The tables and chairs had been pushed to the edges of the classroom and rearranged into a large circle in preparation for the M. Div. seminar on classism. As I waited for the seminar to begin, my emotions ranged from nervous to curious. I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect and one of my givens, my usual seat in the classroom, had been altered. Even with this change, my anxiety was tempered to a manageable level of curiosity because I trusted the professor, Dr. David Oliver, and I wanted to see how he would lead the seminar and what he would teach us.
Dr. Oliver asked us to share a personal story of what it was like to grow up poor. If we had not experienced poverty, then we were to simply say “Pass” and let the next person around the circle speak. Only a few of my classmates told their stories; most of us passed.
Dr. Oliver asked us to go around the circle a second time, same instructions, share a personal story or pass. This time more people spoke. They explained that they had been ashamed to admit that their family of origin had been poor. Hearing others share their experience had given them the confidence to open up.
This past July, the Associated Press reported on a recent survey that asked Americans about their experience of poverty. The data gathered showed that 80 percent of US adults will be poor for at least a year during their lifetime. That is how mobile our society has become from an economic perspective. We will range between poverty and sufficiency throughout our lives, sometimes falling below the poverty level, sometimes rising above it. No one is financially secure. No one’s seat at the table is assured. Even the incomes of the super-rich dramatically fall and rise in this volatile global marketplace.
If we were to go around Dr. Oliver’s circle a third time and my classmates and I were asked to describe what it is like to be poor in America today, now most of us would have a story to tell. I would have a personal experience to share.
If the AP survey is accurate then the overwhelming majority of Americans, every race and age from every region of the country, knows what it is like to feel poor and ashamed. 8 out of 10 of us know what it is like to be laid off, work multiple part-time jobs, face bankruptcy, move away from family to look for work, go through job retraining, and fear the future. Most of the people you meet today either have felt guilty about their inability to maintain their preferred lifestyle or will feel that guilt at some point in the future or are currently wrestling with that guilt right now.
80 percent of Americans. I’ve been mulling over that number ever since the report came out nine months ago. While listening to heated, angry debates about health care reform, the expansion of Medicaid, raising the minimum wage, and cutting food stamps, that number has been rolling around in the back of my mind.
My husband reminded me of the July news story this morning, and in a flash I had it, the nagging feeling of wrongness that the survey caused in me suddenly had a name and a question attached to it. The name is Compassion and the question is “Why aren’t we more compassionate?”
My assumption was that the experience of hardship makes people feel more compassion for those who go through a similar difficulty. Because I am poor, I now have more sympathy for the struggles which others endure, and that sympathy motives me to act in ways that are caring and loving and to support effective means that help folks transition from one living-wage job to the next-- that kind of logic formed the basis of my assumption.
I see now that my assumption was wrong. 80 percent of us have known, do know, or will know poverty first-hand and yet the majority of us do not favor funding social programs that will help the poor, and by extension help us when we lose our jobs. We are quick to believe the critics who say these programs are wasteful spending rather than the research that proves the positive impact such programs have on poverty reduction.
Personal experience should make 80 percent of us more compassionate and that compassion should be reflected in our government representatives, and in the legislative agenda that those politicians set, and in the tone of their voices as they discuss aid programs. Compassion should be the norm but it is not, and that’s because compassion is not rooted in us and our human experience. Compassion is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
We know that we should be more sympathetic. We know that we are not. That self-knowledge is an invitation to turn to Christ, to seek forgiveness, and to ask for help. Christ can transform us into compassionate people. His living Spirit can get inside us, heal us of our guilt and shame, make us whole, and enable us to readily serve others in need.
80 percent of us know better. We can only act on that knowledge, act out of our better selves, by the grace of God. That is our limitation and that is our glory.