Thursday, July 06, 2006


My thoughts have turned to poverty as of late. (I guess some would say my mind has never left this topic.) Being in New York, a city so compact that the rich and poor are required to live right next to each other (or, more appropriately, right on top of each other), it is hard to ignore the real-life suffering that exists outside your very doorstep. Virtually anytime you walk anywhere, even for a few blocks, you are confronted with your neighbors without a home.

They might be waking up from a night of concrete-filled sleep, or perhaps they are setting up shop on their corner of choice for the day – complete with a crowd-pleasing instrument or a small sign requesting help of any sort – and their presence immediately fills some with the ever-present dread of having to interact with face of poverty.

Some of us turn up the music on our iPods ever so slightly, while others develop a certain fascination with the cracks on the sidewalk. For people whose eyes connect with those of the street dwellers, an uncomfortable barrier has been breached. Normally the pleas center around the request for “some spare change”, and the answers vary from complete silence to a small “I’m sorry” movement of the lips to an acquiescence of small amounts of change drawn from the pocket.

I have been this person, and I have responded in all the ways mentioned above. I’m searching for a way to open up conversation about this dilemma, not to present an answer or to explain my way out of this exchange. I’m not an enlightened person, nor am I a cynical one. Six weeks in New York brought me to a craving to speak more on this issue, and to never let it drop from my conscience.

My good friend Jeremy, whom I visited this past week in NYC, eagerly engaged me on this topic. His experience attending a seminary in the heart of the city for the past three weeks has given him some insight that I feel is relevant and helpful. (It doesn’t hurt that he has a solid theological education with which to apply to this discussion.) I’ve listed a few points that I have been pondering since our conversation.

[1] First and foremost, in my mind, is the distinction between the poverty we saw all around us and the global wretchedness that exists in so many parts of the world. The fact that a vast amount of human beings live on less than $1/day is nothing to shy away from, but it does not excuse us from ONLY concentrating on that abstract kind of compassion. How easy it is to quote places such as the Sudan, Palestine, and Somalia. (And, truth be told, people in these places lead a struggle for a decent life in such a way to be virtually unfathomable to most of us in the developed world.) But to do so and then pass people by on the street seems to be a grievous anomaly.

[2] On the other hand (the phrase of choice when I try and collect my thoughts on this topic), I hardly have the resources to help every single person I come across asking for help. What is the use of bankrupting myself? What good can I do then? Which brings me directly to

[3] The difference between justice and charity. It is a completely fair critique, according to William Sloane Coffin, to look at the ways in which the Church contributes to the social inequalities that themselves create the situations in which to be charitable to those that are less fortunate in the first place. This is no small thing. As we pass by those people on the street, we could be pushed to ask ourselves, “What am I doing, in whatever capacity, to work for the systemic change necessary to eliminate situations in which humans are forced to feel inhuman after repeated requests for basic human rights that never should have been taken from them in the first place?” That is real change. Giving to those on the street is important, but it pales in comparison to what really needs to happen at the centers of power in our society. The fact that so many people die of hunger, especially in a country whose leaders profess to “love freedom”, is nothing short of embarrassing. It evokes in me an emotion that is nothing short of rage, which brings us to point #4:

[4] Giving out of guilt can’t be good. I haven’t really the concise and articulate response as to why it’s not good – it’s simply a gut reaction from the depths of my being. If I give because I feel guilty that I am walking to a restaurant where my stomach will be filled on wonderful foods while they haven’t tasted food in several days, then what kind of statement am I making? If I’m motivated by guilt to give simply so I can relieve my guilt and feel like a better person, then I feel like I’ve defined the so-called “liberal guilt.” And it makes me sick to my stomach. I don’t want to do things in this way – I might as well bring out a scorecard and keep tabs on my current status of holiness.

So, what’s the nice conclusion that ties everything together? Well, I’m not at graduate school YET. I will not wrap this up in a very intellectual manner. I will leave it as is, because that’s how this topic makes me feel. No resolution. Only more questions.

But that’s the point.


At 12:19 PM , Blogger Meow said...

Bravo. You make some excellent points, especially the bit about the scorecard.


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