Rev. Neil O’Farrell on the need to combat the crushing plight of poverty every single day.
Every Thursday morning, I work the room at our weekly free meal for the hungry, dispossessed, mentally ill, homeless, and even just the lonely. The church has a cadre of volunteers making sure that no one leaves hungry. I’m there to chat—mostly to listen—to let our guests know that someone sees their suffering, sees them as real human beings, and to invite them back, both to church and to next week’s meal.
On Thanksgiving, there will be a rash of places serving turkey to the needy. Newly-materialized volunteers will line up to dish out food to those persons who are shuffling though church doors and soup kitchens throughout the nation. That traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings will be ubiquitous.
For many persons sitting on metal fold-up chairs, at long tables in fluorescent-lit multi-purpose rooms, this meal conjures up memories of their youth, when life seemed generous, safe, connected, and not fraught with the tragedies and indignities they have had to endure in their adulthood. And I’m not knocking the spirit of volunteerism. My colleagues and I will take help wherever we can get it.
It’s so trite to remind people that we get hungry all 52 weeks a year, not just on a particular, late November Thursday. Our church, like many others, feeds people every week, and we can’t make a dent in the overall problem of hunger in America. Privation is real, and it’s been deepened by a recession that is still a destructive plague visited on those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Privation is real, and it’s exacerbated by the political posturing in Washington and our state capitals. Elected officials seem to believe, or don’t really care, that scoring a political point will not affect the legions of hungry children, whose parents have seen their Food Stamps cut back.
On my way home from church to where I live on the opposite side of town, I pass a dozen or more corners where people are asking drivers stopped at red lights for loose change. They are there all year round. They need help all year round. Their lives are miserable all year round. As welcome as is a plenteous Thanksgiving meal, staffed by smiling volunteers, nonetheless the hollow feeling in the pit of their stomachs will reappear the very next morning.
By Friday morning, the extra volunteers will have disappeared, and feeding programs surviving on a shoestring will be back serving something far more modest than turkey. Like those who show up in our church basement every week, I’ve tamped down the anger so that it won’t rip at me.
I read the papers every day. Yes, I’m a member of that earlier generation where finding out what is happening in the world means that my hands will be smeared with printer’s ink.
This morning, the news was about whether the Senate would go “nuclear” to fill judicial openings in the federal courts. I know that after today’s brouhaha, we’ll go on to something else. When there isn’t a new dead horse to beat, we can beat that already-too-well-beaten dead horse of healthcare reform. Few of our luncheon guests have health insurance. The heavily burdened local hospital emergency room is their “make do.”
Those who vote in elections tend to be moved by issues that, in reality, are luxuries to the dispossessed. They are not paying taxes, they don’t have the skills to be affected by new jobs programs, they aren’t having gay weddings or late-term abortions, and they have no interest in city zoning. These all are middle-class and above issues.
None of these political footballs gets near to the crushing plight of poverty. The inexorable truth is that poverty is not a line on an econometric graph. Rather, poverty ambles on two feet.
Next week—the week after Thanksgiving—the needy will gather once again at the tables in my church social hall, and we’ll go back to the menu of hot dogs, sloppy joes, potato chips, an apple or banana, cupcake, and weak tea.
As a society, we lament the shrinking of the middle class. I, too, find it harder to maintain the economic perch that I was reared on. The wealthy 1 percent or 5 percent, or however you want to count the upper crust—that number remains relatively constant. The truth we don’t seem to get is that when the cadre of the middle class contracts, it’s the ranks of the impoverished that increase. Downward mobility is the new American way.
So, let’s look at our calendars now. What will you be doing the last Thursday of December, January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, and October? The hungry will be gathered at countless church doors, mine own included. You can be a volunteer all year round, not just in late November. And if you can, bring a casserole and a bag of fresh fruit with you.
What volunteers can’t stop is the reality that people will be hungry again the next day. In the meantime, do have a happy turkey day.