Thursday, January 30, 2014

On Poverty

I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty lately.  If you check out the news on your TV or computer these days, you cannot help but hear about the so-called “income gap”, and it seems like we also are seeing more and more cuts being made to programs and services that benefit the less fortunate. There’s almost a demonization of the poor in some quarters. The emphasis that Pope Francis has placed on helping the poor and disenfranchised has also done a great deal to bring issues related to poverty to the forefront for me. On a personal level, I’ve been reading a biography of Robert F. Kennedy who, despite his privileged background, had strong empathy for those living in poverty, and that has also stirred my consciousness of the poor, a consciousness which put down roots many years ago. 

When I was in first grade at St. Mary’s School back in the 1970s, there was an international organization called The Holy Childhood Association that provided parochial school teachers with many educational resources.  It still exists today, though it is now known as the Missionary Childhood Association.  Founded in 1843 and supported by the Vatican, its mission in a nutshell is to help Catholic kids in first world countries to learn about and reach out to the less fortunate.  The classrooms and hallways in our school were filled with Holy Childhood Association posters and bulletin boards showing the challenges that children our age in less-developed countries were facing.  As a school and in our individual classes we undertook many lessons and activities which impressed upon us the obligation of our Catholic faith for caring for one another and especially for those who were less fortunate than us.  We learned about what poverty was, where it was occurring, and how we could help.

One of the Holy Childhood Association’s poverty-awareness activities made a particular impression on me: our support as a class of  “the pagan babies”. 

The way it worked was pretty clever really.  Our first grade class was encouraged by our teacher, Sister Eunice, to voluntarily bring in loose change from home, with parental permission of course, and put it in a canister on her desk to help children who didn’t have enough food or shelter.  The goal was to get to $10, at which point the class would “adopt” a poor baby.  As we started collecting coins toward each new $10 goal, Sister Eunice would announce the gender and nationality of the prospective adoptee, show us a photo sent by the Holy Childhood Association, and tell us a little about where and under what circumstances the child lived.  Next, she would choose two students who would be responsible for giving the baby a name once we reached the $10 mark.  Now of course no child in a far off country had their actual given name changed by a couple of first graders from the USA, but the symbolic naming of the baby made it a very personal thing for us as kids. 

It wasn’t unusual for namers to want to use some version of his or her own name, which was okay.  However, the hard and fast rule was that at least one of the two names had to be that of a saint.  It was a Catholic school, after all. 

My naming partner and I gave a boy from Chad the name “Louis Christopher”.  Louis was the name of my female partner’s French-Canadian grandfather, and we were instructed by her that it was to be pronounced “Loo-Wee”, and NOT “Loo-Iss”.  For some reason, many of my first grade buddies and I found this new-to-us pronunciation quite funny.  And I suppose you can guess where the name Christopher came from.

Donating, while popular, was strictly voluntary, with no minimum amount.  As we were settling in each morning, a few kids would always drop a few pennies and nickels from home into the metal canister as they walked by.  Thanks to the blessed innocence of our being so young, we didn’t pay much attention to who was giving and how much it was.  The rattle of change in that canister was just part of the soundtrack of our day.  The teacher kept a daily tally of how much we had raised posted on the chalkboard.

The drive was limited to coins only.  I remember sometimes finding dimes, nickels and pennies lying around the house at that time and asking my parents if I could take it in to school for the Holy Childhood. My grandparents were aware of the campaign as well and when I went to visit them on Sundays they often gave me some pennies and nickels to take in to school the next day for what they still called “the pagan babies” which was kind of politically incorrect even back then in 1976.

By the end of the school year, our classroom list contained several dozen names.  In hindsight it was a pretty powerful way to get the message through to a bunch of young kids that there were poor people in our world, that they needed our help, that it was our obligation to help, and that we really could help, even if we were only six and seven years old.

Flash forward to today.

I recently made a trip from Aroostook County to southern Maine, stopping in several cities on the way down and back.  These cities would be considered small by most standards, yet in each I saw at least a few men or women standing in traffic medians, holding signs asking for help.  It tugged at my conscience.  I wanted to help them directly, but couldn’t be sure if I was feeding a mouth or an addiction.  (I did donate to a local service organization in their honor, however.)  The plight of these people with their signs really made me think.  What depths would one have to reach in order to spend a frigid January day, standing in city traffic, begging?  Could that happen to someone I know?  Could that happen to me?

The proliferation of panhandlers sharpened my eyes to see other signs of poverty around me: the run-down apartment houses that did not look entirely safe for occupancy, the people in tattered clothing trying to stay warm in the winter cold, the sheer number of food pantries and homeless shelters in a relatively small state like Maine. If the problem is this serious here, what can it possibly be like in New York, Rio de Janeiro or Bombay?

And the biggest question bouncing around my brain: What can I really do as just one person?

I wish there was an easy answer to that question, but there isn’t.  At this point, the only answer I have come up with is DO SOMETHING!  It may not change the scope of global poverty, but every little bit each of us does, whether it’s a contribution to a charity or service organization, a donation to a food pantry or thrift shop, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or even just working to shift stereotypical thinking about the poor as somehow lesser people, adds another bright new fiber to the sometimes-tattered tapestry of what’s right with us as human beings. 

Post Script--This editorial by Robyn Merrill, recently published in the Bangor Daily News, makes many good points about poverty as it impacts Maine: Beyond the attacks, ideology: What poverty looks like in Maine

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