I Don’t Need Others To Keep Me Poor, I Can Do That All On My Own – The Problem Of The Poor

I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies. – U.S. Senator (Iowa) Charles Grassley, to Des Moines Register, December 3, 2017

For thirty years I was ordained clergy. Every church I started serving over that time had major infighting problems. Every one of them was unstable in one way or another. And at the end of my time there each had grown in magnanimity…love of others and of themselves. And the numerical growth of the congregations reflected what I believed was people’s desire to become such. In one congregation there were seventeen people in attendance the first Sunday I led worship there. At the end of the first year there were seventy. And by the time I left three years later we sometimes doubled that. The same pattern repeated itself in every church I served. And every church I served welcomed me with the hopes that what had happened in the previous church I served would happen in their church as well. It did. Creating an environment that nurtured and taught people how to become caring, compassionate, loving, and loveable people took a tremendous amount of work and personal investment. I regularly worked 60 – 80 hours a week, deeply involved in people’s lives. It was physically exhausting and emotionally draining. I cannot even estimate the wrenching hours spent counseling, negotiating, educating, and coaching, in homes, and hospitals, and cafes, or teaching at church. These were small churches. I never got time off. I never had a proper holiday. And I never ever got a paycheck that would support my family of five. Ever. Three-fourths of my time in ministry we lived under the poverty line. Does anyone reading my words today have any notion of what it’s like to try and raise a family of five on $2,000/year while regularly working 60 – 80 hours a week? I don’t think so. Now each of the churches I served had both wealthy and poor members. And the same pattern of leadership prevailed in all of these churches, namely, that the wealthy invariably set church policy. Grateful for the growth they saw in the church, they were not about to let working class people determine how the church’s money got spent. In the above-mentioned church which grew from seventeen, when our attendance reached over a hundred and the congregation became filled with children an architect was hired to design a new education wing; it did not bother those who hired him that their pastor qualified for food stamps. That’s when we moved on. I left under a flurry of vitriolic insults from the rich; those who were caring, compassion, loving, and loveable gave us a private farewell and thank you.

I had thought that ordination was essentially a commitment to serve sacrificially. It felt right for me to have done so. Those in genuine need recognized this. I was never abused by any of the poor I served. But I was abused by the wealthy on a regular basis. And from church to church there were always the wealthy ruling who had a condescending, elitist worldview. Non-caring, non-compassionate, unloving, and unloveable, these blamed those without wealth for being frivolous. There was no recognition on their parts that their wealth had been built on the backs of others, and worst of all their ears were deaf to the words of Christ to share their wealth in genuine community. If the poor – even in the church – were struggling then nothing was incumbent upon the wealthy to do a damn thing about it…they had no obligation to simply open their hearts and share. Alcohol , and frivolity, and sex had to be the culprits in keeping poor people poor…I heard these words mentioned many times over. Certainly it couldn’t be because working class people were struggling to find decent-paying jobs, or straddled with debt they could not pay back, or had to pay outrageous sums for health insurance or medical bills. It takes arrogance to assume that every person who is poor is that way because they are lazy or stupid or wasteful. I came to this realization not long into my service as clergy. By 1999 I realized that while I thoroughly enjoyed my work with the poor, I was simply being used by the rich in the church. Starting to think about leaving church ministry, I vividly remember walking out of an insurance office in late fall of that year.  I had gone there to find out how much health insurance for my family would cost.  It was an enormous sum of money.  I was on the curb of a dusty street in a small town on the western high plains with my hands in my pockets. I just stood there looking down the road. I asked myself, How in the world could I have worked so hard, been so praised, achieved such success, and now not be able to afford to take care of my family’s health if I dared to stand up to this systemic abuse? I was speechless.

The words of Chuck Grassley, US Senator from Iowa about poverty being the result of a lack of saving are condescending, elitist, and individualistic. If people cannot make their way in this world then rather than alcohol, entertainment, and eroticism, it is because of the system in place that is promoted by narcissistic, self-absorbed, punitive, psychopathic, sadistic, exclusivist individuals in business and industry and government.  The sad fact is that rather than witnessing and working against this the church simply plays the handmaid.

I never cease to be amazed that the same working-class people who without question get up every day and go off to jobs that benefit the wealthy are blind to the fact that the wealthy the world over don’t respect them…that the wealthy only care about themselves and their friends, and see everyone who works as bums.

My life began to change for the better on that dusty street when I was at my lowest. How? Because the words came to me from out of nowhere as I stood there, Well, you certainly don’t need other people to keep you poor, you can do that all on your own. And with that lightening bolt came the freedom to stop depending on the wealthy and to start to minister from a genuine place of poverty in the name of Christ, which is the call of the gospel…to most fully be myself…shaking off the shackles of the rich and those who want to be rich…and my entire life changed for the better on that day.  I left ministry the following spring.  It’s been a great journey ever since…