Saturday, March 20, 2010

on poverty and dignity

Here are some interesting thoughts that I'm just kind of putting together right now--

I think one of the major problems that we face in trying to serve the poor (in any context) is cementing a feeling of a lack of dignity.  When I have nothing, it's easy to feel like I am nothing.  And when we give handouts without relationship, I think we contribute to that feeling of indignity.

[Aside: Interesting correlation between the words lack of dignity and indignation:  "the quality of being worthy of esteem or respect" and "anger or scorn aroused by something felt to be unfair, unworthy, or wrong"]. I don't think that needs explanation.

A few weeks ago 11 people from Shippensburg University in PA stayed in our house while they did an "Urban Plunge" in Detroit. Two of their work days they spent cleaning up trash from the street and empty lots in different neighborhoods and boarding up abandoned houses. I wonder what people think when we do things like that.

I was just walking down our street, coming back to our house from church. And I was noticing just how much garbage had accumulated unnoticed under the snow, and how dirty and littered the block looks now that the snow is gone.  I picked up a few things from our front yard as I walked in the door.  But if there was a large group of outsiders that came in for a day and cleaned up the whole block, how would I feel?  I would be grateful, in part, but I would also feel guilty for not taking care of my own neighborhood.  It would feel particularly bad if I saw people picking up trash in my own yard.  I'd feel belittled.  undignified.  I can only imagine what years of that kind of treatment from "rich, powerful" outsiders would do to my perception of myself.

And as I am sitting here thinking of these things, I am reminded of the desire (need) that God has put into every man to be the provider for his family.  It is a strong desire, and there is an equally strong sense of shame that men feel when they are unable to provide for their families.  And I wonder if that doesn't play a large part in why men are so quick to abandon their families in situations of poverty.  In some ways, if I stay to be with the people I love but cannot provide for, I live with a daily reminder of my own shame and failure.  I run, to escape my shame.

This has strayed far from a discussion of poverty.  But I think my desire is strengthening to serve my neighbors in a way that dignifies, that makes them feel loved and valued and valuable, not worthless or used, not the project that makes me feel better about all the good stuff I have.


Matt Marsh said...

some good thoughts mr. sones.

Chops said...

There's a missing link in your flow here: what part of being poor makes one unable to pick up the garbage in one's front lawn? It's a problem on Plymouth Ave, too, for sure, but it's not because people have no time or no ability.

If someone fed my children and I couldn't, that might rob me of a sense of dignity. But if someone else cleaned up trash in my lawn, unbidden, it would just make me ashamed. And a precondition for feeling shame like that has got to be some sense of dignity.

Perhaps for other reasons people have discarded or been robbed of their dignity, and therefore take no pride in their surroundings. Perhaps when one's neighbors don't clean up their yards, one doesn't want to appear "better" by doing so. I'd be shocked if the biggest motivation for good lawn care in well-off neighborhoods was *not* maintaining appearances before others.

This comment has begun to ramble; I apologize.

inos said...

Good insights, Chops. I had lumped a sense of shame and a loss of dignity together.

Shijo George said...

Interesting topic, but I think my viewpoint it different.

A lot (or all) of it is perspective. If a group of people clean up my lawn in front of my parent's house - I'm ashamed, like Chops mentioned. If a group of people cleaned the lawn in front of my apartment, I would wonder why they're doing it. If it was a dirty lawn, I'd think it was about time it was done.

I'd imagine garbage lying around is related to a lack of feeling responsibility for it. If it's the city's job to clean, or someone else's garbage - they should clean it. I'd be grateful, but I wouldn't lose any sleep over it.

Now I think the real problem is communication. Regardless of what you think is "good" and what the person your serving thinks is "good", you really only affect people when you are on the same playing field.

There's a community around a church I've been to that a small group of people go to once a month. They began by cleaning the garbage from the area, meeting people, building relationships, praying with one another - and it's pretty amazing. You explain what you're doing and why you're doing it, and the awkwardness of "Do you think you're better than me" fades when people see you're sold out for helping others, or you're devoted to this community over an extended period. At least, that's what I think.