Friday, February 5, 2010

Facing Poverty and Privilege

I have no idea what the word “poverty” really means. In the United States, “poverty” is the government designation for the income level at which a family of a certain size cannot meet their “basic needs.” In Nicaragua, poverty means living on less than a few dollars a day. So is poverty relative? I don’t really know. But whatever you call it when someone can’t make ends meet or they skip a meal so their kids don’t have to or they work five jobs and barely scrape by or their children are exceptionally small because they were malnourished at some point, how do those of us with more than enough money and security in our state of excess respond to it? Do we throw money at the situation, give away all we have, lend money, refuse to give money because we believe in justice, or do we simply make sure never to be in a situation where we’re faced with that choice?

I certainly don’t actively seek out people who society labels “poor” just to force myself to face my privilege. But here in Nicaragua, I can’t choose to avoid it as easily as I can in the U.S. Whether it’s my friend asking me for a loan for her son’s school registration fee, a neighbor coming by my house asking for food, a blind man begging on the bus, or an English student who can’t afford their textbook, I frequently feel a familiar pang of guilt mixed with I’m-a-graduate-of-a-liberal-arts-college-and-we-have unpacked-our-privilege mixed with helplessness mixed with relief: “I’m glad I have the money not to be in that situation.”

Did I really just say that? Yup. Truth be told, it’s uncomfortable to ask for a loan or a handout, and I thank God (not every day, just when I’m faced with the issue) that I don’t struggle to pay my bills and can by a ticket home whenever I want. And that’s when I’m living on a volunteer’s stipend.

So aside from mixed feelings and the urge to run away, what do I do when I face a blind man on the bus asking me for money? I passively stare straight ahead (or out the window), don’t give him anything, and then I reflect on the pop culture question ‘What would Jesus do?’ Certainly not what I just did. I conclude that not only am I not Jesus, but our world is so broken I firmly believe that the “right” thing to do is the opposite of what Jesus would do.

I’ve been taught from a young age that handouts are not great – not justice, not the way to bring someone out of poverty, better to give your money to an organization who can distribute it properly. Whatever that means. Being a Christian, especially a Catholic, means justice, not charity. Which means God wants systemic change, genuine equality, not $.25 handouts. So I don’t give money. Because of that lesson, and because I selfishly don’t want to play the game where every time someone approaches me for money I debate their sincerity and make a judgment, more likely to be based in racism, classism, ageism, sexism, and outfit-ism, than anything else. I’d rather not dirty myself with those kinds of judgments. So I avoid eye contact and reflect on the fact that I think I’m actually pretty sure Jesus would give money to every person that asked for it. Never mind that that might be a lot of people, and never mind that they might spend it on drugs or alcohol or other sinful substances. Jesus would not judge, he would simply show love in the moment and share of himself, perhaps offering a word of encouragement or kindness. (Of course, he would do all this without being the least bit patronizing and while continuing to work for systemic change in other ways. But that’s a whole other issue). And so I hold tightly to my money, feeling disgusted with myself that on one of the rare occasions I actually feel pretty certain about what Jesus would do, I can’t even bring myself to follow in his footsteps because it’s just not “right” in today’s world.

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