The Worthy Poor
By Liz Ligawa
The previous month had closed its doors, taking along with it the security of minor accomplishments. Rent: paid. She had grown to appreciate such victories as they were hard won; however, they rarely lingered long. This life still felt odd to her- the newly poor. She was not yet adept at balancing the weight of a community’s conclusions concerning the economically poor. She struggled against this label. At any rate, she still found herself at this uncomfortable threshold- the bewitching hour, if you will. This is the place where settled becomes uncertain. Done becomes undone. Exclamations curl into question marks. The place when the clock strikes midnight…the first day of the month.
Responding to a prompt the other week at In The Words of Womyn Writing Circle, I explored the factors that pigment how we see one another. We have all done it before – created a backstory to a situation with little, or no information. For instance, take the couple in the car idling next to yours at the red light. The conversation seems quite animated. It is easy to create an entire commentary based on just what is seen. We think they are in an argument, or maybe perhaps it’s charades…yes, definitely charades. But can we get the real picture without words? The ways we interpret what we see in the world and the ways we determine how we should respond to others come to us through pipelines which preceded our generation, our nation, and even our society. One woman’s story shows us how.
She slowly left the office which was connected to the place where God’s people gather, trying to shake the heavy haze of defeat from her mind. She had asked for aid. She was denied. This is not an unusual story, but she wondered what could have informed the greeter’s conclusion. Maybe it was her bare ring finger, freshly unadorned, yet still declaring her to be less than another whose finger resembled a more acceptable status. Maybe the problem was her empty hands whose emptiness looked more indolent than worn. It may have even been her accompanied left hip, sweetly occupied by a sleepy little one looking for a safe place to rest. What did the greeter see?
There is a history to caring. My critical attention in Dr. Gaynor Yancey’s course, Urban Mission Issues, reminded me that societies have differed, historically, in their approach to meeting the needs of others. In Egyptian society, good deeds were recorded as Acts of Mercy in each person’s Book of the Dead. A fat Book of the Dead filled with Acts of Mercy was seen as contributing to a pleasant afterlife. This idea motivated the response to the needs of others. In the mother’s case above, however, declining to help her would still qualify as an Act of Mercy since it did not impose harm (Negative Confession). No need was actually met, but no harm was rendered. It sounds like parts of our current society are singing the same verse of a very old tune.
Greek society demarcated the poor as either worthy, or unworthy. The “worthy poor” could receive care from the community; the unworthy poor were not as fortunate. Similarly, in Roman society, a person’s citizenship qualified him to receive from the community. This sole identifier served as an important indicator of determining the responsible party. Citizenship would answer this question, “Whose concern are you?”
As I listened to this mother, I saw reflections of these past societies intermingled with her story. The Negative Confession of the Egyptian society gives us the justification for “not doing”: not bringing harm, but neither bringing good. There is also the delineation of the Greek society making caring more necessary for one class of poor than the other. Then there are the remnants of the citizenship standard central to Roman society. I saw all of these in one story.
Now, we all have our reasons for giving, or choosing against giving. My interest does not concern imposing unnecessary feelings of guilt. I am, however, interested in calling attention to the motivations behind our giving, and maybe even encouraging some redistricting of our boundaries concerning who receives our care.
The mother thought about the greeter’s comment as she shuffled her little one into the seat: “I’m sorry, we can’t help you. Our resources are strictly for our members.” As she thought about the thousands of faces which gathered to worship in one of three services on Sundays, the mother wondered aloud, “She thinks I am not a member, but she didn’t even ask….”
The greeter had already created a backstory, and that informed her conclusion.
Just then, her little one softly questions, “Where are we going now, Mommy?” She does not know. Thirty seconds before this inquiry, she did. Now, she no longer does. She swallows hard and pushes shame aside long enough to smile down at the bright, waiting eyes, “Home.”
This post was written by Liz Ligawa. Liz is a graduate student of Baylor University where she has found the perfect expression of her community-centered heart in the MDiv/MSW degree program. With a concentration on Community Practice, she is also the adoring mother of one son, Elijah, who prefers to be regarded in public as Spider-Man. She may be reached at Liz_Ligawa@baylor.edu.
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