In a rural part of my county, a couple was arrested eight miles down the road from my home for neglect of their three children, two teenagers, and a preteen. I wish I found news like this shocking. I deal with poverty in one way or another almost every day. What is different about this incident are photos of the home the children lived in. The article mentioned cockroaches falling off the ceiling and mice running across the floors and the headline read “Conditions…in trailer included dead rat in freezer”. The young 32-year-old mother confessed she “just gave up trying to keep up the home.”
I found myself drawn to those photos time and time again. I’ve been trying to figure out why this whole thing has captivated my attention. There are moments when I look at the photos because they make me feel better about my disorganized desk or my unkempt closets. I am ashamed at my shallow response in the horror of these photos. There are moments when I wonder how this could go unnoticed so close to my home. Mostly I look because I grieve for three children who know no other way to live and in those photos I see the face of poverty.
Our meeting hosts an office for the Salvation Army, so between the food pantry where I spend hours ordering and stocking food for 400 households every month and the meetinghouse where I see or talk to people daily with shelter needs, I feel I’ve seen it all. Up until now, many of the faces of poverty I see have vehicles nicer than mine and lifestyles that include tattoos, cigarettes, and cable television: many, but not all. I often see lifestyles drowning in material possessions, overwhelmed with debt, and full of distractions. These lifestyles have little room for unexpected financial problems or are prepared for unexpected crises or disasters. Many of the needs I encounter on a daily basis are legitimate, real, and heartbreaking.
Regardless of chosen lifestyles, my call is to help those in need. I tell food pantry donors it is easy to judge other’s lifestyles, but the bottom line for all of those who volunteer at the pantry is a call to make sure people and especially children in my county do not go to bed hungry and know there is someone who cares. It is a simple thing.
My faith community takes seriously Matthew 25:40. “…..When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me – you did it to me.’” The Message (MSG)
Faith communities are not called to be social service agencies. Faith communities are called to make visible the presence of Christ within and without their fellowships. Faith communities do not encourage the world to be like them, but are called to encourage the world to “be like Christ.” Faith communities are missional communities: communities called to participate in God’s mission in and for the world. Faith communities are redemptive communities: places where the broken find wholeness, the lonely a sense of belonging, the poor empowerment, and the lost salvation.
I am overwhelmed with poverty and need surrounding me each day. The photos of poverty I mentioned above reminded me the real face of poverty lies in the deep spiritual need in the world today. The real faces of poverty are those without a Christ-centered faith community. The real face of poverty are those who struggle alone, who because of no reason or a hundred reasons, have no one to depend on, no one to be accountable to, and no one to watch over them for good. When faith communities stop being communities, and stop witnessing to the world the value of working together, worshipping together, and serving together, it sends a message to the world there is no value in community.
As followers of Christ, in the face of real poverty, can Quakers be a living witness to the value of redemptive community in the world? It is my simple prayer.
Pam Ferguson, with her husband Ron, is released for ministry at Winchester Friends Meeting in Winchester, Indiana. Winchester Friends is a Quaker faith community since 1873 and a consistent supporter of Friends United Meeting since its beginnings in 1902.