Friday, July 26, 2013

On the World of Poverty

I'm sinking more and more deeply into poverty.  It's an interesting place.  There are those who would fix it.  At this point, I'm still trying to figure out which parts of it need fixing.

Just to be clear, my husband and I are doing fine financially.  In fact, we are blessed in having enough to share with others.  But one thing I'm learning is that giving people money is rarely, if ever, the best response to poverty.

The economic values of those living in poverty have long been of interest to me.  When I was young, I found them disturbing.  First some history:

In our first year of marriage, way back in the late 1970s, my husband and I were poor college students living on a shoestring budget.  In that year, I never went down the pop and potato chip aisle at the grocery store.  There simply wasn't room in our budget for such things. (And in that era snack foods didn't hold the position in the American diet they do today.)

Not long afterward, I stood in line at the grocery store and watched someone buy potato chips with food stamps.  Something rose up within me at the sight.  What business does someone depending on government assistance have buying junk food?  Ah, the righteous indignation of youth.

As I contemplated that scene and sought a more charitable response, I considered a couple of huge differences between what I had observed and my own experience with living on a tight budget -- 1) the skills and discipline to develop and live within a budget; and 2) the light at the end of the tunnel.  We were within twelve months of being awarded engineering degrees when we married.  If we could just hold on for a year, we could then start cashing in on our education.

As I hang out with my impoverished friends these many years later, I see the same pattern.  One of the chief reasons people don't want to give money to poor people is because it will go to alcohol or cigarettes.  And that may often be the case.  But not always.  Sometimes it will go toward junk food or high-priced convenience food or pet food for multiple pets or an inside climate more comfortable than the donor's or a smart phone or home entertainment nicer than the donor's or tickets to an amusement park or concert the donor passes over in order to be generous.  It challenges the charitable feelings of charitable people to see the beneficiaries of their donations enjoying elements of a lifestyle the donor considers "living large".  It's even worse when the donor didn't want to give in the first place and was taxed for those indulgences on the part of the poor.

One of the things I'm learning as I interact with people living in poverty is to keep my wallet closed.  There are times and ways to give monetary assistance, but it's generally better for our relationship if it's not my money directly supporting their spending decisions.  None of my friends show signs of starvation.  They are not without resources.  And it's easy for money to become the focus of our relationship if it becomes known that I'll dole it out in response to a well-crafted plea for assistance.

What I'm trying to offer people instead of money is an interest in their lives.  I listen to their woes and resist the urge to offer either assistance or advice, particularly when they are asking for neither.  I'm still learning the lanuage and culture of this community of poverty within the larger community.  It's interesting getting different perspectives, sorting out values, listening to stories and trying to figure out which (and how) conflicting accounts have been "enhanced" in the telling.

I almost never watch television.  There are so many other ways to spend my leisure time that are more appealing to me.  But I am fascinated by the interactive soap opera that plays through my days.  I get to interview the characters off-screen to see what makes them tick and even play a small role myself.  I can walk in and out of the "urban" scenes at will and then return to my safe refuge in the "suburbs".  (If you know where I live this will make you smile.  The "city" has a total population of 1,340 people.)  I have yet to really get my hands dirty.

I'm not sure where all this is leading, but I might have a slightly greater chance of doing good in this local soap opera than any on TV.  And it's certainly both educational and often entertaining, although frequently more tragedy than comedy.

So ... Angela told me last night that people say she's a drug dealer, but she obviously is not or she wouldn't be so poor.  What do I make of that statement?  Why even bring it up?  She says that a mutual acquaintance hits his girlfriend, but the girlfriend told me he has hit her only once -- the time he went to jail for it.  Was she afraid of what I would do if I knew the truth?  What IS the truth?  And what motivation do Angela and the girlfriend have for straying from truth when talking to me?

Years ago, I realized that one huge difference between my shoestring living and the person buying junk food with food stamps was hope.  I had confidence that my poverty was temporary.  And it was.  The person buying junk food with food stamps likely has little hope of their lot improving, particularly since making good consumer decisions seems beyond them.  Hope is the most valuable commodity I can offer my poverty-stricken friends.  I'm still trying to figure out how to package it for distribution.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Would you walk across the street for church music?

Morning thoughts:

Yesterday I drove 80 miles to attend a 2-hour church service.  As usual, I took pains to not fall asleep as I drove.  (This seems important to a lot of people, especially the other drivers on the road.)  I had an enticing audiobook with me but started with music.  As I listened, I made mental notes to prune my portable music collection to make room for new music.  One song went on too long and the lyrics had little to say.  Delete.  Another told a story I don't care to hear again.  Delete.  Sure it's shallow and doesn't value the effort behind the recordings, but there are so many recordings to choose from and a mere 16MB of space for everything I want to carry in my pocket.  I can't keep everything if I hope to keep up with new music coming down the pike.

I also had some podcasts with me, but didn't listen to that serious stuff.  After all, I had only two hours on the road and the candy sweetness of a children's audiobook was calling me.  And I was headed toward a 2-hour church service.

I didn't actually delete the music while driving.  I suspect the state lawmakers who told me not to text while driving would likewise frown on figuring out how to delete music while driving.  Instead, I did it during the two-hour service.  There were a lot of people in the service.  Few, if any, noticed or cared if I was distracted by electronics.  Besides, I wasn't the only one.  And maybe I was consulting my electronic scriptures.  (Rationalize, rationalize.)

Driving isn't the only time my chronic sleep-deprivation is a problem.  I also tend to drowse off when doing nothing but sitting and listening.  Combining listening and driving is good.  Doing either alone tends to make my eyelids droop.  Fortunately, there was a loudspeaker to my right last night that made the sound seem sort of like a car radio and I could pretend I was driving and listening.  That went pretty well.

Before the main speaker of the hour(s), however, there were other items on the agenda, including a bunch of music.  It was excellent music -- flawless talent with flawless canned accompaniment.  The quality competed well with the professional recordings in my mp3 collection.  But as I listened, I realized that if the songs were on my iPod, I would delete them.  It's not the style of music I choose for my personal collection.  Not at all.  I wouldn't walk across the street to hear a free concert.  In fact, even as I write this, I am watching time slip away and thinking I might be just a bit tardy for this morning's events and maybe miss the music.

Afternoon thoughts:

We heard this morning that churches should spend less energy worrying about getting the music right.  People walking past the doors don't even know there's music inside, let alone care what it's like.  If they find out we love them, we can stand on our heads to sing and they'll be fine with it.

Huh?  Okay, it's hyperbole, going for the laugh.  But I was listening while sitting in a gathering of people I love.  My sole reason for attending this gathering is to interact with those people.  And yet, I sacrificed this morning's earliest chance for interaction.  And missing the very high quality music was one among several factors contributing to my tardiness.

I have endured much music in the church I don't want to ever encounter elsewhere.  I have also volunteered for church nursery duty in order to excuse myself from concerts.  Maybe music isn't important to many people.  It's important to me.  I will avoid gatherings even of people I love if the music is offensive enough and my sense of obligation isn't strong enough to get me there.

Music isn't that important to many people, but other things are important to them.

"I wouldn't walk across the street to attend a free ______"  What?  A boring lecture on ancient sacred writings?  A lecture on morality and the dire eternal consequences of immorality?  A message about how the God who seems to do nothing to stop tragedy in the world loves them and has a wonderful plan for their life?  An hour of sitting next to friends without interacting with them?

What free event would entice people to walk across the street if their friends were there?

This is something to ponder.  What does it take to make an event designed to offer spiritual nourishment and hope for living more attractive than off-putting?