Sitting around the table the other night a few of us were talking about serving the poor. I don’t really know how to do this, to be honest. Every person that comes through the doors is different; often poor in different ways. (Sometimes I feel like the poorest one in the room. Truthfully, most days I am.) Some needs we are able to meet and others we have no capacity to meet. I mean, we have very little money. The only financial resource we have is what comes out of our pockets. My flatmates give as generously as they can, and Chantelle and I do as well. While we do try to meet financial needs as best as possible, the poverty that we are ‘gifted’ to meet is of a different kind, I think. The kind of poverty we have all experienced at different times.
There are so many institutions geared to meet the physical needs of the poor. While I know there is continuous complaining and critique of the way the poor are dealt with in Britain, and there is a long way to go, I am actually quite impressed with the robustness of the social safety net in this country. Whatever the case, the deeper poverty, the kind that often slips through the cracks, is a poverty of soul. Deep loneliness, the need to speak and be heard; the need to be treated as a human person – not a client of the welfare system, but a friend.
The other day I wrapped my arm around the shoulder of a lady who comes for dinner regularly and said to someone, “This girl is part of our extended family.” I shocked myself because I really meant it. She comes to the house often in search of spare change, but I think we are offering her something much deeper – we have welcomed her into our family. She is not my client, she is my sister. There is a big difference.
One question that echoes constantly in the back of my mind when people come through the doors of our house is, “How can I help this person feel more human?” It may seem like a small question, but its really not. Modern society constantly wears away at our humanity. It puts us in categories that are ill fitting for human beings – like: consumer, client, producer. The poor – financially, spiritually, emotionally, mentally poor – are seen as takers; often talked down to, albeit very subtly. People are treated as part of mechanistic exchanges. These exchanges can be rigid, cold, dry, formulaic and bereft of all the good organic stuff that makes us feel really human. Exchanges can feel like reading a science text (for me anyway) when your soul is desperately longing for poetry.
If we don’t watch ourselves, if we don’t embrace the poor as family, we can fall into a posture of patronising those who suffer among us and quietly assume the role of ‘messiah’, rescuing them from their ailments. A sneaky sense of superiority infiltrates our hearts and minds when we do this; squeezing through the cracks in our character it imprisons the other in the ‘consumer/producer’ paradigm.
The franciscans are helpful on this. Their vow of poverty was not because they thought poverty was simply fantastic (although in some ways they did!), but rather that their ‘lack’ allowed them to deeply identify with the poor. When they came to the table with the poor, the table was level; it was eye to eye, face to face. There is something dignifying in this. To be received as an equal, a fellow pilgrim. To be welcomed without having to be something that you are not; to be welcomed warts and all; to be welcomed without having to engage in posturing or pretending. This is what families do, they create environments where it’s safe to be broken. Gosh, there is something healing about that.
The Franciscans of old took seriously that their God had been crucified, identifying and embracing the depths of human brokenness, to create a family. We surely need to have better societal structures to care for the most vulnerable among us. But, in some ways that is the easy part. Giving money, sending resource, offering a hashtag and prayer, this stuff takes very little from us. But, what does it mean to ‘welcome’ the poor into family? The poor will always be among us – the mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually poor – which means we all will have the opportunity to provide, not just for financial needs but the deeper need of eye-level table friendship. We have the opportunity to call the poor out of the machine of client/provider relationship and into family. This is the redemptive work that is much deeper, much more difficult, but so befitting of people who follow a crucified messiah.