Blog Action Day: Poverty
Doesn’t time fly? Hardly seems a year since I was writing posts about the Environment, the 2007 theme, but today’s theme is Poverty, another topic on which I already occasionally write. In fact, I’ve been saving up an idea for today ever since I heard that the theme had been announced: our relationship with “the poor”. (And, yes, I know B.A.D was yesterday, I just didn’t finish this in time!)
An event appeared on Facebook not so long ago called “Iftar with the homeless”, scheduled to take place at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in central London. An Iftar, for those who don’t know, is the ritual of breaking fast at the end of a day of fasting in the Muslim faith. The idea was to fast in solidarity with those on the streets, then go meet them and take food along.
But what I found challenging about the event invitation wasn’t this idea of fasting before feeding the homeless, it was the choice of language used in the event listing. This was to be a meeting of the homeless and those who wished to share their food with them, as equals. This wasn’t a “let’s go to Lincoln’s Inn and throw food at the poor who live there”. People weren’t supposed to eat their own tea before going and passing something around. A meal was to be shared between the haves and have not’s.
For whilst there are haves and have nots, or perhaps “can gives” and the “need to receives”, much of what we are prepared to do seems to seek to emphasise this, rather than diminish it (particularly in the Church, but just as much outside of it). We divide what we want to keep hold of from what we are prepared to give away, rather than putting things in a position for them to be shared out from. We still view our possessions as ours, and seek to keep them from the poorest of society, whilst claiming to want to help them.
For many social groupings, of which the membership of several churches come to mind, more from experience than this specifically being a church problem, what to do with a poor person who decides to walk in through the doors is really quite a big challenge. The attitude from some churches is much like a posh hotel: “what the hell is this scruff-bag doing here, how can we remove them quickly before they make everywhere dirty?”. We want to otherise the poor, because we’re still very glad to be “not poor”, to be comfortably well-off, if not part of the “successful” crowd.
In some, a poor person is seen as an object for pity and to be given material goods, rather than a valid contributor to the church’s life. In one way, this perpetuates the sense of needyness in the poor persons head, the disempowerment and the need to rely on others to sustain them. But we can find ways to genuinely help people, even if it makes things more complicated.
Our approach to the poor is to say that they aren’t us. We can’t learn anything from them, they have nothing to offer us, and we need only provide them with the leftovers of our wealth. This neither redistributes wealth, merely the bits we feel embarrased into passing over, nor does it give them much respect. It also ignores the fact that we ourselves are pretty bankrupt in our own way, and that often its the poorest, those with least to lose, who upstage us in other areas of life.
I can’t say I’m perfect at this. I often make suggestions that completely ignore how cash-strapped those around me are. One recent example was when I started ordering drinks by rounds (there were 3 of us, so we’re talking about £7 a round here in York), only to have to face complaints when it was pointed out that people couldn’t afford this much each (I should add, I wasn’t working at the time, so its not that I was earning more than everyone else, just had more saved up).
We might not be able to be instantly prefect, but through a process of realising where we create these divides, we can gradually pull down the wall, and find community and equality with the poor, giving them dignity, and ourselves space to reflect on the wealth and privelege we possess.