From now on, you can find my blog at 0ewo.org/blog or at oureyeswereopened.org.
Back in 2007, I discovered the Missouri Action Community Poverty Simulation, an experience that opens people’s eyes to the human cost of poverty. The power of this unique learning resource is that it creates, like nothing else, insight into the state of chronic crisis that consumes so many working poor families. Participants experience one month of poverty comprised of four fifteen-minute weeks. Afterwards, in the debriefing, they share insights of extraordinary vividness and intensity. I have now facilitated the simulation for more than 4000 people.
Participants are placed into families made up of one to five members. They receive an envelope that describes their demographics, their income/resources, and their bills. They interact with “vendors” (trained volunteers) who sit at tables around the perimeter of the room. During the course of the simulation, they may deal with a mortgage/rental company, school, pawnbroker, banker, employer, and others. To get from “home” to one of the vendors requires a transportation ticket. This is just the first of many challenges the participants experience within the two-hour time period.
I recently led the teachers of New Prospect STEM Academy in Anderson, SC, through the simulation. Here are some of their responses to the question: “Will the poverty simulation be helpful in your job or your life? If yes, in what way?”
“I will be more understanding of the stresses parents have to deal with in their lives.”
“I will have a better understanding of what my students may be going through.”
“Before this experience, I was too judgmental.”
“I now understand that making an A on a spelling test does not feed the child.”
“I have more insight into the home lives of many of my students.”
“This will definitely help me be more polite at school and out in the community when I interact with folks in poverty. This helps me to know better how to talk with kids and parents who struggle in so many ways.”
“I will be more empathetic.”
“I have students living in poverty and now I can understand why homework isn’t getting done.”
“This experience will help me to think more critically in terms of cutting back in certain things that I really don’t need. Most importantly though, this simulation has taught me to not take for granted the financial blessings that my family and I have in our lives.”
“I now understand why children who come to school are tired, hungry and distant.”
Take a bag of potato chips and think about how many people were involved in the making of this treat that you now have in front of you.
You might list farmers, pickers, truckers, processors, and grocery stores. Then dig further. What kinds of functions/jobs on the farm were required for you to have this bag of chips? You might add: owner of the farm, seed purchasers, mechanics who keeps the equipment running, field workers, people who build the boxes or shipping containers, and others. The processing plant will have computer engineers, housekeepers to keep the plant clean, chemists who develop the recipes, human resources people who hire the workers, and others. Even before that, universities will have professors and students who explore ways to produce better potatoes as well as those who train all the chemists, agriculturists, marketers, managers, and accountants. There will be company owners and administrators, graphic artists designing the bag, and advertisers convincing us that this bag of chips is better than another. There will be as many as one hundred people or more involved in this one bag of chips. Except for the store stockers and grocery store cashiers, all of these people are invisible to us.
We often do not think about the large number of people who allow us to enjoy a bag of potato chips, not to mention our lives. We depend on many folks who are invisible to us in order to have the quality of life we enjoy. We are interconnected and yet forgetful about everyone who makes it possible for us to enjoy our lives.
We take for granted that our garbage will be picked up on schedule; our yard limbs, leaves, and clippings will disappear from where we piled them on the street; and the dead animals will be collected from our roads. We ignore the people who clean our offices, churches, and civic buildings until something is not done. We forget about the people who hang the lovely lights in the trees downtown, who wipe the bottoms of people in medical care facilities, and who serve our food at lovely eateries. We slight those who take care of preschoolers even though their pay is not commensurate with the responsibility entrusted to them. We are blind to the vast numbers of people who help us live the lives we take for granted.
In order to write this article, I needed a computer designed by others, a technician who keeps my computer working properly, software designers who know how to make what is in my head come out properly in this machine. I require HVAC maintenance people to keep the temperature comfortable in my office, medical staff to help keep my body healthy for my brain and fingers to work, teachers and editors who taught me how to write, people who prepare nutritious meals using safe food for me, and a host of others who help my life function for me. I need clean water, reasonable gasoline costs, well-maintained transportation, and a host of other conditions that are regulated by elected and appointed officials.
We are all connected. Some of the discourse in Washington these days makes it obvious to the rest of us that we truly are inter-related even when our elected officials seem to forget that. We need each other.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
Let’s remember some of those invisible people who are so important to our lives. We need them. They need us. Together we can appreciate the gifts and talents of each other to make our community the kind of place we want to be. This way we all can thrive and realize the “inter-related structure of reality.”
When I worked at a large nonprofit that offered people who lived in poverty life changing opportunities, the work was sometimes frustrating. We had to redefine success. Some people in the community thought our success should be defined as our taking a street prostitute and turning her into a school teacher. The likelihood of that happening was extremely slim! However, when we defined success as the street prostitute admits she has a drug problem, we and she could keep going.
Success was when she wanted to get into drug treatment; success was when she actually entered drug treatment. Then success was completing drug treatment. Success was being clean one week after drug treatment. And if she failed this time, maybe…maybe the next time would be the time that took. And in the meanwhile, we succeeded when we were able to stay in relationship with her, enjoying her, and we all kept on going.
Of course, there were some days when we wanted to put our own hands around her neck and choke her. That was real, too. Then we’d go behind a closed door and scream, grab another staff person and complain, or leave the building to just get away from everything.
Sometimes we laughed. One woman who was a self-mutilator with a border-line personality cracked us up when she told us about propositioning Santa Claus in the bar at a local hotel!
We might give people names that we’d use for them….in private, of course. “Praise the Lord” was a participant who said “Praise the Lord” every three words. These irreverent words used only amongst the staff were ways to transcend the misery we encountered every day and maintain our own sanity.
Agency staff members don’t usually share this side of the work because most people would not understand. The community may expect staff members to be all-loving and all-giving. The community might demand that the staffs of helping agencies assuage the community guilt by always BEING THERE and always DOING GOOD. When a staff member buys into that philosophy too much, then he stresses out or she no longer functions as a servant to the very people she wants to help. Sometimes simply showing up is a powerful measure of success.
Some truisms helped:
We’re not called to be successful. We’re called to be faithful.
Just as there are many parts in the body, there are many gifts.
I am one person. When lots of us do what we have the skills to do, then change happens.
Things happen when we’re not concerned about who gets the credit.
I am not the messiah. We’ve already had one of those.
When I’m working at my computer in my office at home, I can look out the front window and see what’s going on outside. Recently two guys walked down the sidewalk. My first thought was that they were homeless because frequently people come down this street from Salvation Army, Gateway House, or Triune Mercy Center. As I looked more closely, I noticed that one of the guys was definitely creative. The back of his jacket had colorful ties and scarves attached to it so they flowed as he walked. The jacket truly was a work of art…what one might call a “statement piece” in the fashion world.
As they got to the lower edge of my lot, the two men stopped. The jacket guy turned around and set his styrofoam cup on the sidewalk. I watched closely because the only thing that bothers me about having all kinds of foot traffic in front of my house is the occasional wrapper or other garbage that’s dropped. Then the guy began pulling something out of his pocket. By now, my curiosity was really high. I watched as he took out a camera and pointed it toward the ground. I finally knew what was happening.
Several years ago the City of Greenville redid part of the sidewalk in front of my house. I knew that I just HAD to write something in the wet cement. But what? After some thought, I realized that the statement I wanted to write in rather crude letters “for all eternity” was Faith, Hope, Love. This morning, two very interesting young men got the message.
God of Mercy,
When I complain about people tracking dirt into my house, help me be grateful that I have a house.
When i get stuck in traffic, help me use the time to meditate with you about the good things in my life.
When people disappoint me, help me see their own disappointments in life and be gracious.
When someone tries to make me do something, give me insight into my proper response for that particular situation.
When I want an item, help me wait to allow the desire to lessen if that is what needs to be.
When I am confused, give me people to help me sort out my confusion.
Most Merciful God, you are as close as my own breath and as vast as the universe and beyond. Keep me on track as I strive to live the life you’re creating in me. Amen
If you’d like more prayers, my newest book, Refrigerator Prayers for Ordinary People, is available at https://www.createspace.com/4906363
Do we reach out to others because we want to change them or because we love them as they are? What a question. Of course, we want people to improve their lives. Why else would we offer services and provide opportunities? We want them to be different than they are. We want to help them change. Occasionally, when we’re honest, we want to change them ourselves!
What an arrogant and ignorant thought. It’s hard to change ourselves, much less anyone else. But sometimes …sometimes…when we work with someone, that person becomes our personal project. We work to help them plan better, be more responsible, quit doing harmful activities, buck up, become educated, get a job. And we do all these things with the best of intentions. We truly want to help. We want others to enjoy some of the rewards we claim because we know how to plan, be responsible, buck up, and the rest. Yeah, right. Goodness knows, I’ve spent much of my adult life providing life changing opportunities to others through my work at United Ministries. And now I’m helping people understand more about people who live in poverty through Our Eyes Were Opened, Inc.
All these thoughts stirred up in me when I read Simone Weil’s words from Waiting for God. She said, “I have the essential need, and I think I can say the vocation, to move among men [sic] of every class and complexion, mixing with them and sharing their life and outlook, so far that is to say as conscience allows, merging into the crowd and disappearing among them, so that they show themselves as they are, putting off all disguises with me. It is because I long to know them so as to love them just as they are. For if I do not love them as they are, it will not be they whom I love, and my love will be unreal.” (Emphasis mine.)
When we start with genuine love with no agenda beyond that, who knows what may happen? Hopefully, all of us find the joy of a mutual relationship where we each care for the other.
People who are called to move into low income neighborhoods, not because they have to but because they want to, do so because they choose to become intentional neighbors. They move in order to help build community. They move into the area to love their neighbors just as they are. Then there’s the possibility of new life for all. Love is amazing like that!