I've been doing a good bit of reading and reflecting lately on poverty, particularly poverty that is not situational (i.e. middle class folks who suffer job loss, divorce, or disability and end up broke), but generational (I’m poor, my parents were poor, and my children will be poor). I’ve been very impressed by the work of Dr Ruby Payne on this subject, particularly the book she co-authored, What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty. The drum she keeps beating is that generational poverty is not so much a circumstance as it is a culture, a system of assumptions and thought and behavior that conspire together to keep people in poverty from one generation to the next. I’ve been paying attention to these things because of some people that the Lord seems to have “sent” to my parish—not only, I’m convinced, for their benefit, but for the benefit of the good-hearted middle-class majority, to enable us to learn to bridge the cultural—indeed, veritably linguistic—gap between between the middle-class mainstream and generational poverty.
So I’m sitting in the tire store yesterday, on my day off, waiting for a new set of tires to be mounted on the vehicle I drive, feeling depressed about what I’m having to pay, and reading a book while I wait. A family walks in and sits down in the waiting area with me—apparently a husband, wife, their grown daughter, and their grown daughter’s daughter, who is about three. I don’t know whether they’re actually “poor”—certainly not if they’re paying what I’m paying for tires—but they give off all the signals. They are a walking bundle of stereotypes that one associates with that nasty label, “poor white trash.” I begin to feel subliminally uncomfortable, and subliminally guilty for feeling subliminally uncomfortable.
Then the older female in the group asks me, out of the blue, “What are you reading.” Well, what I’m reading is a volume entitled If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him: Radically Rethinking Priestly Ministry, by a Church of England priest named Justin Lewis-Anthony.
OK. Talk about a deer-in-the-headlights moment. My mind raced over possible responses. I could simply show her the book title and let her draw her own conclusions. But somehow that didn’t seem charitable. I could try to paraphrase the subject of the book, but it made my brain hurt to think of just how to do that. So, after a few seconds, what came out of my mouth was, “It’s not a story. It’s non-fiction.”
“Oh, really? I sometimes like to read books like that.”
“What are some of your favorite books like that?” I’m an introvert, and wouldn’t choose to ask a stranger an open-ended question, all else being equal, but my subliminal guilt over the way I had “profiled” this family was asserting itself.
She proceeded to not be able to remember either an author or a title, but from her description I surmised that she was talking about The Shack, which is, of course, fiction, but I didn’t go there.
I’m still pondering the meaning of this encounter. But the fact remains that I was reading a book that makes eminent sense to me and to most of my first-world middle class colleagues in Anglican parish ministry, but may as well be written in Klingon as far as many of the people I drive and walk and look past in my daily life are concerned—people whom I would like to find ways to reach with the gospel of Christ in the tradition that has formed me.
As they say, “food for thought.”