The Poor Are Different From You and Me

by Ken Briggs

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My small city recently evicted about 30 homeless people from their shanty town on a railroad bed. "It needed to be done," said the mayor. It was a festering crime scene, said the police chief.

They had a point. It was a filthy, hazardous site. An article in the local paper cited the city officials' justifications. Their report contained some fact and much hearsay. Not a word or viewpoint from an evicted person was included anywhere.

The chief warned that the makeshift camp was a magnet for drifters whose numbers would swell to several hundred and become a "small city." He said he'd heard of things. That newcomers had to surrender food stamps to get in. That toughs demanded "protection money." That there was a "sex tent." The claims weren't publicly challenged by any group, civic leaders, city council members or churches. The vision of a wanton, barbarous invasion stoked fears. An informal newspaper poll showed overwhelming support for the invasion. 

Whether the scary scenario was accurate or not, the bare bones of the case warranted some kind of action. People were living in their mutual wretchedness and that was toxic.

The approval of action to uproot unhealthy and possibly dangerous conditions is understandable.

The treatment of the people themselves was deeply troubling. They were thrown out and left to fend for themselves. A local shelter was already full. They scattered with the four winds, presumably frightened and more desperate.

This community is doubtless no better or worse than any other. There is decency and good will here much as you'd expect in as any town or city. There are food banks, social agencies and typical sources of government aid. The help doesn't begin to cover the need, of course, and that, too, is the way it is in an era when income gaps continue to widen and increasing numbers of people are left out in the cold.

The larger stain on our collective conscience is that we have place poor people at such a remove from our mainstream lives that we don't know them and, not knowing them, feel less guilt about mistreating them. Like the local campsite, they are eyesores, eons distant from the fellowship of our circles of our "equals." We removed the eyesore and summarily believed we eradicated the "problem" people. We simply don't know what to do with people who have slid so far off the societal shelf that we are afraid of them. We don't know how to relate to them as people, as brothers, sisters, uncles and friends.

This is where Pope Francis' purest message runs into trouble. Take this: "Jesus teaches us to put the needs of the poor ahead of our own. Our needs, even if legitimate, will never be so urgent as those of the poor who lack the necessities of life." He adds, "poverty is a scandal."

Tough stuff. Most of us applaud. How can we deny its truth or fail to identify with its sentiment.

But what could ever lead us to take it seriously? Many of us have been willing to serve at soup kitchens, clothing drives and toys-for-tots. Worthy efforts, but they don't come close to fulfilling the mandate Francis suggests, that is, taking public stands, often controversial, with poor people to boost policies that could serve their needs for decent pay, sound education, mental health and equal opportunity. My energies, such as they are, have gone mostly to the "service" side so I'm no exception to this imbalance.

This is a heavily Catholic town and people really admire the pope. It would be extremely helpful if the pope followed up his strong plea for the priority of poor people with more details as to how that legal-economic-social end is to be achieved. Otherwise I'm afraid it's just words. Dan Morris-Young is documenting how the pope's clarion call is stirring and encouraging some churches and individuals to go to bat with poor people, so perhaps those examples are the basis for something. The U.S. bishops decades ago wrote a powerful indictment of poverty and the economic injustice behind it. Some concrete actions such as the Campaign for Human Development attempted to implement its aims. Much of that has faded, however, and in the midst of the pope's electrifying appeal to give this cause top attention, there is no plan to go with it. If that doesn't happen, I'm afraid the scoffers will have a field day declaring that the plea has no teeth.

Adding partisanship to service incurs cost. It means the church showing good faith by spending its own money and human resources in exposing themselves to scorn and criticism. Resources are scarce, we tell ourselves. Everyone's struggling. Does it mean anything to "put the needs of the poor ahead of our own?" Or is that only a pope saying what, well, popes have to say as part of their job. Back to square one Jesus.

In my town, no church spoke up to assist the refugees from the destroyed winter camp. For all the nagging reminders of poor and homeless people, and for all the temporary help we're willing to give, we have trouble seeing them let alone doing anything fundamental for them, perhaps because underneath we know they are our family members we have allowed to float downstream in the rapids, nameless.

This is true story; perhaps it also qualifies as a Holy Week allegory. 



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