From sole to soul
A child’s eye view of poverty
By Michael Boover
Events have a way of shaping us for good or for ill. A formative event for me was a meeting between the well shod (my little sister Paula and me) and the shoeless that occurred back in the mid-1950s.
At the time Paula and I were precocious school-age tykes who annually outgrew our shoes near summer’s end. Our parents would take us from our home in the quiet village of Linwood in Central Massachusetts to the bustling city of Worcester, to get new ones just before a new school year began. Paula needed especially supportive arches, so we frequented a juvenile shoe shop on Pleasant Street that specialized in orthopedic wear.
We loved going there because it had an elevated wooden platform that fidgety child patrons could playfully ascend. From this lofty perch, we could survey the whole shop like little kings and queens, and the salesman could find a shoe that fit without a lot of stooping. So much notice was paid to us by the time a purchase was finalized that we came down from that regal height thoroughly pampered.
Following the purchase of shoes, Paula and I clung to our parents’ hands for yet another descent — this time down the Pleasant Street hill to Main Street where we joined a sea of humanity making its way along the sidewalk that passed the Denholm and McKay Department Store.
Near the entrance to this plush, highend store sat two beggars, one with pant legs stretched out on the sidewalk to make clear to passersby that there were no legs to fill them. The other, blind and wearing dark glasses, held out pencils in one hand for a pitched-for pittance to be tossed into a tin cup held in the other. Despite the pleading pair being a spectacle, the throng mostly passed them by. Dad wanted to rush us by too, but Paula and I had by then already jumped over the wall of parental protection that had earlier separated the natural innocence of tender years from the suffering and desperation of fellow humans.
A blessed intuitive sense of solidarity and needed charity made itself felt. Free from the accumulation of social wounds that might have instigated adult suspicion of the poor or skepticism about generosity, Paula and I insistently tugged on dad’s pant legs until he put a little something into the tin cup.
The scene is indelibly etched in memory as the first fruit of a child’s sensitivity to identified need.
The seed of sympathy had already been planted in our upbringing, but it flowered that day with this very simple recognition that we ought to give alms, sharing what we have with those in need. The experience of such has served as a reminder and goad to take into adulthood the child’s pure heart, to allow ourselves to feel immediate compassion for our sick and indigent kin.
There was and is more than a monetary exchange involved in encounters such as ours, even as our dad passed on to Paula and I a pencil each that was the material reward of this “give and take” on the part of “the haves” and the “have-nots.”
I am reminded of my Catholic Worker friend, jeanette Noel, who lived and worked at “Maryhouse,” the Catholic Worker house of hospitality for homeless women on East Second Street in lower Manhattan. jeanette would habitually carry a pocketful full of nickels whenever she walked down Second Avenue, in anticipation of meeting her needy friends along the way. It was not the amount given that mattered for them or for her, but the touching of hand to hand, the loving concern expressed in that gesture. It was a matter of mutual recognition, of love really.
I am also reminded of the 1950s Catholic Worker Michael Harrington, whose personal friendship with many of low degree on the Lower East Side of Manhattan led him to an assiduous study and exposé of infrastructural poverty in the U.S.
His landmark 1960s book, The Other America, became a bestseller. That came as a surprise to him, but Harrington had most ably uncovered the hard truth that there was indeed another country within our country — that of the largely hidden and neglected u.S. poor. He touched a sensitive national nerve when his findings revealed poverty was purposely hidden yet widespread.
Harrington had befriended the Beats, racially ghettoized slum dwellers, the sick and the aged, the alcoholic and drug addicted, the mentally ill, the hillbillies and other rural poor and did so on their own turf. He put faces on statistics, and he put statistical analysis to work in the service of these his beloved indigent. Harrington brought much-needed attention to the preventable suffering of so many poor, and he helped spur the war on poverty that was conducted by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
A follow-up work written two decades later, titled The New American Poverty, updated his 1960s findings. Harrington’s review sadly confirmed that the once hopeful war on poverty had been lost due to the readoption of values that continued the ignoring of the genuine needs of the poor, and that failed to address the multiple causes of structural, institutionalized poverty.
Among these Harrington identified homelessness and the plight of undocumented immigrants who by necessity must live in the economic shadows. He took note of the flight of good-paying manufacturing jobs to cheaper labor pools. He warned of the threat of everincreasing unemployment due to growing automation in industry and other technological changes leading to a capital-intensive replacement of labor. He lamented the inaccessibility of quality education for minorities and the predictable breakdown of the poor family whose health was perennially compromised by poverty becoming a way of life.
Harrington assessed that inadequate, piecemeal responses to structural poverty betrayed the effort and that a more substantial investment in the fight was needed. Harrington’s books encouraged those of sufficient means to attend to the plight of America’s poor, and they still do.
They deserve revisiting, especially in today’s political climate where care of the needy is increasingly viewed as worthy of being set aside. Harrington’s analysis is in a rereading incredibly prescient about our current crisis of heightened disparity and economic inequality. He is still crying the cry of the sensitive and indignant prophet. The echo of his call to conscience sounded decades ago is still reverberating — America’s poor desperately need and deserve our most rapt and careful attention.
Peter Maurin, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement with Dorothy Day, taught in one of his Easy Essays that: “Modern society calls the beggars bums and panhandlers and gives them the bum’s rush. But the Greeks used to say that people in need, are, in fact, the ambassadors of the gods.”
Such a view stemming from Greek antiquity yet seems aligned with Jesus’ teaching that “whatever we do to the least of these we do to Him.” By grace, might we more courageously embrace with the confidence of compassionate children this way of Jesus? We would be less afraid, bolder, readier to help.
If the shoe fits, might we wear it?
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