Our family started volunteering at a local soup kitchen last year. Because it’s in a basement, in facilities that the organization has outgrown, the place feels a bit grim – crowded and run down. They have plans for a new building to address the growing needs in the community. For now, there’s usually a line-up of people waiting to get in.
One day, when we got there late for our shift and made our way to the door, a few people said “Not open yet,” and I realized they thought we were there to eat, too. Fair enough! You can’t tell by looking who is there to volunteer and who’s there for food. Poverty is not one-size-fits-all: each situation is unique, each person arriving with different reasons for needing a plate of noodles & beef today.
The supervisor keeps everyone – volunteers and clients – moving through their paces with well-practiced ease. After the doors open, the 10 tables quickly fill with clients, three or four per table. Once they’re seated, a volunteer comes over with a tray of food and takes drink orders. That was my first job – fetching drinks – and I was terrible at it. I kept mixing up who wanted coffee with six sugars and four milk and who asked for tea, two milk and two scoops of sugar.
I will never forget the first day, when I was being trained in the drink station.
“Don’t overfill the mugs,” the supervisor said, rapid-fire, already on his way somewhere else. “Coffee tins are here. Only the kids get milk.”
I thought I had misheard. Did he say the kids get milk? What kids?
That misconception collapsed right away. Soon enough a young family came in, two small girls in puffy pink coats. Their chins barely reached the table top. Although what I really wanted to do was scoop them up and out of there, I brought them each a glass of milk. By the end of that first meal, 11 kids had come for supper, out of the roughly 200 people that this kitchen serves each day.
Us vs Them
This week, as I was editing the articles and letters for this issue, I noticed troublesome “us” and “them” language cropping up. Not because the writer was setting up opposites but from falling into assumptions, like I did, about certain segments of society. Thinking that everyone in a group of people is the same as the others, and different from “us.” Nowadays, perhaps, it’s even more prevalent because we feel alienated from each other, which makes other people seem foreign or unknowable.
Weeding out prejudice can be a full-time job. But thankfully, the solution is not complicated: leave your own world, see each person as an individual, and look at things from another perspective. “Just as to love God begins with listening to his Word,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “so the beginning of love for brethren is learning to listen to them.”
A Toronto journalist went undercover recently, checking into three different shelters in the city and then reporting on their conditions. He describes the shelters as overcrowded and dangerous. “I cannot pretend to know what homelessness fully looks like,” he admits, but “it makes sense to me now why many homeless people would rather take their chances and sleep outside on cold winter nights” (Paul Salvatori, Now magazine).
Good journalism can help break down the barriers we create around different groups of people. Let me give you two examples of writers who, like the reporter in Toronto, tried out life in a lower income bracket on purpose. Their experiences challenge the made-up distinction between upper and lower classes, the haves and the have-nots. They make it impossible to dehumanize “them.”
Down and out
“The curse of class difference confronts you like a wall of stone,” George Orwell says in one of his lesser-known books, a memoir called Down and Out in Paris and London. It was published in 1933. He was writing about the three years he’d just spent “slumming it” – deliberately moving from his upper-class origins to join the working class: on the road as a tramp, in the mines of north England and in a small Paris restaurant washing dishes 18 hours a day. Just like the other men struggling to get by, he’s exhausted by the work. He learns that being hungry shortens his temper. He gets robbed and has to pawn his clothes.
“The average millionaire,” he concludes, “is only the average dishwasher in a new suit” (p. 107). The book offers a way to see people as more than their title or bank balance: “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny” (p. 189).
Nickel and Dimed
A journalist named Barbara Ehrenreich tried a similar experiment for her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. She wanted to find out if she could support herself for a year working only minimum-wage jobs – at Walmart, as a house-cleaner and as a waitress. She barely makes it. In fact, even with her safeguards (she starts with a car and, unlike Orwell, rules out homelessness), her health suffers and her money runs out. Ehrenreich soon realizes the privileges inherent in her regular life.
“Take away the career and the higher education,” she writes, “and maybe what you’re left with is ‘Barb’, the one who might have ended up working at Walmart for real if her father hadn’t managed to climb out of the mines” (p. 169). Like Orwell, she writes about her experience of living beneath the poverty line to break down class barriers and, ideally, to inspire a shift toward better wages and conditions.
Quick to hear
You don’t need to go undercover or even read those books to have your stereotypes challenged. This Mental Health theme issue of Christian Courier is packed with unique perspectives – each one a chance to listen and learn from someone else’s experience.
And you can’t tell by looking at the bio pictures who is here as an eye witness or as the leading role. Mental illness is not one-size-fits-all: each situation is unique; each person has different reasons for needing an invitation to go for coffee.
Be “quick to hear and slow to speak,” as James 1:19 advises, and an other perspective will make life richer.
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