Over the past few days I have been influenced by a couple of experiences to think more seriously about poverty. Let me say up front, there is nothing noble about being poor. To the 18th century middle class there was something cozy about a cottage out on the moor where one was away from the bustle of city life. But there was nothing easy nor uplifting about not knowing where your next meal was coming from, or how you would feed your babies or your livestock, let alone yourself and how do you keep your family warm and out of the elements. We who have everything should never "tsk-tsk" about the poor and speak knowingly about something of which we know nothing.
Sunday night I watched Masterpiece Theater on PBS and the program VICTORIA, about the queen of England during the 19th century. This particular episode focused on the Irish potato famine which ended in a million people dying and two million Irish emigrating to America in the 1830s and 1840s. Thank goodness the Irish were feisty and hard working and proud and when they came to America they injected a strain in our blood that makes March 17th an almost National Holiday in this country. But in the process one million men, women and children died of hunger. There was enough food for the Irish, but the English landlords were taking it from the tenant farmers and selling it to line their own pickets. The Corn Laws were to blame and eventually they were repealed
People who study poverty and hunger today tell us there is enough food to feed the world's hungry, but political discord keeps food from getting to those who need it most. Recently in South Sudan we were shown images of people picking up seeds off the ground or eating water plants to keep from dying. The specter of FAMINE is horrifying and much with us today.
There is a parable in the Bible called the Good Samaritan. It tells of a man beaten and robbed and left for dead alongside the road. Two religious officials walk by on the other side before someone comes who cares enough to help. Walking by on the other side is what we are too guilty of most of the time.
As if to highlight the famine in Ireland in the 1830s, I just finished reading Katherine Boo's book "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." Set in Mumbai (Bombay), India, it is a contemporary picture of terrible poverty in a land where the people walk with famine, death, and disease every day. "Beautiful forever" is the name of a slum near the air port of the city. The huge luxurious hotels cast their shadows across the slums where the people earn their living by sorting through the garbage of the hotels, finding what is salvageable and then selling it to those who recycle. Don't read the book unless you have a strong stomach.
It was 1975 when I was privileged to go to India and spend six weeks traveling throughout the country, learning its history and meeting its people. Wonderful, welcoming men and women. And we saw the slums of India. Acres of homes with tin roofs and raw sewage running through the streets. Looking out the window of the bus one day I saw a large body of water in front of a rural village. At one end a woman was washing her dishes and collecting water for her family and at the other end a cow stood placidly in the same water. The book "Behind the beautiful forevers" highlights a couple of families and how the new millennium gave them cause to hope that life could be better for them if they just worked hard enough. Some were Moslems and some were Hindus, but it didn't matter, every time they were able to put a little money aside, something happened to take it all away. Illness, corruption in government and politics, an accident, it didn't matter. Among the young people suicide was seen as a way out.
Poverty is a disease. We have to take deliberate action in attempting to improve the lot of people and it isn't done in one generation. It is easy to give up hope as the author describes, but somehow there seems to be the determination to rise above it and persevere.
Boo has received many awards in her writing career, mostly writing about poverty and how people live when they have nothing. It really is a beautiful book and one I found difficult to put down. I remember the overwhelming sense of despair I felt when I was in India, watching the children working and questioning look on the faces of the people as the bus swept past them. People living on the streets or trying to pursue a business in a tiny shop alongside dozens of other shops. The ownership of a sewing machine makes you a tailor and will allow you to feed a large family.
Once, as our bus passed a huge slum, I saw a red kite flying high above the shacks. A sign of hope in a pool of sadness.
For we who have everything, we must begin right where we are to meet and fight poverty. We cannot give up. Too many depend on what we do. There is a community of the world and we are called to give all to help our neighbor.