(This post was originally written for the Faith & Family Homelessness Project. I highly recommend checking out their resources and learning more about how to experience and volunteer with their Poverty Immersion program.)
I’ve never personally experienced poverty. It’s an obstacle that inherently separates me from people living on the margins. I’d like to think I’m in solidarity with the poor because of the way I vote, the money I donate and the time I volunteer. I’ve built houses in Mexico, volunteered at food banks, and even served two and a half years in the Peace Corps in Romania. I’ve spoken with people living with dirt floors and tin roofs and have shared meals with families with no running water or electricity. I even work at a peace and justice non-profit organization. But I’ve never lived on the margins.
Which is why participation in the poverty simulation offered by Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry made a difference. It brought me one step closer to personally understanding the stigma, barriers, and hurdles people on the margins face on a daily basis just to have access to food, shelter and healthcare. I was reminded that our “welfare” system is a punitive one, punishing people for needing help.
I played a small part; a day care provider. However, I was forced to turn people away because of overcrowding, funding, and health issues. Participants needed a safe place for their children in order to go to work and pay their bills. I wasn’t able to help everybody, even though I wanted to. I watched as participants became increasingly frustrated with their experience. In the end, everyone had a small glimpse into what daily life is like for our brothers and sisters without food, shelter or resources.
Afterwards, we unpacked the experience. There were plenty of opinions on how to “fix” the welfare system. Two comments stood out. One participant mentioned that when we give to the poor, we should ask their forgiveness. It is the poor and marginalized who have been failed by our society and system and we’re all part of the problem. Another person said we need to stop judging people for being poor; we need to change our system to make it easier for people to get the help they need. As much as possible, we should eliminate the piles of paperwork, agency signatures, hoops and rules we make people go through. Sure, some people might take advantage of the system, but how many more people would be helped and brought back into self-sufficiency.
These opinions made me rethink my behavior. I’ve never thought of asking a person for forgiveness when I hand them a dollar outside a supermarket. But it makes sense. By asking for their forgiveness and blessing, I’m reaffirming their inherent worth and dignity by treating them with respect; I’m asking them for something only they can give. And I need to stop caring how they ended up being homeless. It’s not my place to judge and I’m not qualified to ask.
All I know is that as a man of faith, it’s my responsibility to respond with compassion. This is the hard truth of faith; this is where conversion of the heart takes place. When we stop punishing and start forgiving. When we stop blaming and start helping. When we treat our neighbor as ourselves. This is why I’m grateful for having been able to participate in the poverty simulation. It reminded me yet again of the humanity of the poor, allowing me, if only for a brief moment, to walk in their footsteps. That is where solidarity begins.
5 thoughts on “Walking in their Footsteps: A Call to Solidarity”
I don’t know, man. Thinking back to the times in my life where I found myself in states of dependence due to financial strain, someone saying that to me would have come off as incredibly patronizing. You’re asking for forgiveness because it makes yourself feel better – not because it helps the person. Forgiveness when it doesn’t come with a reconciliation gesture is empty and offensive. Apology if you can’t help? Sure. Asking forgiveness? No.
Christine, I understand your perspective that would be patronizing to you and there is the danger that this is self-serving to me. I don’t mean for this to be giving apology and asking forgiveness without any action of reconciliation. Of course it comes with giving the food, money and/or whatever else is available at the time. My intention is solidarity: myself acknowledging that I am part of the system that has failed and so have a part to play, offering what I can in the moment, and if forgiveness is too hard or too much then at least asking for a blessing that I may do better job in the future.
From your perspective, what kind of conversation or exchange would give a better sense of solidarity and dignity than just handing over a dollar and walking away? I admit, I could just be completely wrong in this, but I’m trying and learning and I respect you and your viewpoint.
I try to focus on things which give others hope and empowerment. So maybe a “Here, while you get back on your feet,” “Good luck, I’ve been there, I hope this is brief” or something like that.
Asking for forgiveness for structural problems is a selfish act. If this individual gives you forgiveness, what does that mean? That individual is not holding the privileged position that you hold against you? How is that a justice-seeking behavior? It does not change your position relative to everyone else. It conflates the structural with the individual. Forgiveness can only be considered a sincere endeavor when the person asking intends to no longer cause the aforementioned harm. That is impossible in this circumstance. Your position in society is beyond individual agency. Hence asking for forgiveness is an inherently empty gesture.
In fact, what asking forgiveness does most loudly is affirm that you are in a superior position to the person who is being helped. You remain in that position after asking for forgiveness. You cede no power.
Charity has never solved any of our social problems. They’ve only made them more bearable. I suspect that this idea of asking forgiveness is in the same realm. I generally have had the best luck treating a person as a person first who is capable of solving their issues, maybe needing some help, but treating them with dignity. I cringed when I read this suggestion because it is so patronizing, and so in line with how many people do charity – it affirms the status of those in need as “in need” prior to being human.
That, and I don’t feel like I need to ask forgiveness for a social position that I know I could very easily find myself in too.
Having been homeless, I would share the other commenter’s concern about asking for forgiveness or absolution (although it’s often voluntarily offered). The reason you are having trouble finding a good response is that there isn’t one. This is a situation that is worse for the homeless person than it is for you, but it’s not great for either one of you. It sucks to be homeless and it sucks to walk past homelessness and the appropriat response is thoughtful action but also its okay to be a little mad that systems beyond your control put both of you in this position. And to never find a response you can quite live with, because there is no reasonable response to this insane situation. That said, I think you might find this article resonates somewhat.
I appreciate the comment and really enjoyed your blog post. It did help quite a bit as I wrap my mind around it all. Thanks!