A foreign country called Poverty

by Kevin McGrane

First, we need to understand that the poor in the United States live in a foreign country. Without understanding that first, nothing else about the poor makes much sense.

Walking into the Ozarks or an inner-city neighborhood is not like walking into another section of our country. It is much more like walking into the South Sudan or a ghetto in Calcutta – a third-world nation with its own culture, foreign to us tourists.

Chronic, generational poverty deeply shapes the worldview of the poor, forming their own reason, values, dreams and aspirations which are alien to the rest of us. That is why such things as common sense, discipline, morals, intelligence, and education seem to be in such short supply there. That also is why the poor seem to make such bad personal decisions – in the Nation of Poverty their “bad” decisions make complete sense to them.

The poor drop out of school because they see no authentic reason for education. It has zero to do with their culture and there are no “careers” in their world where education is necessary, anyway. There are no jobs to be had in the Nation of Poverty, let alone careers.

They eschew marriage because so many relationships fail under the crush of living, and divorce is only for the rich who can afford attorneys. However, you can simply walk away from a living arrangement.

They have children out of wedlock because they will never be financially/domestically ready for children, so one might as well have them now and let tomorrow take care of tomorrow. They are going to be poor anyway, so they might as well enjoy whatever happiness they can snatch.

The missing key to their lives is Hope as much as it is money. The pervasive ethos of their world is despair and anger. Despair and anger paint everything the poor see, feel, and think. Hope is living somewhere else in an unknown country. Occasionally, the young reach for hope by enlisting in the Armed Forces, searching for a way out, and some of them do find their way out. But the majority return two to six years later with little to show for their service. Slowly, they return to the Nation of Poverty.

As disciples of Jesus, how do we respond? If we take seriously Jesus’ teaching, “Whatsoever you did for the least of these my brothers and sister, you did to me,” what do we do?

First, we proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom with our presence. While the GC dithers over how much money to spend on church planting, we can plant ourselves into the Nation of Poverty right now with a “ministry of presence”. Live there; not just visit. We can be the church among them.

Secondly, we can teach and nurture them by changing their vision, by showing them a different way to see and live. We must be careful here and first “learn the language” – to challenge their illusions about the hopelessness of life without respecting their culture is to suggest they are fools. They will never speak to us again. They may still talk to us, but never “speak” to us again.

Thirdly, we need to address the unjust structures that helps keep them poor. We cannot be squeamish about this, and cave to the charges of being too politicized. The deck is stacked against them in our country both politically and economically, and it needs to change. When we read that our nation ranks 34th in the world in infant mortality, we really are reading about their nation, not ours.

The response to poverty is friendship and hope, and the church needs to be there in a real way to be a friend and share hope. Friendship and hope are the passports out of the Nation of Poverty. Without them, the poor will continue to think this is all there is to the life that God gave them. Is despair and anger the boundaries of the Kingdom of God, or friendship and hope? It is up to each and every one of us to answer that question.

Kevin McGrane and his wife Catherine live on a ten acre homestead in the Missouri Ozarks. They are members of Emmanuel Episcopal parish in Webster Groves, MO. Kevin is a postulant for the diaconate.

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