(Posted July 23, 2016)
"The Bible insists that the best test of a nation's righteousness
is how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable in its midst."
— Jim Wallis, Christian writer and social activist
It was probably one of the most important lessons ever taught to me, only months before my mother died prematurely at age 48. Ours had been privileged lives, wanting for nothing material. There were frequent trips to New York City, and when my father had his business trips there, that left Mom and I a few days on our own to “paint the town red,” by shopping on Fifth Avenue or exploring the Metropolitan Museum of Art or MOMA. We always visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral. You see, I wasn’t named for the Saint of the same name, but for the Cathedral itself. It was the place where my mother, unable to conceive a child, went to pray for the gift of fertility. I was the product.
She was a wise woman, my mother. By the time I reached 16, she realized that my concept of what the world looked like was pretty skewed. I had never really seen poverty, since in our home city it was well-concealed from the main flow of life. And certainly on our many New York trips, what I knew of the city was what existed between 34th Street and Central Park. So on what would be our last trip together, she said to me, “I’m going to show you what makes up the REAL rest of New York City.”
She hired a cab for the day. We drove up to Spanish Harlem, to the projects and the tenements, to the edge of SOHO, which in 1963 still remained ungentrified, where heroin addicts sat on the pavement, shooting up between their toes. And then down to the Bowery, where we got out and walked the street. It was a convention of hundreds of homeless people, almost all men, of beggars and those whose homes were cardboard refrigerator boxes. We stopped and talked to some of the men, gave some money to others. And as we left the Bowery for our posh uptown hotel, she said to me, “These people are the people we must always make room for, and never look down upon. That’s what Jesus taught us. You help as best you can.” The following day as we flew home and I sat in my window seat, the pilot banked the plane and flew over the tip of Manhattan. As we flew over the Bowery, my 16-year-old mind was overwhelmed by the enormity of need, and my own smallness. As I realized that all I could do was to help rescue just one person at a time, I wept.
Times have changed, but poverty has not. It’s easy in a place like Manhattan to relegate poverty to each end of the island, away from tourists. But poverty is a lot more visible in smaller cities. Especially in good times when other cities have the wherewithal to renew their old neighborhoods, there is great satisfaction in refreshing the cityscape. But there is always the tendency to forget that a city is not made up solely of the fortunate, but of those who are citizens themselves AND who have a right to exist in that landscape despite their poverty. How do we make room for people in all economic and social strata? What mechanisms exist right in our own city for us to help to provide the support system for individuals and families who subsist in the shadow of affluence?
This Sunday, July 24, church member Lisa Lettieri will be our guest Lay Preacher as she explores this very issue, with her message, “Making a Difference.” I hope she’ll see you there for the 9:30 a.m. service. I will be back for our July 31 service -- Pastor Pat Kriss