In 2011, while I was studying as a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, I applied to be the coordinator of a soup kitchen one night a week a few blocks from Queen’s Park. It was called the Gathering Spot, a weekly drop-in food ministry that operated in the basement of Walmer Road Baptist Church, an old historic church in the downtown.
I applied because I wanted a simple, one-night-a-week gig to earn a few bucks while I did my studies. What I got was a lot more than what I figured for.
Growing up in a middle-class suburban neighborhood, I never really saw “the poor” in any tangible way. I was aware that we were not rich and that some of my friends had it worse off than me, while some were better off. Some of my friends had smaller houses than me, and others had bigger ones.
I grew up in a conservative family where common dinner conversation was complaining about taxes and about how poor people were just lazy and didn’t deserve any of our hard-earned money. So, I had an assumption that if you did not have a job, it was because you were lazy and if you were collecting unemployment or a related service, you were essentially a leech on the system. That is who the poor were.
Giving ‘the poor’ a human face
At the Gathering Spot, my job was program coordinator. I bought groceries and helped prepare a meal. I greeted people once they arrived, and I put together activities after dinner, usually learning seminars on city programs or helpful skills like first aid or price matching. On an average night, we would serve about 30 to 50 guests, most of whom lived in low-income housing in the area, but also people who were homeless and found their way to the Gathering Spot.
All of a sudden, every Tuesday night, “the poor” had a human face. It was startling.
I soon realized what poverty was. The poor was a gay youth whose parents had kicked him out and was now living on the streets. The poor was a senile elderly woman, who had a successful career as a nurse, but now in old age started hoarding things and her family stopped caring for her. The poor was an elderly man with the intellectual capacity of a 12-year-old, but with no family and not “disabled enough” to require more help in the government’s mind, thus he was left on his own.
“All of a sudden, every Tuesday night, ‘the poor’ had a human face. It was startling.”
Who are the poor?
Who are the poor? As I got to know a lot of the individuals, what they were going through was mental illness, plus abuse, plus addiction. Inevitably their choices were their own at some point. And yes, there were dishonest people who just wanted to use the system, but even their stories were not as straightforward as I assumed. Everyone had a story. Poverty has layers.
Who are the poor? I realized poverty is the systemic consequence of the loss of family. A homeless person is “home-less” well before they are found without a roof over their head. Many of the homeless of Toronto were mentally ill individuals who had been deserted by family due to their erratic behavior, such that they did not have a single person who would let them crash on their couch or who would lend them a few bucks.
I had to think to myself: If I had something terrible happen where I lost my home or health, I could still impose on my two siblings or even my uncle and aunt or even a few college buddies who would help me out. I had people to fall back on. They didn’t.
Who are the poor? I think about the fact that I was born into a loving family. I was raised with discipline and responsibility. I went to good schools. I am able-bodied and able-minded. I was financially supported through high school and college.
That could be me
But all these factors that contributed to me getting where I am, I did not choose. I did have to work hard, but my father modeled that for me. I could have been born into a family that cared nothing for instilling basic virtues. I could have been born into the foster care system, getting bounced around. I could have been born with a mental illness or with a physical disability. Or take the instances where a person acquired a disability: a car crash, developing severe depression later in life or something like that. That could happen to any one of us, and that could mean at any moment we could be without a career or livelihood in the traditional sense, dependent on the care of others.
“As people who prize our achievements and autonomy, don’t ever want to think about the possibility of becoming dependent and unable.”
We, as people who prize our achievements and autonomy, don’t ever want to think about the possibility of becoming dependent and unable. If we really understand that many of the people who face poverty were born into the absence of a support system of family and friends or have been stricken with a lack of mental and physical ability, then there is that nagging possibility that this could have been me.
This is why the New Testament book of James connects the love of the poor with the love of neighbor as yourself: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” James calls this the “royal law” (the law that is king over all the others). It is the criteria Jesus gives as to whether any law of the Bible applies and how it should be applied.
Why do we love the poor? The logic is simple: Because that could have been us. And if that is the case, we have to ask ourselves, if we can place ourselves in their position, what kind of society, what kind of community, what kind of church would I hope to be there to help me? Whatever our answer is, much like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, we are bound deep down in our conscience to go and do likewise.
Fear, guilt and disgust
Working in a soup kitchen caused me to reevaluate how we are responsible to others in society and how we may have forgotten the poor.
Our society wants to shun the poor. There are all kinds of reasons for this. The biggest, I think, is fear and guilt.
There is a simple disgust in looking at a dirty homeless person. We see them and are afraid because they could be dangerous, we tell ourselves. But the real fear is that their lives are unthinkable to us. The thought of being homeless is so terrifying, and the fact that it could happen to us if we had been born into a situation without family, without a circle of support, with challenges that make housing difficult. That could have been us, and we can’t even think about that.
“Our society wants to shun the poor. There are all kinds of reasons for this. The biggest, I think, is fear and guilt.”
That fact scares people deep down, and so, we have to rationalize their situation to make us feel better: They obviously made bad choices, we tell ourselves. Just as the would-be friends of Job find it easier to blame than to help, it is because we cannot face the truth that calamity could have happened to us.
If we get past the fear, we usually find an unproductive sense of guilt. The guilt of seeing poverty is that intuitive sense of feeling obliged to help but turning a blind eye. We do this often when we see a panhandler begging at a street corner, and we pretend not to see them. Or we give them some small token of money, which is more about appeasing our guilt than actually taking steps to help them.
And what if we did try to help them? Many of us would be overwhelmed at the amount of care others require: housing, medical needs, counseling, education, job placement. The poor are a lasting reminder of the impotence of our civilization, our abilities. Ironically, the homeless make us feel powerless.
This is why most cities decide they need to segregate the poor from the rest of us. Take the instance of Orlando, Fla., where it is now illegal to be homeless. If you don’t have a home, cops will just drive you out to the middle of nowhere, dump you there, and tell you don’t come back. In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., it is illegal to give food to the poor on the streets. A 90-year-old Christian man, Arnold Abbot, in 2014 refused to comply, and he went out to give food and blankets. Cops arrested him, and he faced either a $500 fine or up to 60 days in prison.
The government of Fort Lauderdale and Arnold Abbot illustrate two very different responses to poverty. One wants to reduce poverty by getting rid of the poor, the other by serving them.
But we have to ask ourselves: Why take Arnold Abbot’s way? It can be uncomfortable, frustrating, even dangerous. And many of us know there is a strong likelihood that our attempts might not end with success. In a world that prizes autonomy, helping the poor is seen as too great an expense to oneself and even enabling those who refuse to “lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.” In other words, why should I give my hard-earned money and time to those I think won’t help themselves?
Something like a religious conviction
To care for the poor is made possible by something like a religious conviction. I say “religious-like” not because all religious people care for the poor — they don’t — or that only religious people care for the poor, which is not the case either. I felt a great kinship of goodwill with the atheists I worked with, sadly a closer kinship with them than with my fellow Christians, who were hard-hearted.
I say “religious conviction” because the drive toward empathy and service, whether in a religious person or an atheist, is spurred by a conviction that cannot be reduced to the world as it is. If it was, apathy would take over. The poor are just there, and that is just the way the world is: Too bad, so sad.
We learn that true loving actions, as C. S. Lewis argues in his book The Four Loves, are “other-worldly” in some sense. Why should I empathize with people I do not know? Why should I experience unnecessary heartache? Why should I give at great expense to myself, not just a feel-good charity as guilt-relief exercise, but to help others that may not even say “thank-you”?
The choice to care, to empathize, to serve beyond what we are naturally predisposed to do, what is naturally advantageous to us, beyond what we culturally are obliged to do — that has to be in some sense a religious decision, a choice to act in the world in a way that is different than the ways of the world typically run. It runs against the grain.
“Many Christians have found reasons, couched in religious language, to forget about the poor.”
Yet, sadly, many Christians have found reasons, couched in religious language, to forget about the poor. The “prosperity Gospel” is very popular in many streams of Christianity, far more popular than what we typically realize. Its central tenet is that if God loves you, you will be blessed, and blessing means health and wealth. Corrupt preachers have capitalized on this where, for instance, in the case of the Toronto-based “Prayer Palace,” the pastors there have manipulated their congregation into thinking they should earn exorbitant salaries, drive fancy cars and own mansions since this is a sign of God’s blessing. Then the preachers state that if people want to be blessed like they are, they need to give money to the church (to God, but really to them) and trust that God will bless them. While that is manipulative enough, the implication is that if you are not financially well-off, then God does not favor you. This means the rich are loved by God, and the poor are forgotten.
Of course, many of us know this way of thinking is wrong, and we never would go to a church where a minister owned several mansions, hopefully. But we all know there are subtle ways we forget the poor in our midst. We fall into similar mentalities.
I remember speaking with a church leader who was an honest person, but he sincerely believed God never would forsake anyone who believes in God, and so if you did not have enough in your life, you just did not have enough faith.
I remember talking about our responsibility to the poor with a group of pastors, one pastor, not hearing that I was quoting the prophet Isaiah, got upset at me that I was promoting socialism. In his mind, that was obviously one of those Old Testament Scriptures that did not apply anymore.
“I remember being told by one pastor who did church planting: Don’t bother much with the poor of your area.”
I remember being told by one pastor who did church planting: Don’t bother much with the poor of your area. They have way too many problems. They take way too much of your time, and in the end, they don’t have any money. You can’t build a church with people with no money, so let the poor be someone else’s problem.”
Yet in the Bible, specifically in the book of James, we learn that when we treat people differently based on their wealth or their socio-economic status, we do something actually terrible: “Have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” In James chapter 2, James calls this evil. He goes on to talk about the neglect of the poor alongside those who commit adultery and particularly those who commit murder.
Have we thought about it that way? Most of us think of charity work as a kind of the cherry on top of what is required, something not expected, something that’s an extra jewel in our crowns in heaven. Many of us have inherited a kind of checklist spirituality, by which we measure whether we are OK with God.
Allowing God’s word to work in us
When we allow God’s word to do its work in us, we wake up to our responsibilities to each other in ways most don’t want to think about.
The worst night I ever experienced at the Gathering Spot was a night of a deep freeze in January. In front of the store where I would get groceries, I saw one indigenous fellow who regularly attended. He had told me previously that he and his sister had been abused in the residential school system. His pain from what happened there was so much that he lived with a constant hatred of God and everyone else for what happened. He could not stand to go to a shelter. It would cause his anxiety to explode, and he would get into a fight.
“What are you going to do tonight in the cold?” I asked. “Same I do other cold nights,” he said. He panhandled enough money for a bottle of whiskey. As the night fell, he would down it and sleep behind a dumpster. He would drink to the point that his blood turned to anti-freeze in order to survive in the cold. Can you imagine living like that, drinking yourself half to death just to stay alive?
What is our responsibility as Christians to right the wrongs of the residential schools? We might be quick to say, “Well, I have never used a racial slur, or thought racist thoughts, or intentionally did harm to an indigenous person.” James might push us further: “Ya, but what if that was you?”
As I thought about this man, that same night, we had an above-average amount of guests, so the food ran out. One man came in late out of the cold, and you could tell he was hungry. A young man had lost his apartment because he unexpectedly lost his job. We scrounged up something for him, not much. He told me he had lost his apartment and had nowhere to go. I told him where some of the shelters were, but also, I suspected they would be full by now. He figured he would try anyway. We prayed together, and he left.
I remember riding home on the bus back to my home, where I could barely sleep that night. I worried about him, and I felt terrible going to bed in my warm home.
“When a homeless person is found dead in an alleyway, no one cares.”
In the morning, I read reports that 35 people were found frozen to death throughout the city that night. It did not make the papers since the city does not really want to know about this kind of thing. When a homeless person is found dead in an alleyway, no one cares. No one wants to consider that if people are freezing to death in our city, maybe in some way it is our responsibility.
Yet the poor are our responsibility, and sadly, we have forgotten them.
A better way to live
When we show grace to others, when we are always ready to forgive, when we make room in our lives for those in need, putting others ahead of ourselves, this is fundamentally a better way to live. It is a way of living in clear conscience. It is living in the way that best appreciates that this is how God treats us.
In the book of James we read this: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” I don’t think James has a naïve or too-rosy view of the poor here.
I remember meeting with a woman who had suffered from severe addiction her whole life. I asked her, “What does your faith mean for you?” She said: “I know God loves me because he gave himself for me. I know I can’t get up in the morning without acknowledging his grace in my life. Without it, I can’t live.”
I was pretty sure I had gotten out of bed that morning and forgotten to pray and just got going on my daily grind. I was too busy that day to acknowledge my need for God when I got up. The thought occurred to me that I was the one, not her, who really needed to think harder about the nature of God’s kingdom.
That year, I was dreading Christmas because my mother had died from cancer the previous year at Christmastime. However, having dinner at the Gathering Spot — a feast actually that the kitchen manager, a frugal and stern but gracious Dutch lady named Marijke, made — was one of the best meals I had ever had. We ate, and we all got up and sang Christmas carols. Hearing a carol like Joy to the World sung by people who have nothing other than the simple thanks for a good meal and good company renewed my love of the season.
There is this wonderful permission to be yourself around people who have accepted that they are imperfect. This is fulfillment of Proverbs 22:9 — “A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.”
Spencer Boersma serves as assistant professor of theology at Acadia Divinity College. He lives in Kentville, Nova Scotia.
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