My good friend, a 13 year old cellist called me early last evening. In the background, his little sister was crying.
“Hello? Can I just talk to you for a few minutes? There was a gas explosion on a floor below us. The power has been off in the whole building for 2 days and they don’t know when it will get fixed. Even the water was off. One lady got stuck in the elevator all night. My mom and baby sister are really scared. My father came home from work but he can’t stay. If he doesn’t work, he doesn’t get paid.
The air is beginning to stink but it is too cold to open the windows. The snow on the roof is melting. Lots of it is coming through the cracks along the walls. Whatever. Maybe we can try to find a different apartment in the summer.
Actually I just called to say thanks. I know you can’t really help us right now but thank you for letting me call you. Its helps to have someone I can trust so I don’t get scared too.”
“The poor will be with us always.”
We know ‘the poor’ personally, whether or not we really realize it. They attend our churches, study with our kids, shop sales with us. Some were born into poverty, some outlived their savings and their spouses. Many are the victims of recession, medical and other devastating circumstances. There but for the grace of God. Still, they are everywhere among us, in the inner city and the wealthiest suburb.
My friends have traveled that complete spectrum. Younger than me, the parents were born under the brutal regime of Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu whose secret police terrorized families, intellectuals and religious, leaving a country without food, fuel, and basic fundamentals and most of all, hope and justice. While I was enjoying private university in Los Angeles, their front door was being kicked down, home ransacked, lives threatened.
Against all odds, my friends earned university degrees and established themselves in the European world of classical music. When they finally escaped Romania, their precious music instruments were confiscated. A chilling reminder that they themselves, as well as their violins, were state property.
For the past 15 years, they have traveled the world trying to gain a foothold. One son is American born. Yet always something happens to devastate their meager savings. And each time, they face into the challenge with renewed faith and spirit. “We have survived far worse than this!” they constantly assure me. I am humbled by their courage, self sacrifice in helping others more needy than them and their faith-fueled optimism.
When our families first met, this noble father had a minimum wage, but steady, job in tech customer service. The resilient mother was singing at church and private events. Their eldest son worked part time at a butcher shop and went to school at night. So when they secured contracts and work permits to teach music in two different South Carolina high schools last autumn, we rejoiced at their good fortune and helped them and their four children prepare for the journey.
A few weeks later, the mother called me in a panic.
“It’s all a lie! The principal says even though my husband teaches at the high school, they can’t guarantee the safety of our two sons in the school. One man yelled at me for telling his daughter that if she worked hard, she could do better in life. For that, he threatens me?
The house was not the one shown in the agency website. Once we got rid of the cockroaches, it got worse. Each night, a gang of scary young men with tattoos circle our house to see if we left a door or window open. They stole everything out of the Uhaul when we were treating the house for bugs. I think I saw one of them at my school. There are 3 bedrooms, but we all sleep in one room now to stay safe. Actually we haven’t slept in days.
The police think we should move before things get really bad. We are supposed to call on their private cell phones because gangs monitor the radios. Where CAN we go? The landlord won’t give us our money back, we don’t have our paychecks yet and we spent our savings to get down here. This feels more like Romania, than America!”
Where is the justice?
I just read Ryan Messmore’s fascinating essay Justice, Inequality, and the Poor about the notion of economic justice.
“A sense of justice may spur citizens to work for — and petition government for — better education, less expensive health care, or more jobs in their communities. Justice surely demands that we care for the poor, and requires us to help them find ways out of poverty.” Rather than simply debating income inequality, we are called toward compassion, to help those in need – they are our fellow citizens.
Exactly who does the call of justice beckon? A government floundering in war debt? Traditional civic society institutions, more historical vestiges than vibrant entities?
What is our individual responsibility? Can we really satisfy that responsibility by simply pouring ice buckets over our heads?
In our mad race toward individualism and isolation, is society only connected ‘virtually’? Are we so focused with our own oxygen masks that we are forgetting to help those around us?
With a nod to Plato, at some point we seriously need to quit kicking the ball and decide a course of action.
Camping supplies, coolers, flashlights, bottled water and brownies will get my friends through the night.
Then real conversations need to happen. Would anyone else like to be part of the dialog?