Thursday, December 3, 2009

Encounter With Poverty in Oklahoma City

Shane Claiborne has spent his time thinking and writing about poverty. In The Irresistible Revolution, he talks about a survey he gave: "I asked participants who claimed to be ‘strong followers of Jesus’ whether Jesus spent time with the poor. Nearly 80 percent said yes. Later in the survey, I sneaked in another question, I asked this same group of strong followers whether they spent time with the poor, and less than 2 percent said they did. I learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore his cross without taking up ours. I had come to see that the great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor." My goal when I began SSP this semester was to get to know the poor. I did this working at OKC Compassion and the Spero Project.

Every Tuesday, I would leave class, get in my car, and go to OKC Compassion on Penn Ave. I would say hi to the people sitting outside, go into the kitchen, and put on an apron. Then I would do whatever preparations remained to get the lunch served to nearly one hundred people. At a few minutes ‘til twelve o’clock, we would pray over the food, and as soon as the afternoon devotion ended, we opened up the doors and served a nutritious lunch to low-income and homeless people.

Typically twice a week, I also went to the Spero Project, rounded up kids, and held choir practice. We would start out with a silly song, motions and all, and then work on Christmas music for the four concerts they will have this December.

I encountered two very different impoverished demographics. The one was a group of refugees, pulled out of their dangerous home country, taken with their families and little else away from jobs, homes, and community, from Myanmar, Iraq, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

The other group is from Oklahoma, many Native Americans, who are struggling just to get by. They don’t have jobs; they live off of government checks, which is why the number of people who come for lunch drops off on the first of the month. Many of them live in unsuitable living arrangements; one couple told us how they say a prayer every time they sit down on the toilet because the floor around it is so thin, they worry if it will collapse. Some are abandoned, like the teenagers who came for lunch because they were stranded, trying to make their way to Chicago. Most striking are the addicts who come, worn thin from their addiction, or shaking until they can have their next drink, or smelling like Listerine because they were drinking mouthwash to get a buzz. But there are stories of transformed lives, like Pam who runs most of the programs out of OKC Compassion, now five years sober. There are people on the road to recovery, there are people being made whole, and there are new creations.

The Kingdom of God is coming to life in Oklahoma City; I see it when I see John, who washes dishes—literally hundreds of dishes—everyday at lunch. I see it in Lisa, who says she hates to run out of food and so makes extra so that every one can have their fill, up to seconds and even thirds. I see it in the people who come back to thank the kitchen workers after eating a good meal. I see it as I sort through donations in the clothing room, from people who want to give back in some way. The year of Jubilee is starting right here as people seek to serve God and love people recklessly.

I have been faced with many things that I expected, but also things I would not have predicted. It is interesting to see that the people who volunteer with OKC Compassion are people who have been helped from this ministry in the past. While I anticipated seeing addicts at the church, it was also interesting that everyone smokes. All the people I work with smoke! I think I was the only one who didn’t need a smoke brake.

Poverty may be the problem for these people, but those of us living well above the poverty line have our problems too—and what we need is to get to know the poor. We must begin to understand what leads a person to a place of dire need, and how to end the cycle. Poverty is a cycle. A person cannot will oneself out of poverty. Most of the time, a person cannot even work oneself out of poverty. It is a trap that is desperately difficult to escape from. Jeffrey Sachs said, “I have noted repeatedly that in all corners of the world, the poor face structural challenges that keep them from even getting their first foot on the ladder of development . . . .The world’s remaining challenge is not mainly to overcome laziness and corruption, but rather to take on geographic isolation, disease, vulnerability to climate shocks, and so on, with new systems of political responsibility that can get the job done. “ Many people believe that laziness is the problem, but when we look through Christ’s eyes at the poor, it should be impossible to see anything but love for the person we are looking at.

The way to eliminate poverty is not through charity. OKC Compassion will not solve the problem of poverty; it will assist those trapped in it. The solution to poverty is justice. As Pope Benedict XVI stated, “Works of charity…are in effect a way for the rich to shirk their obligation to work for justice and [are] a means of soothing their consciences while preserving their own status and robbing the poor of their rights.” To end poverty, we must eliminate the systems that breed the injustices that lead to poverty.

When I began the semester, my goals stemmed from this prayer: “Heal my heart and make it clean. Open up my eyes to the things unseen. 
 Show me how to love like you have loved me. Break my heart from what breaks yours. Everything I am for your kingdom’s cause, as I go from nothing to eternity.” God has given me the grace to begin to love others the way he has first loved me. And my heart is broken for the people I have seen, trapped in addiction, desperation, and hopelessness. They may be hungry, and we may feed them a meal, but we do that to lead them to the Bread of Life.

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