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From the Hardcover edition.
Putting a Face on the Poor
My friend Joe Nangle, a Franciscan priest, often speaks of Olga, a poor woman he met while working in Peru. One day, Joe helped Olga bury her nine-year-old son in a paupers' graveyard; the boy had been killed by a hit-and-run driver and then denied dignity by a system that didn't care what happened to the children of poor families. "That day forever changed my relationship to Olga, and in some ways forever changed me," Joe says. "Perhaps for the first time I really saw what life is like for the poor-for that two-thirds of humanity who live as Olga lived, who bury their children as she did. From then on, and increasingly, Olga Valencia came to represent for me the literally billions of people, especially women, whose lives can hardly be called human. When I wanted to put a name and a face on 'the poor,' it was invariably Olga's name and Olga's face."
But priests aren't the only ones learning to see the poor. I met Dale Recinella in 1998 and soon learned about the extraordinary journey this middle-aged man and his family had been on. An international lawyer from Florida who made a high-six-figure income in the 1980s, Dale had decided to devote his energies and substantial skills to helping overcome poverty. Previously, he had arranged the financing on multimillion- and even billion-dollar deals for corporations, banks, and governments. He had helped to negotiate the contracts for Dolphin Stadium and the Port of Miami. Now he wanted to put together multisector partnerships to help move families out of poverty. But it all started with the awkward involvement of a high-priced attorney in a soup kitchen. Dale tells the story of how he began to change. Like many others, he saw some of the problerns around him and decided to get involved. And like John Fife, he had no idea what he was getting into or how it would change him. Dale's recounting of his life-transforming experiences is compelling.
"Almost seven years ago, I started helping out at the noon meal of the Good News Soup Kitchen in Tallahassee. I showed up every day in my three-piece suit to help from eleven A.M., until one-thirty P.M. They assigned me 'door duty.' My job was to ensure that the street people lining up to eat waited in an orderly fashion. Every day, I stood at the door for an hour, chatting with the street people waiting to eat. Before I came to Good News, 'street people' was a meaningless term. It defined a group without defining anybody in particular. From the comfort of my car, my suburban home, and my downtown law office, street people were just 'those people out there somewhere.'
"Then one day an elderly woman named Helen came running to the Good News door. A man was chasing her and threatening to kill her if she didn't give him back his dollar.'Tell him he can't hit me 'cuz it's church property!'she pleaded. In true lawyerly fashion, I explained that Good News is not a church but he still couldn't hit her. After twenty minutes of failed mediation, I bought peace by giving each of them a dollar.
"That evening, I happened to be standing on the corner of Park and Monroe. In the red twilight, I spied a lonely silhouette struggling in my direction from Tennessee Street. 'Poor street person' I thought, as the figure inched closer. I was about to turn back to my own concerns when I detected something familiar in that shadowy figure. The red scarf. The clear plastic bag with white border. The unmatched shoes.'My God,' I said in my thoughts, 'that's Helen.'
"My eyes froze on her as she limped by and turned up Park. No doubt she would crawl under a bush to spend the night. My mind had always dismissed the sight of a street person in seconds. It could not expel the picture of Helen. That night as I lay on my fifteen-hundred-dollar deluxe temperature-controlled waterbed, I couldn't sleep. A voice in my soul kept asking, 'Where's Helen sleeping tonight?' No street person had ever interfered with my sleep. But the shadowy figure with the red scarf and plastic bag had followed me home. I had made a fatal mistake. I had learned her name."
That's what happens when you get involved. You learn people's names, and that makes all the difference. Poverty is no longer just a social or economic problem when you have a personal friend who is poor. Gang violence is not just a law-enforcement issue when you've spent time listening to a kid tell you why he has taken to the streets. "Welfare mother" is no longer a term of derision when you've gone over the budget of a woman who's trying to raise her kids on $410 a month. Personal involvement seems to defy the easy answers while at the same time it opens up the possibilities of real solutions.
It is just that sensitizing that the world so desperately needs. Joy Carroll, John Fife, Joe Nangle, Dale Recinella, and I were all raised in comfortable homes. None of us would have learned what we eventually did if we hadn't gotten out of the house. It has a way of changing your perspective, as Joe says ... forever.
It's precisely that change in perspective that will make the most difference. And if you have in your mind the picture of a friend's face from the inner city of Detroit, a young child in Haiti, a refugee family from El Salvador, a grieving mother in Peru, a homeless person on the streets of Tallahassee, it's easier to find the right perspective. I've learned many things about what really changes the world-and what makes a difference. Mostly I've learned that the world can be changed; we just have to begin by getting out of the house.
A Fair Test
The Jesuit Volunteer Corps, which sends young people into innercity and rural poverty areas for a year of service, has a wonderful motto: "Ruined for life!" Their simple idea is that once you've seen real poverty and gotten your feet wet by doing something about it, you won't ever be the same again. You'll be ruined for life. After that service, you may indeed go on to other things, but you will be a different kind of teacher, lawyer, doctor, social worker, journalist, business person, pastor, or whatever else you become. You'll also be a different kind of parent, church member, or community leader than you otherwise would have been. That year of hands-on involvement will change your perspective, they are convinced. And so am I.
My brother, Bill Weld-Wallis, coordinated the Jesuit Volunteer program in the Midwest for a decade and tells heartening stories of how most of his "alumni" have gone on to live lives of community service through their career, family, and personal choices. These were all ordinary people. They weren't activists or clergy or community leaders. They were just volunteers. What's most significant is what they became. Service is only the beginning; it's the transformation that comes from service that is the critical ingredient for personal and social change.
When I speak on college campuses, I often spend time with the students who are volunteering their time and energy, in the community or around the world. I remember such an evening at a small college in central Texas. Before I gave the evening lecture, I had dinner with several of these young people who had decided to "get out of the house." Some had just been to an international conference on peace in the Middle East and were planning on going back to work there for a year. Others had been to South Africa to serve in the efforts to build a new country free of apartheid. Still more had traveled to Central America to help with the shaky peace processes in those countries.
Virtually all of them had been extensively involved in volunteer projects throughout the United States. The conversation just crackled with energy and excitement. They had already learned so much, had so many more questions, and were hungry to keep going. Their experiences had already caused many of them to change their majors, and they were hoping it would change their lives. One could easily tell that these young people had come a very long way from the familiar worlds of suburban and rural Texas where most of them had grown up.
After my talk, we retreated back to the campus chaplain's house and continued the discussion. I challenged them. When I was their age, I told them, we could put ten thousand people in the street in two hours' time. In response to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, we became a generation forged in protest. Their generation had now also taken to the streets, not so much in protest as in volunteering. We marched in the streets for change; today's youth work in the community in order to make a difference.
The test of what my generation did, and what today's students are now doing, I suggested, is simply this: Will what you are doing change the direction of your life? My generation has often failed that test, and the test results for this generation are not yet in. If volunteer projects become merely the preoccupation of a few student years, to be forgotten when the larger life choices are made, little transformation will have occurred. But if this work changes the life trajectory of people, and shapes their most basic choices about faith, vocation, family, money, especially in the most formative period of their lives, then real change will have begun. The students all thought that was a fair test, but a tough one.
One person who wants to change the lives of young people is Bart Campolo. He's the director of Mission Year, a rapidly growing youth volunteer program that is affiliated with Call to Renewal. Mission Year recruits college students to give a year of their time either before or after graduation. They move into an inner-city neighborhood to work with a local church. Their plan is simple and powerful.The young people go house to house, asking if people would like them to pray for the needs of that home. Most of the people they call on say yes, many probably thinking "What could it hurt?" Sometimes the students pray right there on the doorstep, or are invited into the house. But in the course of the prayer, the circumstances and needs of the people in that house are often made apparent. Aware of those needs, the students are then able to help people make connections to other sources of support or assistance. Maybe there's a need for a job, or some child care, or some household chores and repair work, or an educational opportunity, or after-school options for a kid getting into trouble, or an alcohol- or drug-rehabilitation program, or some support in a difficult domestic situation, or a health care need, or maybe just a listening ear. The young people end up really praying for the people in the neighborhood where they are sent, and then helping to see that those prayers are answered.
I believe the kind of volunteer work going on today has the chance to make a more long-term difference in people's lives than the protests of my generation ultimately did. My generation-the baby boomers-have become the biggest consumers in American history. Many of the old dreams and ideals have faded. "Reality" set in, and many compromises were made. Having once stepped out for change, many are now safely back within comfortable boundaries. Those who got more deeply involved in the organizing in the 1960s, and not just the marching, tended to feel the more lasting consequences. It is the depth of one's involvement that seems to make the most difference.
Now the members of my generation are stepping into positions of leadership throughout the society. And many are remembering the formative influences of their student years and recalling commitments we once made. One hears more and more stories of people in successful careers deciding to do something they think more meaningful or important. I have increasing numbers of conversations with people in my generation who wish to somehow recapture the ideals they once professed but have gradually forgotten. Among my generation of now middle-aged professionals, a new spirit of community involvement may also be in the air. If a reawakening of conscience began to occur among a new generation of American leaders, in partnership with a younger generation hungry for service, exciting new possibilities for change could emerge.
Start by Doing Something
In America, we've gotten used to a pattern of public discourse that has become quite dysfunctional. A problem is stated, an argument erupts about its causes, the blaming begins, the rhetoric rises, the confrontation is joined and quickly becomes partisan-and nothIng is ever done about the problem. There is another approach. A problem is stated. The various dimensions of it are described as best we can understand them. Then a strategy is conceived for involvement with the problem in the hope of finding the necessary solutions. Instead of rushing to theoretical debates, various community leaders and institutions begin to engage the situation, believing that a diverse set of people and resources will probably be necessary to solve the problem.
In the first process, the community or the nation gets further divided while no answers are found. In the second, the community is strengthened in a cooperative effort, and positive progress is more likely to be made.
In other words, the best way to begin solving a problem is to start by doing something. It's a simple notion, so simple it often escapes us. In the process of involvement, not only will likely solutions begin to emerge, but everybody involved may be changed by better understanding what is really going on. This more helpful process is starting to occur as more people choose to address problems in their communities by getting involved in them.
Integrity is also something that seems to be found in personal involvement, even if you're unsure how to proceed. I think the American people are more and more tired of people who profess to be experts on so many problerns but have had little personal involvement in trying to solve them. Talk is cheap, as they say. Taking action doesn't provide panaceas, but at least it wins respect for actually trying to do something. Is it any wonder that Jimmy Carter is much more respected as former president than he ever was as president? When you ask people why, they dont speak of the impressive Carter Center in Atlanta; rather they conjure up the image ofthe former president pounding nails into a new house for a poor family on a Habitat for Humanity work project. And Mr. Carter is a serious builder, too, not a politician looking for a good photo-op while painting over graffiti for thirty minutes in front of the network news cameras. I've been on one of the Habitat sites with Carter and seen how he doesn't tolerate idle conversation when there are houses to finish!
We have to dispel the myth that you really have to know what you're doing before you start doing it. Just accept the fact that you're going to make some mistakes. Everybody does. But that's the way we learn. The Sojourners Neighborhood Center I described earlier didnt begin as a successful "freedom school." We started, twenty-five years ago, by tutoring children who ended up on our front steps. We did it in our living rooms. None of us was an experienced tutor, but we'd all been to school. Training is vitally important, and we've done a lot of it over the years. But you've still got to start somewhere, and you'll never get the experience until you just begin.
We started Sojourners magazine much the same way. We were all seminary students who became powerfully moved by the idea that faith should show itself in action, and that spirituality was vitally connected to politics. We had a message and needed a vehicle. Someone suggested that we start a magazine. None of us had ever done that before, but we were young and bold enough to think that we could learn. So without any journalistic experience, we launched a new publication. Our first mailing list came from a brainstorming session one night, and our first distribution strategy was one car heading east and one west with a new magazine hot off the press.
I've always likened publishing Sojourners to a running a flag up a flagpole. Many other people at the time were also wanting to put their faith together with a commitment to social action. But they didn't know one another; they couldn't see one another on the ground. But when they saw that flag raised in the form of a new magazine, they headed to the flagpole, where they all met.That was the beginning of a constituency, a network, and a movement for faith in action that has grown until this day. And it all began with lifting a banner high enough for people to see it.
That's how change often happens, in a community or in a nation. Someone has to lift up a banner, and other people stream to it. Change often requires a catalyst, an occasion, an event, or a new initiative. Someone has to start something, and others will become involved. You may be the one to lift the banner, or you may be one of the crucial people to join in and help hold it up. At the beginning, you never feel ready, and you hardly ever know what you're doing. But you begin anyway, because change has to start somewhere.
One night, my father was out at a church elders meeting when I called, so my mom and I had even longer to talk. She was reflecting on what a "good and exciting life" she and my father had been able to have. I asked her what were the most exciting parts. Of course, she lovingly named her children, their marriages, and her grandchildren. She was especially excited about the first child my wife and I were expecting. She spoke about the work of their church and all their friends. But what was most exciting to her was the mission work they had been able to do since they had retired. She ended up talking about that for at least the next hour.
During the years just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, my parents had volunteered with a missionary group that supported and assisted struggling Christians in several Eastern European countries. Communist regimes were still pretty tough on religious believers, who faced isolation, discrimination, an
From the Hardcover edition.
Posted January 4, 2010
No text was provided for this review.