- Jack H. Bender
Hi. I'm Laura
Some of us are making a significant shift in our understanding of poverty and of those experiencing its challenges. This, from a reader and friend who I will call Laura:
“I am really enjoying your blog as I am becoming increasingly interested in social justice. I could identify with a recent post because I have been helping out at the Episcopal Church's Community Breakfasts on Saturday mornings. My interest was stimulated by their priest inviting us, during a discussion among locals, following a Calvin Series lecture this past January. Her point was not to come serve, but to sit at table with folks you might not otherwise meet in order to share our stories. I thought that was brilliant! How else do you not only develop empathy but also a relationship? So now comes the challenge for me. Of course, I knew some of the servers and they were quick to invite me to serve and I am sometimes too eager to help. I am realizing that I need to intentionally create space for my eating breakfast with folks I don't know and try to remember their names from week to week. It is so easy to fall into the server category and miss the relationship. Thanks for keeping me thinking!”
There’s much to unpack here. The first thing that I notice is that Laura has crossed a religious border, that of a different denomination. She is not an Episcopalian. The priest was invitational to all who were in the discussion group, and that posture made a difference in the world. Laura accepted the invitation and summoned the courage to cross that border. I see poverty as a shared interest of Christians, making collaborations among denominations more likely and welcomed.
I keep thinking of our transition from being merciful to the poor, to being charitable to them, to finally being with them. The dictionary describes being merciful as being compassionate or forgiving to someone over which you have the power to hurt or harm. There is an obvious imbalance of power in that definition. Charitable means assisting those in need or judging them leniently or favorably. There is still an imbalance of power in the definition of charitable. But Laura is willing to be with those who have come for breakfast. She’s willing to establish a human to human relationship. She’s willing to step from behind the warming table (though cooking and serving are vital roles).
A month ago, I highlighted the Circles program and the word accompaniment. I most often think of the relationship we should have with people experiencing poverty as being with or walking with people facing serious obstacles to a reasonable life. Recall that the roots of the word accompaniment are “together with bread.” Few activities can be more intimate than breaking bread with others.
Finally, Laura wants to remember and speak the names of people she meets. Those who are hungry will be able to leave the place of isolation and anonymity and be recognized by name.
When poverty is defined as having relationships that do not work, then being, walking, and eating with the poor begins to build relationships that do work. Our government is too large and distant to assume this role. Non-profits are not staffed to do this work. The responsibility rests with us, the neighbor, to create empowering and loving relationships that, by their very nature, become transformational for all.