Have you seen Beasts of the Southern Wild? A mythical story of strength and courage set in some of the most abject poverty of this century you will likely ever see portrayed on screen. I have read many reviews of the film. Some loved it; some panned it. Regardless of the merits of the total film experience, I haven’t seen any of the critics question the authenticity of the poverty.
Thankfully, most of us have never personally witnessed or lived in the type of poverty shown in the film. Many viewers might question the realism. How can anyone live like that and survive? The answer is: many don’t, and those that do have the scars to prove it.
But when we talk about domestic poverty, we need to be clear about what we mean. It can be easy to dismiss images from the film as rarities and believe that in general, poverty doesn’t sit along-side us on the bus or the pew, or stand next to us at the grocery store. But it does. In Think and Act Anew: How Poverty in America Affects Us All and What We Can Do about It, a Catholic Charities director describes personal poverty in this way:
- they cannot afford housing that is clean, safe and in good repair;
- they cannot afford nutritious food for themselves and their family on a regular basis;
- they cannot consistently pay their utility bills, even though it is a priority;
- their children are not adequately clothed for school with clean clothes that fit and are in good repair, and they do not have proper clothing for work; and/or
- they cannot afford to go to the doctor for any kind of illness for fear that the visit will be beyond their means to pay for it.
These are all conditions that interfere with our basic right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. And they are all conditions that are very present in the state and in our communities. And only we are able to work toward stopping it. For the Church, for disciples of Jesus, and for each and every one of us, it is a moral imperative to do all that we can to alleviate these conditions.
The screenwriter of Beasts put the following words into the mouth of the primary character, Hushpuppy.
“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the entire universe will get busted.”
Our society is busted. The middle-class continues to shrink and the distance between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is growing exponentially. Ethical/moral practices by big banks and businesses appear to be at an all time low. Those in power create systems that excuse accountability of the rich and powerful. Concepts such as the “common good” and the “beloved community” have been all but lost.
Bishop Michael Bransfield of West Virginia conducted poverty listening sessions around his state. He heard, over and over again about the “soul-killing aspects of poverty… with so many of the poor having lost hope and unable to continue to dream.”
Who, if not the Church, will speak out and invite others to participate in bringing about God’s Kingdom. We must find our voices and exercise courageous speech. We are uniquely qualified and situated to share the message of God’s reconciling love for all of God’s children. We must first offer welcome and hospitality and insure immediate needs are being met so that our brothers and sisters are then able to hear the thundering of God’s love whispering to each of us. Following the acts of mercy, we must then collaborate with the poor to work for a just community, working toward breaking the oppressive systems which continue to hold our neighbors in dependency.
There are several initiatives in the Diocese that are actively seeking to interrupt poverty on a local level. Without question, each would benefit from support from the congregations and other ministries of the Diocese. If you’re looking for a way to be involved, reach out to the Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston, The Seeds of Hope Jubilee Center in Biddeford, St. Elizabeth’s Essential’s Pantry, located at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland, and the active ministries in other parishes and centers. Together we can help bring hope back into fragile lives. We can demonstrate God’s love for all people, and we can, with God’s help, create the Beloved Community in Maine.