Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Reflections on Poverty

I recently took a trip to Philadelphia for an academic conference. It was my first trip to Philadelphia, and I was happy to spend some time seeing the sights and enjoying some of the particularities of the city. It was the fourth time I've been able to attend this particular conference, the previous ones being in Memphis (2006), Seattle (2008), and Minneapolis (2010). There are always unique experiences in a new city, and Philadelphia was no different. I was surprised at how friendly many of the people were. The concierge desk had several folks who appeared to really enjoy their work, and to have a genuine love for the city and its attractions. Although there was some of the stereotypical inhospitable demeanor of northern folks, I was pleasantly surprised to have a couple of good conversations with restaurant owners and workers.

The most memorable experiences were my encounters with the homeless people in the city, of which there were a larger number than in any of the previous cities where the conference has been held (though I can hardly speak for Memphis, as I was only there for a night and a day). Three particular encounters are of note.

The first occurred while a friend and I were walking by city hall. As we were gazing up at the high clock tower a man dressed in shabby clothes, wearing a ball cap and sunglasses moved toward us and spoke a friendly greeting. He proceeded to ask us where we were from and began to give us a tour of sorts of the building. After his short presentation he told us that he was homeless and that he gave these tours as a job to make some money. He told us that he had melanoma, and he showed us the sores on his arms and upper torso. He mentioned a wife and child, and said he wanted the money to feed them. I declined to give him money, since I have in the past been duped into giving money to those who only used it for alcohol or worse things. I did offer to buy him a meal, or take him to the local CVS where there were a few groceries he could buy. The sad part was that he wasn't interested in food, and though he pleaded with us that he wasn't a drunk or a drug addict, he was unwilling to "break his routine," as he called it, and accept the charity we were willing to offer. After his last refusal he peaceably let us move on our way.

The second occurred as I was walking from the conference hotel to Tenth Presbyterian Church for Sunday worship. I was by myself, and as I passed a couple (a young man and woman) on the sidewalk the man (who turned out to be the same age as I) asked if I could spare some money for food, as they hadn't eaten in awhile. I told him that I wouldn't give him money, but that I'd be glad to buy them a meal, and he happily agreed. Providentially, the corner I had just passed had an IHOP, so we went there together as a trio. As we waited to be seated I was able to talk with the couple. I showed them some pictures of my family and asked a bit about their situation. As it turns out, the young lady had gotten pregnant at 16 by another man and had a seven-year-old daughter. The father had gotten custody, but was good enough to allow her to visit, though it wasn't as easy as when her mother had the child. She had met Greg (the man in our present company) during a shared stint in rehab, and they had been together for the past three years. Sophie and Greg had been doing well, and had a baby girl about six months into their relationship. Greg was working at a truck-loading job, and they had a place to live and money to live on. The baby got sick and eventually died of septic shock, and it was then that the couple, in their grief, descended into poverty and homelessness. Presently they were trying to get birth certificates so that they could apply for social security cards and then get federal assistance. As they shared their circumstances I encouraged them to seek out a neighborhood church where, I hoped, they would find people willing to help them either in their quest for federal assistance, or even better, who would help them to get back on their feet and find full-time employment. For their part they agreed that seeking more directed help from others would be a good plan, and as the food arrived I requested to pray for them, to which they agreed. As I was departing I saw the name "Abigail" tattooed on Sophie's neck and I asked her if that was the name of her departed child. She said it was and mentioned that her other girl was named Hannah (also my wife's name), adding that she had been told that both of these names were Biblical names. I shared with them about who Hannah and Abigail were in the Bible, and they seemed surprised and, I hope, encouraged. After the worship service I enquired about the church's ministries to the homeless, and I took down the information in the hopes of finding Greg and Sophie on my way back to the hotel, but I never saw them again.

The third episode involved a middle-aged homeless man who vigorously sought to shine the shoes of myself and two friends as we were taking our luggage to a separate hotel for the last night of our conference (having only been able to secure three nights at the conference hotel). He was quite adamant about the poor state of our shoes and his own inability at procuring work for that day (it was almost 7 p.m.). He told us that he wanted to get food for himself, so I offered, as I had the others, to buy him a meal. He insisted on shining our shoes, promoting his own high standard of work ethic and frequently making reference to God. He agreed to wait while we checked into the hotel and put our things away, and we reluctantly agreed to let him shine two pairs of our shoes. While he was working he not only did a fine job of shining our shoes, but he shared what he considered his wisdom, even singing two original songs he wrote. One song was about treasures on earth and treasures in heaven, the hook being, loosely paraphrased, "I may not have treasures on earth, but God's got a plate for me." The other was a song he wrote for President Obama, and the hook was, again loosely paraphrased, "we got to rebuild America from the bottom up." He spoke of his seven children and of his hardships at a previous job. His favorite theological maxim, which he cited often, was "You've got to let go, and let God." These words proved ominous later, however. When he finished his work and we began to walk, I asked him where he would like to eat. He mentioned his work ethic and spoke of fair wages and requested that we pay him cash. I told him that it was the meal we had promised, and that promise was made without seeking his services, which we accepted only upon his insistence. He sought to haggle with us some more, citing more abstract principles, including his theological maxim, "You need to let go, and let God." He, like the first homeless man, insisted upon his upstanding character, his avoidance of drug and drink, and insisted that our skepticism was an attempt to play God and judge him, rather than "let go, and let God," and give him his due wages. I told him that I wasn't going to let him manipulate us into something other than what we had agreed upon before. He grew more indignant and cited his need to pay rent and to feed his family who was on the other side of town and who wouldn't benefit from his getting a meal. I offered to buy some groceries, as I did for the first homeless man, but he said the groceries were "too expensive here," and mentioned a cheaper grocery across town where he would buy the goods. I told him that I was only going to buy him food or groceries, and he became more hostile, shouting expletives and showing more signs of visible agitation. One of our party gave me some cash and left to go meet his friends who were waiting upon him, and the homeless man, whom we later learned was named Duke, thought that the money was intended for him. Eventually I was able to coax him to a local friend chicken joint that was on the corner (he had wanted Popeye's, which was down in the subterranean train station, but we didn't feel comfortable following his lead, since he was growing more hostile). He got his meal, but he remained indignant, and though I took his hand, looked him directly in the eye, thanked him for his fine work and offered God's blessing to him, he shouted me down saying, "God's already blessing me, don't you see! Why can't you just let go and let God!?" As we parted he looked back at us and said "If you judge me, its over for you," which seemed quite an ominous threat, especially given that he knew where we were staying, but we never saw Duke again after parting.

I was so discouraged in the aftermath of our episode with Duke, having genuinely wanted to believe his high-minded principles and his thoughtful moral maxims. In the end it was no more than a well-practiced routine to prove to "people like us" that he was a man who wasn't simply after charity, who genuinely wanted to care for his family, and who simply did what he could as an entrepreneur with the skill set he possessed. As a fifty-three-year-old man, as he said, I can only wonder how many years he had been perfecting his deceit. I had thought the man from our first encounter had a pretty elaborate con, but Duke's con was by far the more advanced. Every word, every look, every far-flung maxim was calculated to our white, middle-class, Puritan work-ethic mentality. He even went so far as to mention his willingness to play the deferential "working boy" to his previous boss ("so long as I get paid," he added). I remain astounded at the lengths to which a man may go, the ingenuity with which he will perfect his skill, and the doggedness he will display in his pursuit for the desire prize when the outcome of all his aims is enslavement to whatever habit has dominion over his soul. I was glad that Duke took the meal, though I'm not sure how much he needed it. Food is no solution to his poverty, any more than it will solve the problems of Greg and Sophie. The habits to which any of us are enslaved, whether it be drugs, or sex, or the praise of men, or the power to control others--these habits are part and parcel the corruption we inhabit in our fleshly nature, inherited from our fallen parent. So much of the greatness of God's image remains intact, as was so evident in my encounters with Duke and with the first homeless man, but that greatness was enslaved to desires that had plunged those men into self-destruction from which they were, and I was, powerless to rescue them. I have no clue as to what the Spirit of God was about in moving my path into the path of these homeless people. I know that I could have done more to promote Christ to each of them, though I certainly could have done less, and worse, too. I am thankful that the Lord allowed Greg and Sophie to receive the food I was willing to offer, and I cling to their graciousness in receiving that gift even more in light of the experiences that bookended my time with them.

I pray that God's Spirit would not leave any of the people I met in the despair of poverty, and especially the poverty of the soul that is so much more evident in the absence of earthly goods. None of us have in ourselves the equipment for our own deliverance and for achieving the abundance of joy we all desire.

Thus says the LORD:
“Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?
All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD.
But this is the one to whom I will look:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.


Ryan said...

Living in Atlanta has left me with the same pessimism. But I like your idea about buying the actual goods for them. Thanks for sharing.

Joshua Butcher said...

I wish I could say the idea has always been my policy, but it is born of previous mistakes. There is a book I've heard about that is supposed to be very helping in thinking about alleviating poverty, called When Helping Hurts.