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Poverty - and the need for relationship

About 150 people came from all over the country to attend a Domestic Poverty Summit. It was held in Newark at the Robert Treat Hotel from April 27-30. The Presiding Bishop came and gave an eloquent and comprehensive overview of the various dimensions of economic poverty – and challenged us to respond to it. Two former priests of the diocese came – Jim Snodgrass from Puerto Rico; and Eric Duff from Northern California – who were the original founders of Apostles’ House (from 1983-85); which has grown into one of the largest service providers for low-income people in Essex County. Many current people from the diocese came – to listen and learn, to facilitate, to network – and to organize. It was an honor to see people from the diocese at the center of it all. We have done – and continue to do, a lot of work. We have quite a story to tell.

And yet.

There are spiritual and economic and political forces at work that have widened the gap between people who are economically poor – and those who are not. We heard the statistics. It was disheartening.

And yet.

The summit brought together different national networks – Jubilee Ministries, Episcopal Community Services and National Health Ministries. There was a growing consensus that these groups can be more effective in alleviating poverty if they work in partnership rather than independently. There was a commitment to develop the partnership, with an ongoing plan – which will provide more leverage in dealing with issues that are maddeningly complex.

I wasn’t able to attend the entire conference – but I was inspired by the parts I did. I was inspired by the witness to the Gospel, by the commitment to stay engaged – and by the willingness to engage differently. Which means taking on the systemic issues of injustice. As House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson said: it is important to exercise compassion in pulling people out of the river of poverty; but it is just as important to prevent whatever or whoever is throwing them in.

And I think – at least I hope, there is a commitment to be careful about language. It was called a poverty summit. Poverty is a condition. There is a temptation to see it as a definition – especially when we refer to “the poor”. Jesus made many references to “the poor” – but he did so as a challenge to develop and deepen a relationship between those who were poor and those who were not. Jesus didn’t allow the “the poor” to be a category from which people could not otherwise be identified. We do. I cringe whenever I hear an appeal to help “disadvantaged kids” (which to me always means poor kids). While the term may be technically true – it almost sounds like the appeal to help comes with an underlying assumption that the distance will be maintained between those who are disadvantaged and those who are not.

A week ago a 91 year old man was murdered in his home in Essex Fells. He was a long-time member of St. Peter’s Church. The family and community were devastated – because of the tragic death of a wonderful man, and the fact that Essex Fells hadn’t had a homicide in over forty years. A vigil was held at St. Peter’s on the evening of the murder. The Essex Fells community came. The mayor spoke. Prayers were offered.

It was then discovered that the arrested suspects were from East Orange – a community five miles away but as different as any economic or demographic matrix can register.

There was the anxiety that the disparity between the two communities would generate more fear and resentment. But the people of St. Peter’s Church and Christ Church, East Orange have an ongoing relationship with each other; generated by the two Rectors – Stephanie Wethered and William Guthrie. Leaders from Christ Church came to the funeral at Essex Fells. It was an important witness. It made a difference – and shortened the distance. Relationship always does.

There are many things we as a church can and should do in seeking to alleviate poverty. Building relationships between people who are on different “sides’ as far as economic data is concerned, needs to be at the foundation of any strategy. Building relationships – with the commitment to a willingness to be changed – if not transformed, as the relationships deepen.

It can make a huge difference.

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