The division between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ is not a gap but a chasm, so much so that the ‘human family’ no longer is a relevant model to analyze our situation.
Intervening with the poor involves acknowledging the cultural breach existing in society between the upper/middle class and the poor. In a study conducted by the Universidad Central de Venezuela of four poor barrios in the country, characteristics emerged that,in my experience, are not so far off from the social situation of the poor everywhere, including the United States.
Most welfare organizations aiding underprivileged families are influenced by values that are foreign to these people. Medical services, social agencies, and schools support the idea of a traditional, nuclear family, although the families they assist do not have that structure. They label other family structures as deficient and pathological. Then, contact between them and the aid-systems becomes stereotyped and prejudiced. These institutions sometimes use their role as promoter of family welfare to probe the families’ everyday activities. This invasion functions as a constraint on family privacy.1
David Kennedy applied a similar analysis to neighborhoods in the United States, particularly those where many of its men have an enforced "rite of passage" that is imprisonment.
In the name of protecting (historically distressed minority communities, especially black communities), we have been locking everybody up…One of my black friends said, “If you want to destroy a civilization, lock it up.”...We have alienated these neighborhoods , they don’t want to talk to us, they don’t want to talk to the cops, they see the outside as an oppressive force, and things just get worse ... Neighborhoods feel angry, they feel abused, in many instances they have been abused …
You can reverse that...The most important force for good in a community or school is that people in those communities or institutions want to live in good ways. And they need help. They need help from law enforcement, from the rest of us… If we treat people differently, they respond differently. This is work we are learning how to do. It is very powerful.
David Kennedy, co-chair of the National Network for Safe Communities,NPR, Talk of the Nation, 11/3/11
Many years ago, I was privileged to be a member of a ministerial group known as the "East Oakland Clergy". If I can paraphrase the words, to a group of white clergy, of the group's moderator, the Rev. J Alfred Smith, who was an AfroAmerican Baptist pastor and a catalyst for social change:"We don't need you to tell us what to do. We need your help."
By definition, poverty describes a situation of limited resources. But scarce resources do not delimit resourcefulness.
Isolated by prejudice and lack of resources, the poor have had to develop their own resources, that generate “natural networks to provide mutual support and cooperation.” Those resources include “enormous vitality and capacity to adapt to adverse circumstances; flexibility of role taking, especially in relation to child rearing; strong bonds of affection and loyalty are established with members of the family and extended family, as well as with neighbors."2 Given access to appropriate resources, strengths can be aligned towards self determination and self help.
Behind every Ghandi, every Mother Theresa, every Romero, every Mandela, there are millions of people who are living lives of love and heroism. These heroes are often poor and desenfranchized people whose nobility always amazes me. When you go into informal settlements and meet up with people in shacks who, living in such dehumanizing circumstances, you are expecting would have lost their sense of personhood...What you see is that humanity, the humanness, the dignity, the capacity to laugh, the capacity to love, rear children, in cicumstances that by rights ought to make all of that impossible.
Advocation means to "speak in behalf of". It assumes a system of power where there is desenfranchizement and that change is needed on many levels. Power brokers in political circles still need to hear the voice of the poor.
People finding it difficult to feed themselves and their families often consider their struggle a personal problem -- and in fact, the situation can feel very isolating. But a nation with more than enough resources to provide for everyone who lives here, hunger is also a political issue.
Kristen Youngblood, Bread for the World, Just Faith Voices Newsletter, Summer 2011
The distance between the poor and outside organizations and institutions inhibit genuine participation between the two. Not only is there disparity of cultures between the “haves” and the “have-nots” but also there is diversity in the separate cultures of priest, therapist, and families, calling for partnership skills to address urgent current and future realities.
Albert Nolan, in his book “Jesus Before Christianity” makes mention of partnership in diversity between Jesus and the crowds who came to love him.
The remarkable thing about Jesus was that, although he came from the middle class and had no appreciable disadvantages himself, he mixed socially with the lowest of the low and came to identify himself with them. He became an outcast by choice. 3
A like transformation was made by Oscar Romero (who was eventually martyred for his choice), as he turned his back on the trappings of clericalism and his state as a Bishop and found "his glory in the midst of the people."
The stories we tell about ourselves about ourselves can be restraining or liberating. 4 Narrative therapy may have a role in reaching the poor. Can an alternate story enable communal change, so as to let emerge a new and liberating consciousness?
Stories had communal efficacy in tribal societies. Tribal cultures were unified by (and found identity in) the telling of and listening to stories. We are discovering that the limits of individualization are becoming more and more embarrassingly obvious and, at the same time, people are reaching out for an expanded experience of "tribe". The experience of tribe becomes more fluid, as we feel identification with groups locally, globally, and even through social networkings.
Communal story telling has potential to intimately affect families, thereby conditioning their mental health.
In our modern society, there are two main forums for the kind of communal story telling in which families are associated: school and church . (The Internet is addressing the need for community for many: experiments in efficacy beyond social networking and information sharing may be on the horizon. However, computers and internet remain a luxury for many of the poor.) A stronger potential of reaching families in a liberating way resides with the church than the school, since the school system is subject to practices and regulations that can alienate it from the poor. At the same time, there are many pastors who find partnership difficult, and some would not be accustomed to the role of storyteller.
Nolan describes the power of an alternative way of understanding in the healing of the mental illness. In Jesus’ time, the “mental illness” of the poor and outcast – which included a whole class of marginalized in Jewish society – is described as a response to their situation of exclusion and oppression.5. Jesus was able to affect healing not by any power he brought to the suffering person, but by an infectious faith that evoked faith and hope in the recipient and the community. In other words, he told an alternate story of a loving and compassionate God whose embrace especially extended to the poor and oppressed. A prophet and a man of God now accept a people who had previously accepted their fate as permanently outcast from respectable society and, in their understanding, thereby from God’s love.
Minus, of course, the messianic and godly associations, not only pastors but also therapists who truly serve uniquely are positioned to help individuals or families arrive at new stories of hope and uncover heretofore hidden strength, potential and resources.
John Sorvino writes of "making the hope of victims our hope." Intervening with the poor may well mean learning from the poor, letting them gift us with the insight and direction that emerges not from privilege, not from advanced academic degrees, but emanates from realization of real power, strong faith, hope that does not die.
1“Community and Families: Social Organization and Interaction Patterns”, Maria Luisa Lodo-Platone, Leadership and Organization for Community Prevention and Intervention in Venezuela>/u>, edited by Maritza Montero, The Hawthorne Press, Inc., 2004, p. 85
3 Nolan, Albert, Jesus Before Christianity, Orbis Books, 1976, 1992, p34.
4 Madsen, Williiam C.,Collaborative Therapy with Multi-Stressed Families: From Old Problems to New Futures