Monday, April 30, 2012

The New Face of Poverty


READING: Matthew 25: 34-40


Imagine if you will: You are taking a stroll when you see ahead of you a poor person you have seen before.. this person is often in the same place, asking for help. In a hurry, you cross to the other side to avoid being accosted. But as you pass, you glance over at the poor person….

What do they look like? What is their gender, race/ethnicity, age, stature?

What are they doing? Standing, sitting, holding a cup or a sign?

How do you feel as you watch this person?


Now I took us through this exercise for a reason. Almost all of us, even those who think or know that we have been or are currently among the “poor,” have stereotypes and myths we need to examine. It is precisely those myths and beliefs coupled with our fear and shame that keep us from being a part of the solution to poverty as it exists today.

This collective psychological black hole of fear threatens so deeply that it often results in moral failure and stalls our efforts to effectively address a potential national pandemic. It paralyzes... (West & Smiley, The Rich and the Rest of Us, 2012.)


As I read the newly published book, The Rich and the Rest of Us, by Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, I was forced to encounter time after time my own biases and deep-seated anxieties about the poverty of others and my own proximity to poverty, in the past and in the future.

“….poverty means that there’s something wrong with your character, that you’ve got bad habits, you’ve got a bad lifestyle, you’ve made the wrong choices. “I would like to present an alternative theory … poverty is a shortage of money. And the biggest reason for that shortage of money is that most working people are not paid enough for their work and then we don’t have work.” Ehrenreich


Many, many of us are only a few paychecks away from losing it. We live more or less paycheck to paycheck, and we could very easily slip into the downward spiral that West & Smiley call a “greased chute” down where a ladder up had been.

One third of American citizens are living in poverty or are just a razor’s edge away from what could be called poverty.

Our unemployment is the highest since 1948.

Children go to bed hungry every night. 17 million ~~ food insecure

Elderly~~ nearly 10% below poverty line

Housing: 700,000 are homeless on any given night, while foreclosed and abandoned buildings sit vacant.

It would be hard to have lived through this past year and not have seen vividly the populist movement referred to as Occupy Wall Street being born and taking its first steps. This movement is indeed exhilarating and hopeful because it involves young people, social media, and crosses barriers of race & class. Indeed, the 99% has proven to be a fairly accurate slogan for the movement, as it is precisely the 1% who have caused and who are responsible for the poverty we see today. (But it is primarily a “blame” movement, and today I am asking us to look inwardly first.)

Let’s agree: there is a problem.


Pilgrim ethic corrupted // MLK’s “Dream” which is “a dialectical critique of the American dream..”

The roots of poverty are deep in our society. So are the roots of our dreams of wealth and affluence. So is our denial. (ignoring original sin.. citing international poverty… segregation..)

Industrial revolution ~~ first millionaires

Poor houses to Settlement Houses (solidarity)

Depression to FDR’s recovery

New Deal

Great Society

War on Poverty to War on Welfare (Reagan to Clinton)

Poor Peoples’ Campaign

2012 ~ Pres. Campaign & GOP


If you are not amongst the 1%, then maybe you feel you are not part of the problem. But remember, if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem. What can we do?

According to West & Smiley, “The truth about poverty must be affirmed.” But where is the TRUTH?

I think the TRUTH starts with us.

Do you want to know God? Then learn to understand the weaknesses and imperfections of other men. But how can you understand the weaknesses of others unless you understand your own? And how can you see the meaning of your own limitations until you have received mercy from God, by which you know yourself and Him? ~~  Thomas Merton

It is always easy and will always be possible to point fingers at the “other,” the fat cats, the Monopoly magnates. (Rich Uncle Pennybags)

But it might be more productive if every person of faith, conscience & good will took a long, hard look at our own “sin,” what West & Smiley call the “Blade of Indifference.”

If we can affirm and acknowledge the TRUTH about poverty, we can validate it and move toward action. The game we all play to some degree, the game of Shame & Blame, has led us only to this place of pending destruction and doom.

Two words that S&W raise up are good places to start: COURAGE and IMAGINATION. Each of these earns an entire chapter named “Poverty of _____” but there are also examples of wealth of courage, from Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzio, and imagination, including Warren Buffet, Michael Moore, and of course, these two men.

Courage, Imagination, Affirmation & Compassion have one thing in common: they are all free.

They’ve outlined a twelve point plan for recovery from poverty and called for a White House summit on the issue, asking us to join their call. They remind us that May Day, May 1st is historically a day of workers’ rights, labor justice, and solidarity. Each of us has made a start by being here today and listening with courage to ideas and truths that may be uncomfortable and produce fear. Perhaps a good place to continue is to spend even a small part of May Day learning more about poverty, its many iterations and the myths that keep it in place, and to execute one small action, signing on to the letter to President Obama that W&S have authored, or reaching out to anyone less privileged than we are with compassion, courage and imagination.


(includes links to many web sites on poverty, hunger & homelessness)

For a look at poverty right here in Kentucky (the comments are especially edifying):

QUOTES from The Rich and the Rest of Us, West & Smiley, 2012. (Pp. #s missing because it was read on Kindle!)

Our chickens have come home to roost. While we maligned and ignored the poor and worked to separate them from those more fortunate, poverty snaked its way into mainstream America. As unemployment, corporate greed, and the divide between the rich and the rest of us grew exponentially in the 21st century, we held onto our stale 20th century habits.

Affirming poor people is dangerous. It means that you first acknowledge their existence. Acknowledging the poor opens the door to perilous thoughts. We are forced to consider: “Can it happen to me?” To many, poverty is regarded as a personal declaration of failure, a measure of fundamental unworthiness, or, as in Caradine’s case, a blight on an upstanding community.

Most Americans choose instead to segregate themselves from poverty. The stereotypes and stigmas serve as curtains that separate “us” from “them.”

Great social change requires persons who possess the courage to tell the truth, to fight for justice, and to be so committed to that truth that they are willing to risk death. No small matter.

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the capacity to stand in one’s truth with integrity no matter the consequences.

Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds, “A good indignation brings out all one’s powers.”

Monday, April 16, 2012


Perhaps you have heard of couch surfing? It sounds like a great idea ~~ after all, you can travel all around the world and stay in generous-hearted, trusting people’s homes for free! Also, you can open your home to interesting and dynamic folks when and if you wish to.

One problem: You are virtually expected to socialize with your hosts/guests!

To a true introvert, this is horrifying.

Intoverts, as I use the term, are people who have a preference for solitude as a way to recharge/reinvigorate themselves. Extroverts draw energy from people and interaction with others. This makes it easy to tell which you are... It was Carl Jung who introduced the concept, then taken up by the MBTI, or "Myers Briggs Type Indicator," a test many of us have taken numerous times for work or school.

It’s not that we don’t like to socialize. I can talk for hours to people who are authentic, thoughtful, and analytical. But ten minutes’ worth of chit chat or banter sends me into hiding. I really don't like parties at all. New Year's Eve is my least favorite holiday!

I am going to tell you a story I have never told anyone.

In high school, I began to transition from a painfully shy child ( People said to me back then, “What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?”) to an introvert who had the skills to appear outgoing at times. But in the early autumn of ninth grade, I knew almost no one (it was a regional HS), and was filled with terror and insecurity. High School in America is the playground of extroverts. My sister convinced me to go to a home football game with her so she could meet up with a boy she would not have been allowed to see. Within minutes, they took off, and I was alone. I didn’t see anyone I knew. I went into the Ladies’Room inside the gym and sat in a stall until the game was over.

Until I read the book Quiet,  by Susan Cain, and learned that almost all introverts, even very successful executives and celebrities, have had lavatory stall experiences like mine, I felt a certain amount of shame and embarrassment about being so, well… ashamed and embarrassed!

Today I would love to convince introverts like me that you needn’t feel bad about your inborn proclivities, nor do you have to allow them to rule/ruin your life. I would also love to convince extroverts to endeavor to understand and respect and even value the introverts in our world. Finally, I hope to highlight some ways that what we commonly call personality is interwoven with spirituality and religion. That’s where we will start.

Evangelical Christianity is an extroverted faith. Mega church pastors and Christian gurus like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen and Dave Ramsey are super-extroverts and their seminars are nightmares for the true introvert.

But they are the fastest-growing churches and enterprises because they capture the overwhelmingly prevailing American spirit: extroversion = success.

Buddhism and Hinduism and eastern faith-based disciplines like meditation, Hatha Yoga and Tai Chi are comfortable places for introverts. It turns out that Asian countries are overwhelmingly populated by introverts, who feel uncomfortable and who are judged harshly as standoffish or too serious in our Western schools, universities, and businesses.

According to Quiet, these qualities are genetic as well as situational and cultural. There is a scientific basis for our attractions and aversions! That is an enormous discovery especially for introverts, because we can gradually come to accept ourselves and stop feeling bad about who we truly are. I think many people would say that introverts are “shy” because they have poor self-images. But what if it were the other way around? What if, starting with people who asked me “Cat got your tongue?” through High School peers who called me a snob, on to church members who think I am not “available” enough, it were others who made me feel that something is wrong because I do not share their proclivities?

Had I understood this earlier, I might have saved myself a great deal of guilt and anxiety.

Guilt is generally understood as a religious construct. I remember when we had a UU bumper sticker that proclaimed, “We don’t do guilt.” It became less popular when first clergy, and gradually the laity, began to realize that complete freedom from any sense of responsibility or remorse is an impediment to social justice and service. (“The building block of conscience” Cain, 140) Perhaps we are confusing a healthy sense of guilt, be it individual or collective, with original sin/eternal damnation/ and the self-torment they are meant to invoke. We all hurt or neglect others and participate in systems that do so. Feeling the guilt of our privilege and lack of awareness is essential to becoming more compassionate, more human, whole.

Introverts are what has been called “high-reactive” types. They actually do feel things more intensely: guilt, beauty, the pain of others, as well as sights, sounds, smells and sensations. They are literally more thin-skinned ("I"s sweat more v. “cool” types). Eleanor Roosevelt, who championed social programs for women, Appalachian miners, African Americans, and the dispossessed, had been a shy young woman terrified of public speaking. It was her passion born of sensitivity that enabled her to go out and fight for these causes. “I think people who are shy remain shy always, but they learn how to overcome it,” she said.

It was not until this sabbatical that I truly accepted that I would always be “shy” (now I am reclaiming that word which has such a negative connotation)  and realized that many of the challenges I faced came from my own and others’ unwillingness to adapt and accept that. I know that ministry was the “right” career choice for me because I could pursue the intellectual, spiritual and environmental goals about which I feel passionate. Still, it has been a challenge (the dominant personality type for clergy is ENFJ) because of the expectations of outgoingness and charisma that can create enormous stress for an introvert.

Introverts can adapt! For me, life has been a gradual unfolding, and the choices I made, mostly unconsciously, but, I would argue, intuitively, led to a functional introversion. Probably starting with theater and speech in High School, through waitress work for almost ten years, through La Leche league where I was forced into leadership in a cause I was intensely passionate about, on to using yoga and meditation to deal with anxiety and fear, I have learned and been taught to compensate for the parts of introversion that might have made me far less happy.

I struggle still. Until I read Quiet, I let other people tell me that the reason I wrote a lot of fiction, but almost never sought publication was that I was afraid of rejection or too lazy to get my stuff out there. I sensed that wasn’t right, but still felt a sense of failure. I knew my fiction was as good as many colleagues who were getting published. Until I read just how much the publishing industry is geared to extroverts, I was confused about my aversion. Maybe I will start to peek out of the literary lavatory stall, someday.

Does God love introverts? Cain asks early in the book. She retells the story of Moses, who famously tried to beg off his assigned task of liberating the Jews: “Send someone else. Who am I, that I should go tell Pharaoh? I have never been eloquent. I am slow of speech and tongue.” (Scholars believe he had a speech impediment, a lisp or a stutter.)

Yet introverts have so much to offer: creativity, insight, patience (many MADE $$ during the 2008 crash), and compassion. Like Steve Wozniak of Apple, Al Gore with Global Warming, Thedor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Warren Buffet and even Marie Curie, Charles Darwin and Chopin, the most successful and happy introverts are those Cain calls socially poised introverts. That is, people who have learned and practiced ways to overcome the crippling parts of their introversion while accepting and nurturing the creative and fulfilling parts.

Her suggestions for introverts are simple: Think back to what you loved to do as a child; pay attention to the work you gravitate toward; and pay attention to what you envy when choosing your core projects and ambitions. Create restorative “niches” and honor them.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (FLOW)"Repression is not the way to virtue. When people restrain themselves out of fear, their lives are by necessity diminished. Only through freely chosen discipline can life be enjoyed and still kept within the bounds of reason."

For those who live with and work with introverts, it may be more challenging. My brother used to have a doormat that said, GO AWAY. The answer is not simply to leave us alone or dismiss us. It is definitely NOT, given our thin skin, to judge us or try to force us to change!! Extroverts can enrich their lives (and ours) by practicing awareness and acceptance. Let go of words like “antisocial,” which are completely off the mark. Give introverts time and encouragement and space when they need it. Parents and teachers of introverts in this hyper-programmed world for kids are especially cautioned.

Cain quotes Don McAdams, who studies human lives and psychology at NWU, and has isolated what he calls the Redemptive life story, “We all write our life stories as if we were novelists. Those who live the most fully realized lives—giving back to their families, society, and themselves—tend to find meaning in their obstacles. Where we stumble is where our treasure lies.”

Introverts can live their lives hoping (in vain) or bemoaning that this extroverted culture will never recognize them; or they can write a redemptive life story, with some help from others who are aware and sensitive to them.

Redemption is the essence of the life of faith… to be saved from our own worst demons and to renew our commitment to our own selves and to the world is what it means to be born again. It happens, and is possible, every day.

Monday, April 02, 2012

COMINGS & GOINGS, a Palm Sunday reflection

The Donkey -a poem by G.K. Chesterton

WHEN fishes flew and forests walked

And figs grew upon thorn,

Some moment when the moon was blood

Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry

And ears like errant wings,

The devil's walking parody

On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,

Of ancient crooked will,

Starve, scourge, deride me I am dumb,

I keep my secret still.

Fools, for I also had my hour,

One far fierce hour and sweet,

There was a shout about my ears

And palms before my feet.


Story of St. Patrick

This characterization of Patrick is a good place to start. Like all myth, it has lost much of its subtlety and depth through oversimplification. What was once a multi-layered and complex story about the Irish people has become a buffoonish event which celebrates drunkenness and mayhem.

This is a talk about why people leave/return and why some, those we call prophets and saints, come to be. But it is also about each one of us.

Patrick’s legend is remarkably like the Palm Sunday story of Jesus’ re-entry, often called the Triumphal Entry, into Jerusalem, a city he had visited many times, and where he had celebrated Passover even as a child.

One feature of the story that provides endless fascination as well as illumination for me is the fact that, at least according to the gospel reports, Jesus specified a donkey as his mode of transportation. (Others say a colt). This could not have been accidental, whether the man known as Jesus or the writers of the gospels created it.

It would have been a symbolic statement, as well as a political one, as Marcus Borg writes “a virtual parody of the prevailing ideas of kingship.” Think anti-Popemobile! Peace v. War.

Donkeys had been excoriated as common, brutish, and inferior animals even by Jesus’ times. Like many prophets of our time and times past, they have been without honor, their braying lambasted, or at best tolerated.

Jesus was nothing if not a prophet. He came armed with truths and he came with the soul of a rebel who sought to overturn the established order, one he saw as built upon greed, power, and violence.

No less a prophet was Patrick in his times, whose greatest asset according to one writer, was love. Patrick “loved everything under the sun, the flowers, the birds, the clouds, the day, the night. And he loved the Irish people….”

Nor Martin Luther King, who said (now famously): If you want to say I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for peace. Say I was a drum major for justice.” His murdered body was brought back into Atlanta in a humble wooden cart.

Nor Wendell Berry, our Kentucky prophet who also “came back,” after fourteen years’ study and wandering, with both affection and loving judgment. He writes in Renewing Husbandry, “Perhaps because I was a returned traveler intending to stay, I now saw the place more clearly than before. I saw it critically too.”

None of these were received with a hero’s welcome, with the possible exception of Jesus, whose Sunday welcome didn’t last long and turned to crucifixion by Friday.

We comprehend the longing to leave home: be it for learning, expanding our horizons, for enlarging our perspective. Those who flee only to escape may never follow this well-trod path of exile and return. But many of us do.

Most of us deeply understand the longing to go home. We resonate with Scott Russell Sanders in Staying Put that humans have an instinct for home that he calls devotion: “I suspect that most human achievements worth admiring are the result of such devotion.”

DEVOTION… implies more than fondness or nostalgia. It implies that, once home, one will endeavor to bring what she has learned home, for good.

Berry is talking about both home and marriage when he writes: “Two human possibilities of the highest order come within reach: what one wants can become the same as what one has, and knowledge can cause respect for what one knows.”

Now, after fifty years of speaking to us through his fiction, poems, and essays, Wendell Berry is beginning to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be heeded (by other than sustainability nuts and UU ministers). Thus it ever has been with prophets. Those once seen as braying donkeys are finally heard, often long after they are gone. Berry will deliver the Jefferson Lecture in Washington DC’s Kennedy Center this month as the recipient of the Nation’s highest honor in the Humanities. “To our national disgrace, he has been a prophet without honor in his homeland.” (Rod Dreher) At least we didn’t kill him first before he saw his honor.

But you and I know that Wendell doesn’t care for or about honors and accolades any more than did King, or the apocryphal Patrick or Jesus. Some of these stories are fact, some are fiction, some are fantasy, but they are “true” whether they are factual or not. It is human nature to return. It is also human nature to want to improve, oneself and that which one loves. And it is human to refuse to hear the truth, though it be told us again and again. In the case of these four individuals the truth was based in love, devotion, justice and peace.

That ought to be enough for us to contemplate between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.