Poverty looks like a lot of different things.
Don’t get me wrong, none of those things should overshadow the most obvious meaning: not having stuff. Basic stuff. Ability-to-live stuff. A roof over your head, food to eat, clothes to wear, water to drink that won’t make you sick stuff.
Never forget that is poverty, and far too many around the world and in our “rich” country live it every day.
Traditionally, Lent has been a time to focus on giving “alms” the poor. The first time I went to an Ash Wednesday service at the Catholic Church in my neighborhood, I received the ashes on my forehead and was promptly handed a small, flattened cardboard box that I was intended to pop open and fill with my Lenten contributions for the poor.
I love how hand-in-hand that was. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” I was told. And then I was handed something that also told me, remember we are all dust and need to help each other along the way.
Lent is about self-denial to most of us, but self-denial is not the goal of Lent. “Fasting without praying,” a friend of mine once said, “is like plowing without planting.” Self-denial is pointless unless that space we create with it is filled and planted with something that will take root, and grow to bear the kind of fruit that changes us and changes the world.
The church mothers and fathers knew that seeing the poor is one of those things. And not just seeing in an observational way – though it is all too easy for the poor to become invisible to us. But seeing to identify with, to develop compassion for and empathy with.
That’s challenging. Poverty isn’t pretty. It’s exhausting. And it often hides.
It hides behind jobs that don’t pay a living wage. It hides behind rising housing costs that eat up grocery budgets. It set up camp in the underbrush of that lovely, tree filled nature grove in the park. It hides in cars where someone discreetly sleeps. It hides in open-hearted generosity. It hides in the family judgement and rejection that obliterate a safety net. It hides in discriminatory lending policies that prevent families from investing in homes and businesses to build that safety net. It hides in that job you could lose the moment they find out who you are and who you love. It hides behind court fees that keep people in jail or deprived of their license because they can’t pay them.
Poverty pushes people to the edges and makes them outsiders – people who live along the borders of expectation and what is legal and what life is “supposed” to look like.
Lent asks us to do a lot more than toss money or food at them over there at the edges of our lives (though that’s better than ignoring them altogether).
Lent asks us to go to the edges with them, to turn things upside down and inside out.
It doesn’t just ask us to keep bandaging up the wounds of those the system chews up and spits out (though for God’s sake, we should certainly be doing that!).
It asks us to take on that system. Bring the outsiders in, not by changing them to fit “inside,” but by changing “inside” (us) to include them – become uncomfortable to make a space they can breathe and rest and live in.
Love doesn’t just give to the poor. Love doesn’t even just go out to be with the poor. In a multitude of ways, Love makes a home with the poor.
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” With those people.