Doug Zeigler explores the very different messages of Pope Francis and New York City Mayor Bloomberg about the poor.
I woke up this morning and read two different articles, each relating to the poor. The first one referred to Pope Francis and his Christmas message: “Place Ourselves at the Service of the Poor.” He urged people to “not to place ourselves above others, but rather lower ourselves, place ourselves at the service of the poor, make ourselves small and poor with them.” He cited scripture to cement his request to the faithful. Matthew 25: 35-46 says: “Whoever has nourished, welcomed, visited, loved one of the least and poorest of men, will have done this to the Son of God. On the contrary, whoever has rejected, forgotten, or ignored one of the least and poorest of men will have done this to God himself.” Sounds like a great message, doesn’t it? I’ve always been told that Christmas is about giving. Who better to give to than those less fortunate?
The second one I read had a decidedly different message: apathy for the poor. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was speaking about the recent New York Time’s series about Dasani, a homeless girl and her life in homeless shelters throughout the city. The article paints a rather grim view of the conditions the shelters she’s lived in. Places where “where mold creeps up walls and roaches swarm, where feces and vomit plug communal toilets, where sexual predators have roamed.” Hardly seems like a place for a kid to grow up. Bloomberg’s response was remarkably unsympathetic: “This kid was dealt a bad hand. I don’t know quite why. That’s just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not,” he told Politicker, calling her plight “a sad situation.”
One man – a champion for the poor – uses God as a reason to help.
The other – wealthy beyond measure – lays the blame at God’s feet.
Even more disheartening was Mayor Bloomberg’s assertion that “if you are poor and homeless you’d be better off in New York City than anyplace else…I think one of the problems is a lot of journalists have never looked around the world – your smirk shows you haven’t been outside the country and don’t know what poverty means elsewheres.”
In a way, Mr. Bloomberg is right. New York is one of the wealthiest cities in the world, so it would stand to reason that it would also have the best help and care for the poor and homeless. However, the comparison is absurd. To compare New York City’s homeless situation to Bangladesh’s, for example, just isn’t a fair or apt one. Bangladesh is one of the poorest cities in the world and couldn’t possibly have as many resources to help their destitute citizens. That is where Mr. Bloomberg’s comparison just doesn’t jive. It portrays him shaking his mighty finger at those in extreme poverty, admonishing: “You better be thankful that you’re living in a moldy, cockroach infested shelter; you could be in some other poorer country where you wouldn’t even have a shelter!” Poor is poor, no matter where you live. For someone who mentions God in his response, he certainly doesn’t exude love one is supposed to receive from that God.
Even if we suspend the religious connotation for these two men for a moment, helping the less fortunate is a HUMAN obligation. Love and compassion are universal. If I see someone in need, my initial response is to want to help that person. It’s an innate response in most of humanity. Sometimes it can be very challenging, especially if that person in need smells bad or isn’t grateful. Perhaps they are in need of not just food, but also psychiatric help. However, there is always that twinkle in our hearts, this flickering flame in each of us, which makes us want to believe that humanity will carry on and flourish.
Another part of our culture makes me wonder if that flame is threatened to die out.
There is a rising current in some conservative circles to attribute being poor to lack of work ethic, as if the only thing holding them back is the gumption to buckle down for all to be well. However, that is the great fallacy of the American dream – hard work and effort very rarely results in prosperity on those to facets alone. There are so many other factors that can potentially outweigh them in our society: social casting, legal troubles, luck, demographic, location, gender, education, and mental wellness to name a few. Any one of these could derail your trip to the American ideal of success, plummeting you into poverty. If not for help from family, there have been a couple very difficult times my own family could have fallen and not overcome.
Since our society as a whole values money over doing good, it isn’t any wonder that services and care for the poor is so broken down. There’s no money to be made helping people with no money to begin with, so many draw the conclusion: “why bother?” Businesses are created and maintained by building profit margins, not by how many people it raises from financial despair. Many have adopted the credo: Let someone else care for those less fortunate; we’re too busy trying to raise our stock price.
I want to help people who are worse off than I am. Despite the challenge it can be, I feel far better giving someone in need some clothes, food, and time. Foremost, I want to give them hope knowing that they have value as a person and hope that they can break out of this cycle of poverty.
Thanks, Pope Francis, for reminding us what it means to spread goodwill.
And thank you, Mayor Bloomberg, for reminding us of that as well, just in a different way.