist in these ministries.  He lamented that, though these partnerships were important for doing their ministry, these groups weren’t engaged and many churches were hesitant to come in because people were afraid to come into the city.

 

“The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house.  I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.’  Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.’  The rich man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.’  Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’” – Luke 16:27-31 (CEB)

This passage is often used as a stewardship passage, our call to take care of those in need.  The translation problem isn’t in the Greek, however.  The translation problem to most of the American and suburban church is that we don’t step over the poor to get into our house.  We have moved away from the poor so that we don’t have to see them.  I include myself in this group, since I live in the suburbs on a four-acre parcel of land (I can barely see my neighbors when the trees are fully leafed out).

I think it is important to invite people into our churches to tell their stories.  My church was graced last month with a visit by one of the missionaries we support, who came to share his experiences in South Sudan.  But this is still too comfortable because we are not really seeing the suffering, the poor, the oppressed, the hungry.  An important first step is to invite people in to tell their story.

But as the Church, we must remember that Jesus sent us out.

Jesus didn’t tell us to build buildings so that we could make disciples without ever leaving home.  If we are serious about loving our neighbor, then we, the Church, must go out and hear people’s stories.  We need to be willing to go where we might be uncomfortable to hear something that might make us uncomfortable.  And we need to be willing to do this over and over again until their suffering does not belong to a faceless being that we see as “them” but becomes our suffering as well.  Only when it is “us” will we ever truly commit ourselves to bringing good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming release for the captives and liberation for the prisoners (Isaiah 61:1).

I will likely sign on to the letter when it is finalized.  However, I can only do it in good conscience if it is also a confession of my lack of solidarity with the poor and suffering…and if this confession leads me to changed action.

 

“You always have the poor with you; and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me.” – Mark 14:7 (CEB)

Jesus may have said that we will always have the poor among us, but he wasn’t condoning it.  We will have the poor among us as long as we see the world as “us” and “them.”  Unfortunately, we prove Jesus wrong on so many things (like that people would know we are his disciples by our love).  It would be nice to prove Jesus wrong on this one, though.

poverty quote

 

If you want to find out more:

Institute for Research on Poverty             www.irp.wisc.edu

Poverty and Food Security Profiles            www.apl.wisc.edu/poverty_food_security.php

Wisconsin Council on Children and Families            www.wccf.org

Hope in a Time of Poverty            http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/economic-justice-economy/hope-in-a-time-of-poverty.cfm

National Council of Churches Poverty Initiative            http://www.nccendpoverty.org/resources/resources.html

Wisconsin Council of Churches            http://www.wichurches.org/resources/combatting-poverty-elevating-the-debate/

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