After watching each of the Democratic party’s presidential debates, I couldn’t help but wish that Simon Cowell was on the moderating panel as a guest judge. I can hear him chiming in to tell most of the candidates, “I have some advice for the next debate – don’t.” Maybe having 20-plus presidential candidates is good for our democracy, but it’s painful to watch.
In several of the debates, Julián Castro referenced the West Side of San Antonio, a community where I worked early in my career as a community developer. For most, the West Side is not considered the “good” neighborhood. At the time I lived there (2004-2009), the median income was $19,000 per household and the average house had three generations living in it. Only 3 percent of the community had access to a personal computer, and the highest performing high school had a 50 percent dropout rate.
Not long after moving to San Antonio, my family became friends with our neighbor, Lupe, and her husband, Luis. In addition to raising her children, Lupe was the primary caregiver to her parents who were both in wheelchairs. Every morning, Lupe would get her kids ready for school, then help her parents onto the bus so they could go to a neighborhood senior center for part of the day. After seeing her parents off, Lupe often volunteered at her kids’ schools. She knew that the only way her children could escape the harsh realities of poverty was through education, and her goal was for each of them to graduate high school and then, hopefully, attend San Antonio Community College.
“We’ve built economic and justice systems that are geared towards those who have and control the most, not towards families like Lupe’s.”
And this wasn’t just her goal for her own children; Lupe wanted to see all the children in the community succeed, so she diligently championed education as a committed volunteer.
Luis worked a full-time job and had an additional job on weekends, a common practice in the community. Most people in the neighborhood didn’t have full-time employment with one employer so they pieced together two or three jobs, sometimes working 60-80 hours a week (when they were lucky).
One day, after we had been neighbors for a few years, Lupe got an ear infection, as most of us have endured at one point or another. However, she did not have health insurance or a doctor, so, of course, the infection went untreated. Eventually the pain became unbearable. After getting her kids ready and helping her parents get on the bus, she got on a bus herself and took the 30-minute ride to a downtown hospital. After arriving, she sat in the lobby of the emergency room all day, waiting to be seen. She still had not been seen when it was time for her to catch a bus to make it back home in time to greet her kids after school, so she left, still untreated.
Later that evening, Lupe’s eardrum ruptured. The infection went into her brain and caused her to go into a coma. Lupe never woke up.
The evening after she died, Luis and his sons made the rounds in our neighborhood collecting money for her burial. Standing together on my front porch, Luis cried with his head buried in his hands and kept repeating, “What I am going to do? What I am going to do?”
Poverty in the United States is incredibly complicated involving a myriad of underlying issues such as wage rates, health care access, housing costs and hunger. We often espouse numbers of people without health insurance or people living with hunger or families in poverty as if there are subgroups only dealing with each isolated issue. The reality is that it is the same families living with all of these conditions. Lupe and Luis and their family were food insecure, underemployed, lacked health insurance and so on.
When I think of Lupe’s story and the widespread poverty in our country, I am reminded of FDR’s famous quote, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” Instead of heeding the wisdom of this statement, we’ve built economic and justice systems that are geared towards those who have and control the most, not towards families like Lupe’s.
I believe most of us want children to have ample access to food and adults to be able to find work that can sustain a family. I also imagine most of us believe that the processes towards these ends do not have to pit us against each other. There seems to be a collective intuition that working together to solve our country’s and our world’s greatest woes is a better path forward than the mean spiritedness and vitriol we see from our politicians, preachers, political commentators and endless amounts of social media posts. After all, the only way we move forward as a nation is if we do so together.
As Christians, Jesus tells us in Matthew 25, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The accused in Matthew are those who did not see the hungry and give them food, the ones who did not provide shelter for the stranger or clothing for the naked. Matthew calls us to not only see the hungry as humans, but to see the hungry as Jesus.
This holiday season as you express gratitude for all you have been given, take a moment to get to know and provide for people in your communities who are living outside the prosperous neighborhoods you and I typically frequent. Learn their histories and their stories as you share yours with them. My hunch is that as you see the image of God more fully in them it will conversely be more recognizable in you.
The Kingdom of God gives us a vision and a mandate for standing with the hungry and the impoverished – for loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we, like the prophet Amos, “love justice and walk humbly,” we can rest in Divine assurance that our faithfulness will be met by the words of Jesus, “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food.”