See The Spirit Before The Life-Worn Face

[ 15 ] Comments

by Jan

migrant motherI recently attended a Church-sponsored class on how to help the poor. My eyes were opened as to how difficult it really is to hold back judgment, or to offer help in a non-threatening, not demeaning way, and to even seek to love children of God who seem so different from me and my comfortable circle.

Think on this:

A teacher observes three siblings at school who never seem to bring a sack lunch from home, nor do they have any money to buy a hot lunch. After some investigating, the teacher learns that the family lives in poverty, struggling just to get by. There is no refrigerator in the home, so there is little food there at any given time. The sympathetic teacher decides to have a fundraiser, where money can be collected to buy this family a refrigerator of their own. That way, they will surely be able to store food for meals, and send food to school with the children. Other helpful people are enthusiastic over this brilliant idea and soon enough money is earned. A refrigerator is purchased and delivered to the home of this needy family.

A few weeks later the teacher sees these children come to school without any lunch. She asks one of them why they have no lunch pails. What answer do you think she receives?

  1. “It doesn’t work. We don’t always have electricity at our house.”
  2. “Momma sold it and we got to go visit our grandma. It’s been two years since we saw her last!”
  3. “Papa came back and took it. Said he owed a man some money.”

The answer could be all the above. What the teacher saw as helping a poor family wasn’t really taking care of their needs at all. It isn’t always the lack of money that leaves a family poor; it is more likely their poor way of thinking, feeling, and acting that keeps them in poverty.

We all live by hidden rules. It often defines us into our various families and classes.

Think about some of these hidden rules:

  • A middle class mentality may be to look toward the future wanting to grow, achieve, and succeed.
  • A poor class mentality tends to only be concerned with Now, surviving until the next paycheck, and immediate gratification.
  • One family may traditionally meet together once a month to catch up with one another-no matter what-while another family is careful what they say around one another.
  • Expectations for a son or daughter may be to seek after multiple opportunities, widening choices, ultimately choosing the best choice.
  • A single mother may feel imprisoned by the present moment, figuring the future is in the hands of fate, which makes life hard and unpredictable.

Poor people often live in a Matriarchal household. Women are the martyrs and the rescuers while the men are the lovers and the fighters. While men often find themselves in and out of jail, the women will gather the children together and try to make it on their own.

Matriarch in a Coastal Village

How does the LDS Church help when a woman comes seeking welfare? This woman may have come from an abusive home and an abusive marriage. Everyone she knows may have abandoned her, but left her with a litter of children. The Church Handbook says that those seeking help should go to family first. For this poor woman, that isn’t an option. In fact, she has run out of options.

Yet, we must reach out and help in some way. Pres. Monson said,

We are surrounded by those in need of our attention, our encouragement, our support, our comfort, our kindness. …We are the Lord’s hands here upon the earth, with the mandate to serve and to lift His children. He is dependent upon each of us.(Thomas S. Monson, “What Have I Done for Someone Today?” Ensign, Nov 2009)

It behooves us to learn various ways people think, empathetically seeking after the way that might help them in the best way. If we really are the Lord’s hands, then the way to help best will be given to us when we ask.

Here’s another eye-opening encounter:

Many poor people seem to always be searching for a place to stay. They may wander from place to place, finding a friend to stay with, moving on to another friend. Often a small apartment will be overcrowded because many friends will be staying for a while, before some of them move on. A small apartment, with a large number of people in it, lacks privacy and quiet, becoming a way of life for transients who are always moving on and passing by. Most of these apartments will have the latest in entertainment. Noise and music is a way of life, to avoid the quiet of a solitary life. Too many people needing background noise becomes acceptable, comfortable, and necessary.

Now, imagine a person, coming from this environment, sitting in the quiet of a bishop’s office. How much courage did it take to even consider going to see the bishop? How comfortable would it feel for this person to face the silence that seems to scream against the walls? Is there a hidden rule this person needs to interpret in this vulnerable place? It isn’t a question whether this person is worthy of help or not. The real question is how can these persons be reached to build trust that can bring them home to their Father in Heaven?

Sometimes we look at people and think, “Why don’t you get a job.” “Take care of yourself.” “Save money instead of wasting it.” “Look more presentable.” Don’t deny it; we’ve all had thoughts like that run through our heads at one time or another. What we don’t realize is there is a poor/lower way to think that is quite different from a middle class way of thinking. The question is, “Can one be taught to make better decisions?”

Central American migrants find quarter in southern Mexico.

And how do you go about teaching new life rules without insulting the person you are trying to help?

The answer is that we need to stop judging people by how they look and act, and seek to discover the spirit of the person who still exists, but has been trampled down by life, and even bad choices. People can only help themselves, but we can open a door of trust, patience, and unconditional love that can help them rediscover their own potential in the eyes of the Lord.

Of course, we’ve seen people who know, and play off, the system. There are mentally ill people, and there are—sadly—people who just won’t be helped. But most people are lost children who really just want to be found.

How do you judge between the needs and wants of others? Needs are a daily necessity, but wants are how spirits are reached. Think of what the Lord asks in the temple. Fulfilling wants creates an individual one-on-one rescue between God’s children.

Next time you see a grungily-dressed person, how are you really going to see him or her?

Next time you see people who look uncomfortable in their surroundings, will you consider that they are not familiar with the rules of their environment and don’t know how to act, instead of judging them harshly?

Next time you look at your ward, notice the various classes that mingle together under the same gospel. Everyone has somehow made an effort to live some of God’s laws, but we all struggle in our own way. How have you avoided the stereotypical prejudices of those you have already befriended?

About Jan

I’m a wife, mother, grandma, former Church Museum docent, and incurable volunteer. I also research all things Relief Society at ldswomenofgod.

15 Responses to See The Spirit Before The Life-Worn Face

  1. Jendoop says:

    I appreciate your post, but there is an underlying assumption of superiority seeping through which can get in the way of helping the poor and giving them the respect they deserve.

    Let me use a recent example to explain. I’ve just started volunteering with the state foster care agency. In my training the supervisor explained that cultural biases/prejudices are one of the biggest problems in their department. There are twice the number of ethnic children placed in foster care as caucasian children in our state, while ethnic families are a small minority of the population. At first glace you might assume this means that ethnic families don’t care properly for their children, and are more likely to be neglectful or abusive. Instead the supervisor pointed out that all of the social workers responsible for assessing the home situation and making the decision to place the child in foster care are caucasian. The workers assume that all homes should be run a certain way, families should all fit the caucasian ideal. When in fact families from different ethnic backgrounds do things differently, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is bad, but that is how it appears to the ethnocentric workers. Her current task is to teach the workers in her department the difference between a neglectful/abusive home and a different home. If a family eats dinner at 8 pm and the kids don’t go to bed until 10, that isn’t neglect, it’s a cultural norm. If the kids stay home with their 10 year old sister as a babysitter, that isn’t neglect, it’s a cultural norm. We often force ethnic families to follow our American caucasian ideals without allowing them to hold onto their culture or giving them any idea of what our arbitrary “rules” are.

    The assumption that only the poor focus on the here and now and not the future is not one that I believe. They have dreams and hopes as much as anyone. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs all people first focus on basic needs, food, shelter, safety. After those needs are met we move on to other less vital needs such as education, relationships, religion. While those who are poor may have to focus on their basic needs more than the middle class, they still want to go to college, want to have a home, dream of going on vacation. This means that if we help the poor meet those basic needs they will naturally move to the next level of needs, but because they may not have ever been in that realm of higher needs they will need guidance and training to translate their dreams into reality.

    My supervisor kept saying, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” I think that is true every time a person tries to help someone in a situation which they themselves have never been in. We assume that we have the knowledge, expertise, and skills that they don’t or they would be where we are, but that is a lofty pride. Mental illness, family dysfunction, addiction, lack of child support payments and medical issues are often behind poverty. Yes, there are some ways we can help people learn new “middle class” skills, but I believe there are larger and more complicated issues which need to be addressed first, the middle class skills are the frosting on the cake.

    • SilverRain says:

      Thanks for this, Jen.

      I have my own issues with the “poor mentality” for a very specific reason. Since I live in a poorer neighborhood, my child goes to a school where she is the minority, both culturally (over 75% of her school are ESL, and over 90% are not Caucasian) and economically (about the same number are on government assistance.) Many of her classmates have a parent (some have both) who is available to drop them off and pick them up after school.

      Her kindergarten class was taught bilingually out of necessity. The school has to pay twice for every flyer they send home, one in English and one in Spanish. The principle lamented the fact to me that their funding dropped from $2 million to $1 million per year, though their financing per capita is still larger than my year’s salary.

      When she went to school as a five year old, they fed her food without my permission despite the fact that I sent her with plenty of food and then tried to charge me. When I refused to pay because I had not authorized them to give her food, they sent government welfare forms home (not once, but nearly a dozen times,) complete with instructions on how to fill them out.

      The list goes on, but I trust I’ve made my point. It is infuriating to me when I think about it. We as Americans create the welfare life, and practically shove it down people’s throats. No wonder people want to immigrate.

      Part of me would love to have the mentality that allows me to live off the government. If I did, I could be there for my children in a way I can’t now. But I was raised better than that.

      Of course, I’m also not so foolish as to think that there will be any reward for it. I choose to work despite the cost because I wouldn’t like myself if I allowed myself to live off of the work of others.

      I think that calling that “middle class” skills is a misnomer, however. I see that “deserts” mentality increasing in the middle class, too. Look at how many feel that the rich and small business owners should pay for everything. How is that any different? It’s not “middle class” vs. “poor.” It’s just plain laziness, which crosses all economical boundaries. You see it in the welfare mentality all the way up through rich kid syndrome.

  2. Bonnie says:

    I would lay odds, and almost my life on it, that the class that was taught was at least based on (if not directly from) Bridges Out of Poverty. I have had a knuckle in my mouth all day as I prayerfully thought about this.

    I hate that program with a passion, but for some reason it has caught hold in Utah (and I am surprised at that because when Kristen Cox of the Department of Workforce Services and I discussed it, we both were of the same opinion, but as I understand it, DWS is pushing it). Ruby Payne may well be a well-meaning sociologist, but the undergirding middle-class biases are breathtaking. The Circles program that is being implemented by Community Action is also based on this mentality. It’s everywhere.

    At the same time, I think I do recognize why it is so popular. It addresses the cultural differences in such a way that white people can begin to understand, and there are enough truths in it to help people begin to see with unified vision. As I take deep breaths and understand that, I have tremendous hope! We are beginning to break down the walls between the haves and the have nots in such a way that perhaps in the future we will see eye to eye!

    The problem is that Payne’s outlook promotes the very classes it attempts to understand, and the truth is, we cannot understand until we have faith that the other person is coming from a position of honor.

    Here is an example, straight from BOOP, and referenced in the OP:

    A family in poverty lives with many transient couch surfers. The reason is that a poverty mentality expects that if I have a need, you will fill it, with that you being not the government, but your family, extended family, and friend network. Hence, if I come into some money, it’s not really mine but belongs to the whole network, and goes to meet a need in that network. So if an outside agency comes in to buy a refrigerator, the watershed is perceived to belong to the network, not the individual. Hence, you can’t help people because they won’t behave responsibly, and you must teach them to think of what is theirs as theirs.

    The cultural bias is not immediately obvious to many people, but let’s look at this from within the poverty mentality.

    White woman with a big house that she has all to herself has a sister in another state who loses her job. Sister has to go to the state for help because white woman with her big house won’t let her sleep on the couch, and sister is too proud to ask because she’s too good to sleep on anyone else’s couch. White woman has no network, no real family, because she has a job she hates that she keeps because it has a pension and health insurance and she has no family to fall back on in hard times. She’s uptight and miserable. They aren’t really family, those white people. They’re all alone.

    Which is better? Which is more celestial in its value system?

    White middle class values have skewed self-sufficiency to the point that unity and consecration are almost impossible to imagine, and in fact those two subjects cause great angst among middle class people. And certainly there are values within the middle class framework that are worth preserving and sharing.

    But there are also values with other classes. Upper class values contain a sense of noblesse oblige, that to have means one has an obligation to care for those who have not. Middle class envy of the rich fails to acknowledge this value. And lower class values (even the words connote that it can’t have much value) are rife with connection and tolerance and consecration. Middle class envy fails to acknowledge these values either.

    I firmly believe that only when classes disappear, and our labels and descriptions of what those classes are like disappear as well, will we be truly able to understand one another. That means that every time I meet someone, I take him or her on his or her own terms, without regard to background. Not every person who has experienced financial reversal has the same set of values, as I have discovered with long work with those who’ve experienced financial reversal.

    And I’m proud to my very bones to live among and like those whom I love to serve. I have experienced abuse. I have let people sleep on my couch, and I’ve slept on other people’s couches. I am a single mother and I’ve had to ask others for help with my children.

    But I have a firm grasp on the future, investing, and have no desire to live off the system. I am not trapped by money, either as one without it, or one with it. It is just a thing.

    I LOVE your statement, Jan, that needs are a daily necessity but wants are how spirits are reached. I have cried every time I’ve thought of it today, and the largeness of your heart in writing it. While I am not at all in favor of going in and trying to teach someone else the rules of my environment without examining them to see if they’re good rules, I love the encouragement from the OP to open a door of trust and unconditional love. Examining our assumptions is a constant thing. Thank you so much for writing this essay.

    • Emily says:

      “White woman with a big house that she has all to herself has a sister in another state who loses her job. Sister has to go to the state for help because white woman with her big house won’t let her sleep on the couch, and sister is too proud to ask because she’s too good to sleep on anyone else’s couch. White woman has no network, no real family, because she has a job she hates that she keeps because it has a pension and health insurance and she has no family to fall back on in hard times. She’s uptight and miserable. They aren’t really family, those white people. They’re all alone.”

      So, so true. One thing I missed about living in Western Samoa was that connection I had with people—everything from just the ability to crash on one’s floor or kisses on the cheeks. We come her and we’re so isolated to fend for ourselves.

  3. Paul says:

    Jan, thanks for this post. Recognizing that relatively wealthy see the world differently from the chronically poor is important as we try to think about how to help.

    Realizing, as your example points out, that “help” does not always “help” is also key. (And Silver Rain’s example signals the same thing.)

    Further, your discussion applies outside the US as well as in.

    As a church, our approach to care for the poor should trascend politics and approach Zion attributes of love and equality. The Book of Mormon clearly teaches that the key metric for us as a people will be how we care for the poor among us. It is telling to me to hear President Monson teach repeatedly over the years that if he would do anything differently than he did as a young bishop he would help more than he did.

  4. MSKeller says:

    I too loved your statement, “needs are a daily necessity but wants are how spirits are reached.” – It thrums in my heart with resonance. Too often we think only about what we would do, want, etc. because of the “Golden Rule” – but on the risk of being blasphemous, the Golden Rule doesn’t always work, if what I want, and what the person I wish to assist wants are vastly different. I’m not helping them if I can’t or don’t understand them first. Giving them what I want is self-centered and short-sighted sometimes.

    What needs to be given in order for true ‘assistance’ to be felt, is understanding, respect and a conversation about what they really desire most. Excellent all.

  5. Jan says:

    This lecture I sat in on was indeed “Bridges Out of Poverty”. It was well-done and very thought provoking, but I went home realizing it still didn’t meet the needs that are out there. But then, I’m pretty sure, in many cases, there is no way to really meet the need, and certainly not fix it.

    The examples I state above are from the lecture, but the ideas and thoughts are my own. I really do feel we have to take each person on their own terms and accept them as they are. And when it comes to helping them, sometimes all we can do is visit with them; let them talk, scream, and cry; and pray for them.

    While serving as a Relief Society President at a low-income rehab facility, I met one very nice person who took advantage of the system as much as she could, and bragged about it. I also met someone who resented having to give up everything she owned in order to get on Medicaid, which was the only way she could pay her medical bills. I also met an older man who had been an alcoholic much of his life. His family had disowned him and he was very “rough” looking. This man decided he needed to come back to church and he set a goal to get to the temple. He was able to achieve that goal before succumbing to cancer. I will never forget his words: “I’m just grateful I chose the Lord before I knew I was dying; and He knows it in my heart.” When he died, his body lay unclaimed for four months until a distant cousin was finally tracked down in another state.

    Could I really help any of these people? No! And boy, was that frustrating! But I walked by their side and loved them anyway.

    This problem is very big. But the church is doing their best to train Inner City Missionaries who are typically “middle class” and completely inexperienced when it comes to this “other world”. Sad, but true.

    • MSKeller says:

      There are ‘other worlds’ in and out of the church, I can testify to that.

      Thank you for your service and warm heart Jan.

      I love this quote by Anne Morrow Lindbergh:

      “My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds.”

    • Paul says:

      I had two thoughts at the idea of Inner City church.

      First, a quotation my brother attributed to one of the Marriotts (who served in the church for years in urban Washington DC) from when my brother served as an inner city bishop in Chicago (one of three times): “The Church does not understand the inner-city church.” And at the time that was probably true.

      I grew up in a ward that included the inner city, but it also included a wide swath of surburbia, and “the church” was far more comfortable in suburbia even though the missionaries were much more successful among the humble inner-city residents.

      It was not until I moved to Venezuela and served as bishop there that I began to understand anything about poverty. And it was in a strange culture, to boot. It was an incredible and eye-opening experience to me to understand the capacity for love those who had so little of this world’s goods could feel, and how easily they could share from their poverty.

      I saw it again among Filipino saints I knew in Taiwan (and then had it confirmed in a talk from a member of the 70 who was Filipino and who spoke of his own mother’s sharing from her poverty, describing the very thing I had observed repeatedly).

      In both those cases, I was surprised that people would share so freely when they had not enough to care for themselves. It was very strange to my American middle class way of thinking.

  6. Ray says:

    We have to see people as equal to us before we really can help them in whatever way they actually need to be helped – and we have to accept that they can help us in important ways, as well. Once we see them as potential givers as much as takers, we’ve turned a critical corner.

  7. Bill says:

    Bonnie is correct that there are serious problems with Bridges out of Poverty. Ruby Payne self publishes all of her books because they could never get through the peer review process. I have seen presentations based on her books before and always worry that they make it harder, rather than easier, for middle class people to understand and work with people in poverty.

    I wish that our church, perhaps through the Social Work department at BYU, would produce an alternative training based on actual research. I would gladly volunteer to help.

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