When I Say “Poor People” Who Do You Picture?

  • Criminals?
  • Lazy People?
  • Black or Brown People?
  • Drug Addicts?
  • Unlucky People?
  • Cursed People?

On the drive home last night, I heard back to back to back stories about poor people.   They ranged from 1) a single mother with a voucher for Section 8 Housing who – nevertheless – could not find a landlord who would rent to her, to 2) a new book called Generation Wealth (which is “more about wanting than having” money) to 3) the story of Susan Burton who established a program for poor, formerly incarcerated women in Los Angeles.

That last story kept me from wanting to sink into despair, but more about that in a moment.

First I heard a woman in Dallas explain why she didn’t want poor neighbors:

“In this neighborhood, most of us are stay-at-home moms with young kids. The lifestyle that goes with Section 8 is usually working, single moms or people who are struggling to keep their heads above water. I feel so bad saying that. It’s just not people who are the same class as us.”

Then I heard author Lauren Greenfield say that:

“Materialism is the new spirituality.”

Congratulations, all you prosperity ministry preachers and political shamers and blamers:  you have successfully convinced us that people are poor due to their own lack of discipline/lack of ambition/lack of blessing.  You have convinced us that money (or the appearance of money) = class and dignity.

It’s a lie.

Rich and poor people alike sometimes make terrible choices, but the rich enjoy multiple safety nets that make their mistakes less devastating. People of color – even those with financial resources – pay more heavily for their mistakes than white people.  Exhibit A: white kids who get caught drinking under age who do not get shot leaving a party.

Jesus said many things about the poor and I tend to agree with Liz Theoharis who says that Jesus comment that “the poor you will always have with you” is not about the inevitability of poverty; it’s actually a mandate to end the systems that make people poor.

Thriving 21st Century spiritual communities are not merely about “flinging a coin to a beggar” in the words of Dr. King.  “True compassion comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Even if you don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, you have to agree that Jesus was all about compassion.

And therefore, we are called to be compassionate ourselves.  What makes neighbors like Nicole Humphrey of Dallas say that “voucher holders won’t fit in“?  What makes a kid aspire – most of all – to be “rich and famous” one day? How do we fight the notion that being poor = being bad/less worthy?

About the time I was wondering if there was hope for humanity on that ride home last night, I heard Susan Burton tell her story.  She was a poor woman who shared what she had to give other women the break that no one gave to her.  You can listen here (at about minute 21 on Marketplace, 5-10-17).

Being “good” is not about being rich or poor.  It’s about seeing people as God’s children.  It’s about feeling compassion in the likeness of Christ. It’s about living for something bigger than ourselves.  The Church is called to teach these lessons, especially in a world that worships money and condemns those without it.

 

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