Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Today is Blog Action Day – Poverty 2008

I’m going to give you some specific memories that I have of poverty that I’ve seen in my life. As an American I’m quite certain that I don’t fully comprehend poverty. I’m just not capable, from my comfortable life, to understand what poverty feels like or means. I can only glimpse hints, wonder at them, and look for ways to help.

My earliest glance

When I was about 11 years old I went to summer camp at Pine Lake Camp, a Lutheran camp in WI. I was in a cabin with a group of girls around my age. We had a dinner one night where only one person at the table got a cheese burger and fries while everyone else got rice and broth. I got the cheeseburger. The other girls in the cabin were pretty angry and downright intimidating. I shared most of my fries and burger even though the counselor said that wasn’t allowed. The point was lost on me at the time. It was supposed to demonstrate how over privileged we are here in the US but I didn’t really get it because I had no real experiences outside my McDonald’s upbringing so the whole idea was rather confusing.

Fast forward ten years

I’m at school at Auburn University in Alabama. The campus is beautiful with rose gardens and southern belles. On a summer day I drive out of town and make a few wrong turns. Soon I’m lost, driving past homes that are so run down they actually sag. I pass one house where a woman sits on the edge of the porch and I guess I’m shocked to realize that people live in these dilapidated shacks. A teacher at school later confirms for me that people do live in those houses and that most of them don’t have running water or electricity. This being 1988 I find it inconceivable.

Ten years ago

Adopting our first child, Eric and I flew to Moscow and then on to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, Russia. We land at an airport that has no terminal, just tarmac and a warehouse for luggage. It is below freezing for the entire trip. We take with us a Rubbermaid tub with wheels and a retractable handle that we bought for $35 in the states. The tub is filled with clothes for the orphanage where our son lives. Our adoption coordinator asks about the tub. Do we intend to take it home? No, we were planning to leave it here in Russia. Could she have it for her boyfriend? Sure. We say it without a thought. She is thrilled. We arrive at the orphanage to meet our son. He is brought to us in mismatched hopelessly faded clothes. He is clean, he is well fed but he is detached, aloof. We show his caretakers pictures of our house so they will know that he is going to be well cared for. At that time our house was 1400sf, modest by American standards. They ask, “How many families live here?” We are bewildered by the question. “Do they mean in the neighborhood?” We ask our translator. “No” she clarifies, “In the house.” Just us, we reply, just us and soon, our son. That night we stay at the best hotel in Krasnoyarsk, it is freezing, hot water is only available for an hour a day, the tile in the bathroom is cracked, stained, and missing in places. For breakfast we are served tomatoes and hot dogs. There are no choices, just this. But we are leaving in a few days and really we just want to get our son home safe so we eat tomatoes and hot dogs for breakfast and in the back of our minds we know it is just for a few days. Later in the trip we eat at a Bennigan’s in Moscow and the waitress points out the ten dishes that are not available on the menu because they don’t have that food today.

These images have changed me slowly, none more effectively than our trip to Russia. Our adopted children are a permanent reminder that the world is filled with people struggling with poverty. It isn’t just a lack of money, food, decent shelter, or necessities. Poverty is a lack of clarity, a lack of sight, and a lack of compassion. I’m as guilty as anyone. I like my things, I have a hard time letting go of my own security and my own pleasure in order to share my abundance. I have visions of endless lines of starving people, of orphanage after orphanage of desperate children, hopelessly I think where do I begin and where does it end? We have to do more and yet I fear we can never do enough. And yet I know and believe that I can’t let these thoughts stop the next thing I do to fight poverty. The war may never be won but the battle is a noble one and should go on.

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