Saturday, April 19, 2014

What God Is Teaching Me: The Complexity of Poverty

For many years I have been on a quest to understand poverty and, even more importantly, to understand the lives of people who live under the weight of poverty daily. Pivotal moments flash in my mind…

- As an 8-year-old helping at a food pantry, I learned that one person’s health tragedy is enough to send an entire family over the financial edge. The daughter of this family was in my sister’s class. It hit home.
- As a teen, I was surprised and mesmerized by the joy I saw in a church in Mexico, a joy that had nothing to do with material possessions.
- As a student, I began to understand social work, as well as the rudimentary outlines and implications of poverty. My intellect was engaged.
- As a guest in several orphanages of Romania, I witnessed corruption and innocence existing side by side.
- As an intern in Papua New Guinea, I heard individual stories of friends dreaming of a life where their children could get an education or maybe simply live beyond the age of five.
- As a listener, many conversations with deaconess sisters and classmates further deepened my awareness of the complexities.
- As a grad student, I spent two years of full time study delving into some of the hardest, most unanswerable questions of poverty.
- As an intern, I saw the pain and strength of women in the St. Louis “ghetto” with unimaginable histories and admired the immigrants who strained to adjust to life in the U.S. while battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I received a Master’s degree, but I also received the awareness that there is still so much to learn. I will never be finished. Each experience has changed me, and my time in Tanzania is likewise forcing me to grow. I learn from the stories of survival, despair, and achievement of my Tanzanian friends and neighbors. Sometimes I learn from my own mistaken assumptions: “Why can’t you just… oh, that’s why.” And most recently, I have been grateful to learn from the writers of the blog series “A Life Overseas”.

One of the writers particularly caught my attention in her post, “Please Don’t Say They Are Poor But They’re Happy.” Rachel Pieh Jones often writes about extremes when talking about people struggling with poverty. She notes that there is a tendency to make others one-dimensional. Some tend to stigmatize those who are lacking material wealth. “If they just ________ or didn’t _______, they would be fine.” “Why don’t they __________?” More common among missionary and nonprofit agencies is the ennobling of poor. (Ironically, I’ve seen Americans veer one way in viewing other Americans who are impoverished, and veer the other way in their perception of people in poverty in other parts of the world.)  

As I read Rachel’s post, I realized that in years past I have likewise fallen into the trap of saying, “They are poor, but happy. Look at how amazing they are!”  Sometimes it is good to recognize and celebrate the moments of nobility. Yes, there is something about having to rely on God on a very real and daily basis that can bring about spiritual growth. And wealth can be a deterrent to deep faith. However, poverty and suffering do not in and of themselves make people noble.

At Rachel’s suggestion, I read “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo. Katherine spent four years listening to stories, pouring over records, and observing life in a slum in Mumbai, India. The book feels like a fictional novel, but it is the real life journalistic account of the lives of people in that slum. It’s a hard book to read. Eric can vouch for the fact that every time I picked it up, I ended up in a bad mood. It does not shy away from the harsh realities. I think many people will react to the narrative with anger and heartbreak, as I did. However, I am glad I read it. It shows how complex, how messy, and how agonizing decisions of survival can become.

At the end of the book, Katherine writes,

“In my reporting, I am continually struck by the ethical imaginations of young people, even those in circumstances so desperate that selfishness would be an asset. Children have little power to act on those imaginations, and by the time they grow up, they may have become the adults who keep walking as a bleeding waste-picker slowly dies on the roadside, who turn away when a burned woman writhes, whose first reaction when a vibrant teenager drinks rat poison is a shrug. How does that happen? How—to use Abdul’s formulation- do children intent on being ice become water? A cliché about India holds that the loss of life matters less here than in other countries, because of the Hindu faith in reincarnation, and because of the vast scale of the population. In my reporting, I found that young people felt the loss of life acutely. What appeared to be indifference to other people’s suffering had little to do with reincarnation, and less to do with being born brutish. I believe it had a good deal to do with condition that had sabotaged their innate capacity for moral action.

In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.

It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be.”

People are people. Sometimes they are noble, sometimes they are corrupt. Sometimes corruption comes solely out of our own sinfulness. And sometimes it is a survival mechanism bred by a corrupt system constructed by other sinful people.  We all have good and evil within us. The idea of each person being both saint and sinner is not limited to one socioeconomic class. I pray that we, as individuals and as a society, can continue to move past one-dimensional thinking and depictions of those whose lives seem so different from ours. Most heartily I pray I can daily find the cultural humility to ask meaningful questions and to learn.

** If you would like to read more, I recommend Rachel Pieh Jones’ post “When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They Are Being Rich Westerners.”   It was such a great challenge to me and I’m still unpacking how this looks in my daily life.