Listening to Extreme Poverty

by Elouise

An article this morning about Australian Professor Philip Alston’s survey of extreme poverty in the USA did me in. It’s Advent. A time for hope, joy and expectation. Yet for over 41 million Americans there is no expected arrival of anything but escalating hunger, despair, disease, death, and promises not kept. Professor Alston’s written report will go to the United Nations next May.

It’s easy to blame politicians and corporations. Or the super rich. But that doesn’t cut it.

Taking time to listen deeply is a spiritual discipline. I love pondering a beautiful flower or sunset. It’s something else, though, to ponder a problem this large. What is this reality trying to tell me?

There’s a growing divide between those who care to understand extreme poverty, and those who choose to ignore it or put the blame somewhere else. For example, we know charitable agencies, churches, outreach programs and governmental services work daily to ease the anguish and dehumanization of USA-style extreme poverty.

We may also believe that if extreme poverty isn’t addressed systemically, our personal efforts are mere bandages–a waste of time, effort and money. Yet the message of Christianity and other faiths includes the importance of showing hospitality to strangers. Especially those in distress.

So what can I do about any of this?

I don’t have answers. The easiest thing would be to shake my fist at politicians and super-rich ‘one-percenters.’

I’m reminded of Dorothee Soelle’s book on Suffering. What’s needed from me isn’t outrage, shaking my fist, or solutions to solve the problems of people trapped in extreme poverty. What’s needed is simpler than that, and a thousand times more difficult.

I need to listen in silence, the way Dorothee Soelle listened to victims of the Viet Nam war. That might mean listening to long, painful silence before words are found and haltingly spoken with anguish or rage.

Yet if I don’t learn to listen patiently for the story of a person trapped in the despair, humiliation and disenfranchisement of extreme poverty, I won’t understand my story. ‘Their’ story is another piece of my story, whether I like it or not. It’s also part of the story of the USA, whether we like it or not.

The photo at the top shows the sanctuary of a church in San Francisco that opens its doors weekdays from morning through mid-afternoon for homeless persons to rest and sleep. It came from the article I read this morning.

Praying each of you will have a hope-filled Sabbath rest.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 16 December 2017
Photo of St. Boniface in San Francisco found at in “A Journey through a Land of Extreme Poverty: Welcome to America”