Ninth Annual People's Summit on Poverty

sponsored by The Utah Poverty Partnership
September 29, 2012
Rev. David Nichols, Mount Tabor Lutheran Church

I am honored by your invitation to speak today . . . And it's indeed a privilege to serve a congregation with such a long history of partnership with Crossroads. Year after year Mount Tabor has done what it can to stand with you as advocates of those without a voice in the halls of power, and as your partners in feeding the hungry of this city. I am continually inspired by your witness: walking the talk, practicing what we say we believe, and making the good news real in the lives of those who need it most today.

I am new to this city. Kirstin and I are coming up on our second autumn here. And I am new to the Crossroads partnership. Thanks to Linda Hilton, it seems I am always learning something new! And what I have witnessed in these two years is that this work requires partnership. Poverty is so difficult, so discouraging, so multi-faceted that it's bigger than any one group or organization or individual can address without getting burned out. We need each other in order to stand together as allies in this struggle and not be swept away. We need each other in order to remember the vision we share, for the kind of world we believe we are empowered by God to create: The vision of the prophet Isaiah:

"to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners;
to repair the ruined cities,
and the devastations of many generations."

As people of different faith traditions, we know that stories have power. All of us in every faith tradition are people who are formed by a common story: a story of Who called this existence into being that we share, and how we are to live in it peacefully.

Remembering that story, and celebrating it, is why we all gather in our own way every week. The story gives us a vision and a direction not only for our personal lives but for our collective role in society.  If we aren't reminded of the story we forget it; we lose the vision, and we lose the hope that allows us to stand together in the breech.

For us at Mount Tabor, the story that forms our community and sends us out into the world is the story of the Creator of All That Is, who heard the suffering cries of the people under oppression. And in response, became fully human: welcoming and embracing the imperfection of humanity so that in the deepest compassion for us, the Creator would both suffer, and overcome suffering on the third day.

And thus the Creator gives us the path of compassion as the way to live in harmony with each other and all of creation: a compassion that recognizes none of the socio-economic or political boundaries that humanity would erect for itself; a compassion that recognizes that there is no higher spiritual path than to become fully human, and see the face of God in those who suffer most.

This is the story that moves Mount Tabor into partnership with you.

We are all people with a story that shapes our world-view: a story that gives us a moral lens through which we interpret human experience, and our response to it. This is the Meta-Story of our faith community.

But there is another story. A story of equal power and authority, and that is the story of our own personal experience.

What I'm hearing and reading in this election year, are two competing narratives for the persistence of poverty: two alternative stories for why there is such poverty in the richest nation on the planet, and what (if anything) must be done about it.

Ayn Rand's story "Atlas Shrugged" was cited by Rep.Paul Ryan as a defining narrative. As a teenager, he was taken with her story of how society is divided into "Makers" and "Takers": those who produce ( who make wealth), and those who exploit (who take wealth). And how a good and just government protects the Makers from the Takers; while an unjust, immoral government assists the Takers in their efforts.

The moral lesson of "Atlas Shrugged" (that of "idleness brings want" or "to work today is to eat tomorrow") is actually rooted in Aesop's fable of the "Grasshopper and the Ant": the story of the hard-working Ant
who lays up winter supplies in the summertime, while the Grasshopper fiddles in the sunshine. When winter's dark, cold days hit, the Ant is ready.  But the Grasshopper finds itself dying of hunger.

Aesop and Ayn Rand both agree that poverty is the result of an idle work ethic and for them idleness has it's own reward, as painful as that may be: the hard-working owe nothing to those who would Take, and no just government should support the indigent.

These stories that shape the moral lens of powerful people in our society, like Rep.Paul Ryan, are juxtaposed with the stories of people who were actually raised in poverty; people who relied on the Meta-Story of their faith community to keep hope alive.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, they are stories of manna in the wilderness; of prophets calling society to repentence for the plight of the poor; of slaves freed from tyranny; and widows with children who give their last food to a wandering stranger.

They are stories of one left on the side of the road for dead, while the high and mighty pass by on the other side; and of a King who tells his followers to find him among the hungry, the naked, and the imprisoned.
These are the stories of hope for the oppressed: the stories that point us to the systemic roots of poverty in a society that has lost its way in the worship of a Golden Calf.

These two competing Meta-Stories of why there is poverty among us, and what shall be done, fuel the moral and political discourse of today; the argument over what is the role of government:

Is its role to legislate a greater work ethic? Is its role to protect the Makers from the Takers?

Or is its role to help those who don't have acess to economic power? Who don't have the socio-economic connections to make it through the wilderness on their own? What is the measure by which good government is judged?

I believe it is our own personal story that provides the measure. Our own personal experience of what poverty feels like, is the true measure by which good government is judged.

My own experience with poverty began in 1995, when I decided I had enough of being a pastor; resigned from the congregation I was serving in Rapid City SD, and moved my (wife at the time) and our three children (two in elementary school, and one in preschool)to the nearby town of Spearfish, where I took the first job I could find: a graveyard-shift cashier at the Exit 14 Amoco convenience store on I-90.

Since it was a minimum wage job that paid over-time, and double overtime during the annual Sturgis Rally and Races, I resolved to work as many nights as possible to provide for my family. In addition to food, clothing, and shelter, there were unpaid doctor and dentist bills and back-taxes owed the IRS. My personal finances and credit history were in shambles, and I resolved to work hard and make a new start.  I worked every single night for a year and a half. My shift was from midnight to 8am, and I slept from 2pm-10pm every day. If I got sick, I was told I would have to find someone to work for me, or I'd get fired.
But even with the over-time pay there was never enough at the end of the month. I began using the local food pantry around Thanksgiving.

Finally, when my youngest daughter became very sick with tonsilitis, I realized I wasn't able to do it all on my own. A co-worker told me to go to the County office and find out what kinds of financial assistance I was qualified to receive. It turned out I qualified for a monthly food debit card, winter heating assistance, and something called Medicaid. I was told my children could see a local dentist for their dental care, and my daughter's health care and hospitalization would be covered. But not mine, or their mother's.

What would happen to them, if I was too sick to work? Their livelihood depended on my ability to work, and it didn't make sense to me.

What I learned was that a person can work as hard as they possibly can, and still not make it in this country. Rugged individualism (or "Objectivism" as Ayn Rand calls it) may work for some, but not the vast majority of the working poor.

I carry that lived-experience of poverty with me. What experience do you carry today?

In the next 5 to 10 minutes, I invite you to share your personal experience of poverty with the person next to you: not your ancestors, not your gramma and grampa who made it through the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Your own personal experience. Make sure both of you has a chance to tell your story.

I'll tell you when time's up. . . . Thank you for sharing your stories.

Along with the Meta-Story of our faith communities, these personal stories shape our response to poverty today. I believe the disconnect in public policy today lies in the personal experience of poverty. Our personal experience of poverty, or lack of it, shapes our response to the poor. And the lived experience of policy-makers determines the kind of legislation that is written. Those who theorize or speculate about the experience of the poor, and those who accompany the poor in their daily struggle, often have very different agendas.

As people of different faith traditions, we know that stories have power. The voice of the poor, the stories of the poor, can never be heard enough. Linda Hilton brings us those stories often like "one crying in the wilderness": stories that call us to remember always our own experience, that we might see ourselves in the eyes of the homeless, the unemployed, and the working poor today.

Thank you Linda, and thank you Crossroads partners,for being a voice for the voiceless, showing us what compassionate advocacy truly means, and how to live out the call to do justice and work for the dignity of all God's children.

May all of us in this partnership remember the stories that give us passion and hope, that we may share a vision of a society that has a place for all to thrive.

Thank you very much.