“We Didn’t Know We Were Poor…” Thoughts on Poverty and What We Can Do.

When I was serving as a pastor in local congregations, I often had the opportunity to work with people who came from the generation that lived through the Great Depression.  I remember one woman who told the story of how her father accepted a job at his company that paid about a third of what he had received before, but he took the job, as she said, “Because at least he had a job, and so many people didn’t have anything.”  Many of the political ads I am seeing on television right now are reflecting the realities of the recession that our country has gone through over the past few years.  One side claims that their candidate is helping to pull the country out of a recession, while the other is trying to convince the American public that things are much worse than his opponent is trying to make us think.  Both have used the word “depression”–one to say that he helped us avoid a depression, and the other to say that we’re in something like a depression, or very close to it.  And of course, both sides are saying that their candidate is “The One” who will help our country get out of this mess.  Meanwhile, both candidates are concerned about the place of the middle-class.  The words “middle-class” are thrown around in the present political climate in much the same way as “family values” and “choice” have been used in the past, as a litmus test of where one stands, and particularly, with whom one stands in an election.

What I haven’t heard very much about, though, regardless of the candidate or political party, is poverty.  Yes, they are slinging arguments around about “entitlements” and “the social safety net,” and other buzzwords that really try to reduce the issue of poverty to a soundbite, but there is no one major candidate who is talking about poverty as “the issue” of this campaign.  Here’s why I think it should be…

Nelson Mandela, the great freedom fighter of South Africa, is attributed with the quotation, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”  According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) at Columbia University, around 15 million children (21% of all children) in the U.S. live below the poverty line.  I live in a community where 26% of residents live at or below the poverty line (U.S. Census figures).  With so many children (and adults) in poverty in our communities and our nation, what does the way we treat people in poverty say about our society?

Another phrase that so many people from the Depression era have said to me over the years is, “We didn’t know we were poor until afterwards, or until someone told us we were poor.”  So many communities, families, churches, and yes, the government, came together during the Great Depression to help one another out.  As a result, many people who might not have survived otherwise were able to survive those lean years.  Self-sacrifice, community spirit, and good legislative and executive action were all part of the road to economic recovery back then.  And yet today, so many of our political class would have us believe that poverty is less of an issue than the shrinking middle class.  Hello?  Where are the middle-class going?  They’re slipping into poverty, that’s where!

So what can we do?  I can tell you that the answer is not to write more blogs about poverty, which is exactly what I am doing! I’m not sure I know all the answers, but here’s one that works for me:  Everyone who talks about poverty as an issue needs to get to personally know someone (or multiple someones) who are living in poverty, and they need to introduce their friends to people who are in poverty.  Not in a touristy kind of way, like “Oooh, look at the people in poverty!”  What I’m thinking of is a true opportunity to make friends with people in poverty, to learn their perspectives on the world, and to know them first as human beings with feelings, attitudes, and frustrations, and second only as the numbers that make up the “issue” of poverty in our nation.

I work with the ONU chapter of Habitat for Humanity, a great group of top-notch students who really care about helping others.  Many of these students come from what politicians might call the “middle-class,” while some actually come from backgrounds of privilege, and others may come from poverty themselves.  But the one thing that binds these students together is their commitment to a movement (Habitat) that not only builds homes and does good work, but builds relationships with the people who will inhabit those homes.  Habitat encourages people to get involved with the people who are benefiting from good works, and really being a part of the community  in which you live and serve.  When we do this, we realize that no one is ever truly poor who has good friends who are willing to help out, and that no one is without gifts to give for the greater good.

If only our politicians understood as much.  Well, that’s not fair, maybe they do, on some level.  I guess what I want to say is, if only our politicians admitted as much.  What a country that would be.  What an election that would be!

“The Line”

Join us for a special viewing of a new film, “The Line,” sponsored by the Chaplain’s Office and the ONU Chapter of Habitat for Humanity!

When:  October 8, 2012 @ 8pm

Where:  English Chapel Sanctuary

“The Line” is a new film about poverty in America.  From the website:

“From Emmy Award-winning producer Linda Midgett, The Line is a groundbreaking documentary chronicling the new face of poverty in America. As Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis puts it, “more and more of our friends are in poverty — in the pews, in our workplaces — through no fault of their own, and they are slipping below the poverty level.”

For more information about the film, see the website at: http://www.thelinemovie.com

See you there!

Why I’ve Decided to Finally Read “The Hunger Games”

I’m usually late to get on the bandwagon for anything.  Typically, once I’ve caught on to a TV show, book series, or other cultural phenomenon, it’s pretty much on its way out.  The exception to this was the Harry Potter series–but I don’t think that even my bad mojo could have had an effect on that!

So, I have been pretty late in coming to the “Hunger Games.”  Yes, I know that the series is already out, and that the first movies has already been made, and my wife (yes, my wife Kelly!) has read/seen them all.  But I’ve resisted, mostly because I didn’t like the whole theme of kids killing one another in a giant reality TV show.  I thought it was a pretty gruesome subject.

Then, my wife showed me the DVD extras from the movie.

And, they talked about the author’s reasons for writing the book.

It turns out that the author, Suzanne Collins, wrote the book after flipping back and forth through the TV one night, when she kept seeing images of war and images from a reality show.  So she got to thinking about this, and about the ways that we have become desensitized to violence on television, and she wrote the “Hunger Games.”

So now I get that the series is a critique of the violence in our world, and the ways that we sacrifice our children every day on the altars of success, fame, wealth, and materialism.  So, I’m going to read them.  Not right away, mind you.  I’ve been through a spate of dystopian novels lately, and it’s gotten me a bit down.  So, I’m going to read some funny stuff for a while, and then come back to dystopian themes a bit later.

What do you think?  Have you read the books, and do you agree with the filmmakers’ assessments of their themes?  What else should I be reading that I might not have thought of before?

May the odds be…well, you probably know the rest if you’ve read the books,


Mid-Week Prayer

Join us this week as we celebrate the life and teaching of St. Hildegard of Bingen, who was only named a saint in May of 2012, even though her writings go back to the 12th century!  We will explore what it means to sing through our hearts into the heart of God.

Wednesday September 19, 2012

5:00-5:30 p.m.

English Chapel, Ohio Northern University

Reflections on the 11th Anniversary of the Tragedy of 9/11/2001

Below is the text of my remarks at today’s ceremony of commemoration for 9/11/01:

Ohio Northern University
English Chapel Prayer Garden

Let us pray:  Almighty God, our Mighty Fortress and our Rock, as we gather together to honor the memory of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, may our hearts be filled with the comfort of your grace, that we might honor without becoming overwhelmed with grief, pay tribute without becoming nationalistic, and remember without reviling people who are different from us.  Grant us all peace, that we might be makers of peace in this world, on this, and every day.  Amen.



September 11th

Whatever you call that day, it was a day of tragedy, truly a “day of infamy” in our nation’s history.

Each of us who were alive on that day remembers exactly where we were—standing in a classroom giving a lecture, or seated in one of the seats listening to one; in a meeting; just waking up after a long night; having breakfast with the morning news on the television.

For many of us, those moments of terror and shear horror and fear for our lives and the safety of our nation are as fresh today as they were the day after it all happened.

Some have found it difficult to move on, during the eleven years of war that have followed that day.

Some have tried to forget—to put it all aside—to go about life almost as if it had never happened.

But today, we stand somewhere in the middle—the events of that day seemingly so close, and yet sometimes feeling like they might have happened a hundred years ago, or in a different place.

And that is why we gather here—why so many others are gathering in many other places around our nation and across the boundaries of many nations—so that we might never forget.  All too soon, that bright September morning in 2001 will seem like a dim memory in our collective consciousness.  And gatherings like this may become fewer and farther between.  But that is why we gather here, so that we might never forget—

The tragedy, yes, but also the heroism, the courage, the human spirit that emerged on that day.

And, so we may never forget the obligation we have as people of faith and goodwill, to come together to be the rememberers, the re-memberers of society, the ones who bring us together at times like this to become a part of each others’ stories and lives.

So as we pause for this brief commemoration today, be encouraged that you are part of the movement of peace and harmony that has swept the world in response to the acts of September 11, 2001.  And always remember that you are part of God’s sweeping movement of justice and peace in all times of tragedy, large and small scale, and that you are always called to do the most loving thing no matter where you are.

The psalmist wrote, “I will bless the Lord at all times.”  As we reflect on the significance of this day, may we be encouraged always as we learn to bless the Lord in all circumstances, and may God grant peace to all who seek God’s holy presence.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

What’s With All the Zombies?

For a while now, I’ve been pondering the contemporary obsession with zombies, the living dead, the undead, etc., and it’s been bothering me.

Partly because it’s an interesting phenomenon.

But mostly, it’s because I hate zombies–HATE them!  When I was a kid, my brother saved up his money from his first job and bought our family’s first-ever VCR (yes, to those with whom I work in campus ministry, that makes me pretty old!).  He presented it to us all on Christmas, and that night, we watched the only video that he had–“Night of the Living Dead,” that zombie-movie classic.  Yes, it’s a genre-setting set piece and all that, but when you’re a little kid who’s a little afraid of the dark anyway, it’s pretty terrifying stuff.  Sometimes in my nightmares…well, you get the point.  [Shudder]

So I’ve been interested lately to see how much emphasis there is on zombies and zombification (is that a word) in our culture.  Zombie movies, a TV show, t-shirts, books (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?), cartoons…you name it, there’s probably a version with zombies.  Plus, the internet is rife with memes about “surviving the zombie apocalypse,” and rumors of how such a “zombpocalypse” will happen.  Sometimes, I even get the impression that there’s a little bit of truth behind these fears!

And that’s the point of this post–there is something behind this obsession with zombies–and here’s what I think it is:

One of the tropes of the zombie genre is that there is a always a group of survivors, battling it out against the zombies in a battle to see who will ultimately survive–the brain eaters, or the “normals.”  If it’s a feel-good ending that one is looking for, then the “normals” win the day.  If one is after a more existential “why-are-we-all-here” kind of ending, then the brain-eaters might win out, or at least there might be a sense of “no end in sight” to the battle.  Either way, the feeling is that it’s far better to be a “normal” than a “brain eater” in the end.

And that’s what I think is behind our obsession with zombies.  In our culture, everyday life can sometimes feel like being a zombie.  Sure, we don’t go around eating brains and guts, but the way so many people live their lives resembles the shuffling, follow-the-crowd, grunt through life kind of existence that zombies display in the movies and literature.  Shuffle to work, drudge your way through tasks that seem at times menial and even dehumanizing, shuffle home, watch TV, repeat…just like all the other trudging, grunting zombies around us.  So, it can be comforting to believe that, in the zombie apocalypse, we might be the “normals” after all–the ones who discover their true potential and power when faced with an unprecedented enemy of global proportions.  We want to feel like the lone survivors, because we want to hold on to the idea (or the fact?) that we are really unique, different from the rest–not a zombie, but a “normal.”

I get it.  We all want to be the exceptional ones–not the mindless brain-eaters who merely consume their way through the world.  But how does one accomplish this?

I (obviously) turn to my faith.  Scripture teaches that we are all unique human beings, created in God’s image:

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  (Genesis 1:27)

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you…”  (Jeremiah 1:5a)

“My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  Your eyes beheld my unmade substance.”  (Psalm 139: 15-16a)

Created in God’s image, we are loved by God–deeply and intimately loved, as a father or mother loves a child.  So you see–we’re already the “survivors” or the “normals”–God has created each one of us to be a unique person, to do a special task.  You’re not a monster, or a zombie–you’re a child of God!  And, by the way, so are all those around you.

Maybe it’s time that we stopped obsessing over zombies.  My sensitivities would certainly appreciate it.  But maybe if we focused less on a few sole survivors among a sea of undead bodies, we might begin to realize the potential in ourselves, and in the people around us whom we might have written off as part of the brain-eating crowd.  Then we’d see that we (and they) have gifts to give to the world, gifts that would help us not only survive, but thrive, in a confusing and sometimes demoralizing world.

From one survivor to another,


Chapel Commemoration of September 11th

Join us on September 11, 2012 at 11 a.m.
in the English Chapel Prayer Garden
(In case of inclement weather, the event will be held in the Chapel)
Local clergy, along with University Chaplain,
Rev. David E. MacDonald, 
will be offering prayers and reflections on the tragic events of September 11, 2001.  
Please join us for this solemn occasion.