I wrote this for the Spring 2009 issue of our neighborhood newsletter, but I wanted to share it with those of you who are outside the circulating area of that newsletter.
I remember being poor. I remember trying to provide for a growing family on a meager income. I remember going over our budget with a man from our church who stared at us incredulously, amazed that we were getting by on so little.
I remember being on food stamps. I remember how my wife dreaded going to the assistance office for the next dole. She would make sure that her wedding band was prominent, like a talisman against the disapproving glares. She wished that she could just yell, “I was married before I had these children!” But it wouldn’t matter. The steady stream of supplicants were despised by the case-workers. And so, each month, Crystal would swallow her pride and endure their scorn and condescension so that we could afford to eat another month.
And I remember one night when Crystal came home from the grocery store with a tale to tell. The Hispanic couple in front of her in the checkout line were struggling with their food stamp card. Their PIN wasn’t working, so they couldn’t buy their food. Eventually, they had to leave their shopping order and walk away. It broke my wife’s heart. She wished that she could have just stepped up and bought them those groceries. But we were sinking into financial morass ourselves, and all she could do was watch.
Much time has passed since those days. A friend rescued us from the tyranny of the assistance office and helped us dig ourselves out of the debt that we racked up trying to climb out of poverty ourselves. Now I have a good job, making decent money. We’re out of debt and feeding our family, which has continued to grow.
But I remember being poor.
In our society, it seems that the poor are treated either as a plague that must be eradicated or a social ill that must be addressed by some philosophical position or government program. But all these responses hold the poor at arm’s length. Everyone talks about the poor as a group, but few talk about specific people. Everyone talks about helping the poor, but few talk about loving the poor.
I want to love the poor. I want to help provide for their needs as best I can. I want to be the warm embrace, the stern word given in love, the shoulder to cry on when it’s just too hard. And I want to be
the protest and outcry, the public conscience that speaks for those who are powerless and will not be heard.
But it is not enough to live in some upscale neighborhood and occasionally descend from the mountaintop, deigning to bless the underclass with my presence. That would be condescending and
insulting. Instead, I look to the example that Jesus set. The Apostle Paul talks about the love of Jesus in these terms: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) If Jesus loved me like this, shouldn’t I love those around me in the same way?
And that is why I live here.