I remember it like it was yesterday. It’s one of the few times I can say with some certainty that I heard the voice of God speak.
It was in the late winter of 2001, and I was in the middle of my first year of seminary. The weather was starting to warm up, and as is often the case at that time of year in southern Pennsylvania, the warmer temperatures had brought with them thick fog. Not the fluffy, cottony-white fog you see in the movies, but dense, damp, gray fog, like a wet wool blanket over everything. I was driving home from my field education sight, and I took a wrong turn in the fog and wound up in a part of York, Pennsylvania that I’d never seen before, a part of town that might be characterized as a “rough neighborhood” but was in fact simply a poor neighborhood. In those days before GPS on every smartphone, I would have needed to stop to ask someone for directions. I don’t remember seeing anyone to ask that day, and the truth is, even if I had, I might have been apprehensive about doing so.
Somehow, I managed to get my bearings and pointed my pickup north, knowing that sooner or later I was bound to find one of the main roads I recognized. Sure enough, after a little while, I came to a red light, and as I sat waiting for it to change, I could see an intersection ahead that I recognized. As the sense of relief washed over me at soon being out of this “bad neighborhood”, I happened to glance to my right. Sitting there, on the front porch of a dilapidated row house, was a teenaged girl, maybe fourteen or fifteen, looking at me. And as I looked into her eyes, I heard a voice in my head say, “What about her? She doesn’t get to leave.”
I’d love to tell you that that moment provoked some profound movement, that I parked the truck and got out and got to know that girl and her family and together we started a movement and eradicated poverty and crime and drug abuse and violence in the city of York. But of course, this is the real world, not a movie on the Lifetime channel, and that’s not what happened. She looked away, and I looked away, and the light changed and I went home.
I still think about that girl now and then, even thirteen years later. I thought about her a lot this past weekend. I found myself in a debate about whether or not raising the minimum wage actually harms the poor (a position espoused by economist Milton Friedman). Rather than a discussion about the accuracy of Friedman’s view and whether or not there was any statistical evidence to back up the assertion, the debate quickly degenerated into blaming the poor for being poor. (“If you’re poor in this country, you’ve probably made some mistakes,” ran one line of argument.) I thought about that girl, and wondered, “What mistakes could she have made to condemn her to this?”
I thought about that girl when I took a call in the affluent suburbs of Wilmington, DE. (The per capita income of the church’s zip code was $41,655, compared to a national per capita income of $21,587.) At coffee with some members of the congregation, I heard the comment made that, “you don’t want to go through Southbridge (a poor neighborhood in Wilmington) after dark.” (The per capita income in the zip code that includes Southbridge: $13,706.) That same voice in my head spoke up again and said, “If we’re afraid to go there, how dare we let anyone live there?”
I thought about that girl this afternoon, when a friend of mine shared on Facebook that
A quarter of people in Wilmington, DE live below the Federal Poverty Line.
In order to fall below that line, a family of four would have to make $23,550 or less. An individual, $11,490 or less. That’s how poor you have to be to live in poverty, and a quarter of all people in Wilmington qualify.
Shortly after the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus was approached by some disciples of John the Baptist. Locked in a prison cell, John wanted to know if Jesus was the Messiah they had been waiting for. Jesus’ response to their query was, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Luke 7:22-23)
I don’t know what the answer to deeply entrenched poverty is. I’m not entirely sure what good news brought to the poor looks like. I’m pretty sure, though, that it’s not blaming the poor for being poor. I’m pretty sure it’s not avoiding the places where the poor live. I’m pretty sure it’s not locking our doors and hoping for green lights when we find ourselves in their midst. I’m pretty sure the answer and the good news we’re supposed to bring as the body of Christ doesn’t mean serving a few meals at a soup kitchen or volunteering for a few hours at a homeless shelter and then retreating to our nice safe suburbs and trying to distract ourselves from the poor people a few miles away. Meeting immediate and critical needs for food and shelter and clothing is important, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough, because the answer to Cain’s question in Genesis 4 is YES, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
Maybe that’s where good news starts to be brought to the poor. Maybe it starts with seeing them as our brothers and sisters, as our blood kin, united by the blood of Christ into the body of Christ, regardless of whether they believe in Christ or not, because Christ believes in them. Maybe it starts with getting tired of slapping bandaids over bullet holes, continuing to slap on those bandaids so people don’t bleed to death but at the same time starting to do things to keep them from being so badly wounded in the first place. Maybe it starts with thinking about that girl on the porch, and all the boys and girls like her, every day, not just now and then. Maybe it starts with not looking away.