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Poverty Up Close

By October 17, 2017 3 Comments

I have been working my way through Matthew Desmond’s searing and award-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.  Although he changes people’s names and a few details to protect people’s identity, Desmond tells the story of what it is like to be poor in America by focusing in on Milwaukee and by following the lives of a number of real-life landlords and tenants.   Desmond knows that you cannot tell the story of poverty in a general, abstract way.  Statistics and sociological observations only get you so far.  Poverty in America needs a face to it, a name to it.  It needs not just stories but stories about individuals with names, with pasts, with hopes, with dreams.

As I tell my preaching students, the specific always trumps the generic.   Show, Don’t Tell.   Don’t say we now and then all struggle with doubts.   Name a real doubt.   Don’t declare that God is on the move in the church.   Show us a concrete act of God that we can see, name, celebrate.  And don’t refer to faceless, anonymous groups of “the poor,” “the homeless,” “the rich,” “the immigrants.”   Know enough real people from each of those groups that you can put names and faces and stories with each.  Only then can you speak meaningfully about those people in the first place.    So Desmond brings us up close to Arleen and Vanetta, their children, their extended families.  Desmond’s book follows the story of eight families in all and it is only through the lens of their actual lives that we come to understand not only THAT America has a crisis when it comes to affordable housing but more importantly WHY it is such a tragedy.

At one point Desmond gets very specific on something I had never thought of before, something I did not know about before.  But having been exposed to it now, I can tell you it broke my heart.   He mentions that when eviction notices come, a given family is given a time frame for the upcoming eviction and they can take action ahead of that date or not.   Many wait it out in the hope–the vain hope most of the time–that something will yet work out for them.   When the sheriff arrives with the movers–movers who, by the way, are employed full-time in a city like Milwaukee doing nothing BUT evictions–the family is given two choices when it comes to their belongings: curb or cube.   Their stuff can go to the curb and be subjected to theft, the elements, rodents.    Or the movers can pack it up and bring it to a warehouse from which the family can retrieve the items if they collect enough money for the fines and fees.   After an allotted amount of time, unclaimed items are sold at auction, burned, put in landfills.  Most such cubes never get reclaimed, however.

Desmond visited one of the warehouses that stores such repossessed items of the evicted.  He noted that they are bundled together on a wooden palette and then encased in large sheets of tightly wrapped plastic.   You can look into the bundles, in other words.  And when Desmond did so, he reports seeing over and over the same things: stuffed animals, bouncy seats, rocker horses, sippee cups.   Among the more prominent items in such bundles are the things of childhood.

My kids are in their twenties now and my older child got married this summer.   The things of their childhood are mostly in boxes now, though my son’s Lego table and his Island of Sodor play table are still visible (the latter replete with Thomas the Tank Engine, Percy, Gordon, and the gang).  I cannot imagine even now–and I surely would not have been able to bear it when my children were small–seeing all that whisked away, shrink-wrapped and thrown into a warehouse some place.  I cannot imagine not being able to get those items back for them.   Yet just this heartbreak happens every day to thousands of people caught up in a never-ending cycle of poverty, disability, and a welter of things that either causes some people to make the same mistakes over and over or that prevents them from even having access to a better set of choices to begin with.

There are many things to say and to suggest when it comes to addressing the affordable housing crisis.  But as Christians, as preachers, as worship leaders, as people who pray in public about such matters we need specific vignettes to help bring it home.   For me, those plastic-encased cubes filled with bouncy seats and copies of Goodnight, Moon are providing my starting point just now.

It also reminds me of something I pointed out in a class recently: of all the three dozen or so parables that Jesus told, there is only one character who ever had a name.   It’s Lazarus from the Rich Man and Lazarus parable in Luke 16.   Leave it to Luke, leave it to Jesus to know that there is no such thing as “poor people.”   There are only individuals who have a story, a history, hopes, dreams, and above all they have names.

Turns out even the rich man knew about the beggar who withered away at his front gate.  “Send Lazarus to cool my tongue” he cried to Father Abraham.   “Lazarus.”  He did have a name.  The rich man knew it.

It should have made a difference.


Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


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