I saw him coming as I approached the C-Train station. It was a cold January morning when we tend to keep our heads down as we make our way to work in the dark. He was walking against the flow of commuters, heading away from, rather than towards the station.
“Excuse me, sir” he said. I am, of course, familiar with the approach. Most of us are. I usually do keep a few coins in my pocket, ready for those who might ask, as I am inclined to help with spare change for people who request it. Usually, however, these are relatively wordless transactions, relatively faceless; a furtive request, sometimes accompanied by an apology, head down, change offered, and little more.
“Do you have a bit of change for a coffee?” he asked, “I’ve just been released from the hospital.”
“Do you have any place to go?” I asked. “No.” he replied. “I’ve been sleeping outside. It’s ok cause I’ve got this great sleeping bag, but the other night I left my hand outside the bag and I got frostbite.” He showed me his hand, and the thumb and forefinger were all blistered and black. “That’s why I was in the hospital.”
“Do you know about the shelters downtown?” I asked. He said he knew about them, and had stayed there when he was first homeless, but found them to be too dangerous. ”After I just about got murdered down there, I swore I wouldn't stay downtown again.
Usually it’s ok, but a few nights ago it was so cold, I went into a C-Train station to get warm. I wasn't there that long when the security guards came along and kicked me out. I asked them, ‘Aren't you supposed to be protecting people?’ They said, ‘yeah, we protect people; you’re not a person.’”
“You’re not a person”. How hard it is to be a person, and how easy not to be. In downtown Calgary the Famous 5 statue honours the women who also once struggled to become persons. What is a person, how do we determine what makes you a person, and who gets to decide?
This question, I believe, gets us beyond matters of charity and into the realm of justice. When we think about this from a justice perspective we are challenged to ask, who are the poor, and what is it they cry for? As you may know, scripture repeatedly refers to the poor as the widow, the alien, the afflicted and the fatherless. I would like to suggest that we consider these four groups of people to be archetypes. Let’s examine these archetypes and see if they have anything to tell us about the essence of poverty.
Who is the widow? First of all, the widow is a woman. She has been cut off by death from the primary relationship that sustained her. As a woman, she would have been prohibited from paid work or owning property. She would have been voiceless, cut off from both the religious and political structures of power. Her relationships now and before were and are relationships of dependence. She grieves, but not only for the loss of a husband, but for herself; for the loss of the social structure that sheltered her and from her tenuous connection to power and status.
The alien is the one who doesn’t belong. The alien was the foreigner; landless, prevented from getting land, prevented from gaining power or influence. The alien wore funny clothes, spoke a funny language, ate disgusting food and worshipped crazy gods. The alien worked for cheap wages. Easy to exploit, really. And if something went wrong, well they could just go back to where they came from. Maybe they should anyways. This was, of course, our “promised land.”
The afflicted bears the weight of his or her body’s failure. The afflicted is old. Or the afflicted is young. Or the afflicted worked a farm or held down a good job until the accident; or the illness; or the voices in the head that got too loud. If the afflicted was a man he bore the blame of not providing and the shame of his failing social standing. If the afflicted was a woman she bore the burden and shame of not being able to care for her family. They both suffer under the weight not only of their physical limitations and pain, but even more so the shame of their growing dependence.
The fatherless is the one without a family. The fatherless is the child you will meet every day on the street. Are they fatherless because the father died, or left? Perhaps the fatherless now bears the duty of supporting the family. The fatherless becomes the father too early; childhood evaporates as the responsibilities of the father fall on the child. Or are they fatherless because they left, because the father beat them and they ran out of anger or fear or both? Maybe they were no longer welcome because of how they looked. Or who they loved. Or what they wore or said. The fatherless has no home, no guidance, no access to the family name or inheritance. The fatherless is alone in the world.
As we reflect on these archetypes from over 2,000 years ago, it is striking to consider how little has changed. Today in Calgary (and Canada) the poor are overwhelmingly comprised of lone-parent families, single people, immigrants, Aboriginal people and persons with disabilities; in short: the widow, the alien, the afflicted and fatherless. What do these groups of people have in common and does that give us insight into the nature of poverty? If we reflect on this for a moment I believe we find three important things these groups have in common:
a. They are powerless. I don’t believe that people lack power because they are poor. Rather, they are poor because they lack power. Privilege tends to reinforce itself. I benefit from systems of privilege that pave roads for me that others have to pave themselves.
b. They are different. Humans are very good at building walls; at establishing boundaries between who is in and who is out. Our capacity to distinguish between “us” and “them” seems almost unlimited. We distinguish between colour, gender, ability, religion; and even between “the poor” and the “non-poor” as though we were separate species. And so we reinforce the patterns of power that make people different and keep them powerless. In fear we build our walls to hold onto our power and privilege.
c. They are alone. In ancient society, to be widowed, foreign, afflicted or fatherless was to be cut off; outside of the structures of family and community that sustain us. Today things are not that much different. Isolation is both a cause and effect of poverty. When we make our distinctions between us and them we build the walls that keep us simultaneously in and out and so the bonds of community are damaged. We no longer see the poor and they become invisible.
I think, though, that there is one more thing that these archetypes have in common:
d. They are us. There is a myth we hold of the independent, self-reliant person. It is the ideal against which we hold ourselves up. It is a myth because the wholly independent self-reliant person does not exist. Like the widow, alien, afflicted and fatherless, that person too is an archetype. And we know deeply that we are not that person. We enter life vulnerable as children, and leave vulnerable in our age or infirmity. We strive to be independent yet fear being alone. We amass wealth as we wrestle with the fear of not having enough. We project strength as we grapple with the knowledge of our own vulnerability. We struggle with our difference as we strive to be accepted. And in our fear of all of this we grasp for power and build the walls that continue to divide. So we come to the root of poverty.
If in fact we are all vulnerable, then a failure to hear the cry of the poor is a failure to hear ourselves. So, indeed, our own cry will not be heard if our society is deaf to the poor, because we have created a society that is deaf in all respects. The American evangelist Jim Wallis refers to those living in poverty as the canary in the coalmine. The plight of those in poverty, he argues, tells us something about the kind of environment we have created for ourselves. If we create conditions of injustice, those in poverty will experience it first, but the injustice of an unjust society will inevitably be inflicted upon us all.
So the poor cry out. And what is it that they cry for? The same cry we all cry; the cry to be seen, to be heard; the cry to belong; the cry for justice.
As I chatted in the dark with the stranger by the C-Train Station, I learned that he, of course, hadn’t always been homeless. In fact, not that long ago, he had been a practicing nutritionist. Then, unexpectedly, mental illness struck and spiralled him into an abyss that first saw him lose his job and then, eventually, his marriage. The spiral continued and, without a job, he also lost the ability to pay for his medication and the spiral deepened. Homelessness soon followed. He has a daughter the same age as mine. She’s a dancer, like my daughter. He tries his best to stay in touch and be a dad. Of all the losses, I can hear in his voice that this is the hardest.
In the end, I gave him a bit of change to buy some coffee and a little bit more. More importantly, we took time together. I gave him the dignity of asking and learning his name, and he gave me the gift of hearing and sharing his story. In that moment, I believe both our mornings were transformed, and we both became “persons” to each other. Seeking that transformation gets to the root of poverty, and is ultimately why we do what we do. We do it because we dream; we dream of something bigger, of a city and a community where we all belong.
So, perhaps I’m not all that interested in “solving poverty”, as much as I am in healing it. For what we need is not to solve the problems of others, but to heal ourselves by building communities where distinctions between “us” and “them” cannot take root; where we are all “us” and simultaneously “them”. And only then will we no longer be able to justify what we do to each other, and what is done to us.