“Charity is so called because we give it even to the unworthy.” —St. John Chrysostom
Before coming to Kansas City and working at RS, I was a professional artist and lover of interesting and obscure music. The thing that any artist or lover of obscure music begins to understand is that there is tension that happens when opposing aspects of a piece of art, work with each other. This is a concept that someone has to grasp in order to appreciate any work of art; not just for what makes that work of art intriguing, but to understand its maker's intention in creating it. Surprisingly, I have found that this same concept is the key to an understanding of the work that we do on 31st and Troost.
When my family and I first arrived in Kansas City, I was asked by a good friend who was visiting us from California, “what is success going to look like?” This seemingly simple question was in fact a multi-faceted inquiry that consisted of several months of deep conversation between the two of us on issues such as class, race, the distinction between religion and spirituality, and if there was purpose in poverty. Needless to say, I could only answer with a long pause and an honest, “I don’t know!” At the moment those three words left my lips, I realized something that was simultaneously painful and yet liberating. Everything that I thought I knew about ‘poverty,’ everything that I thought I knew about the ‘poor,’ and everything that I thought were the ‘answers’ were really just speculation and theory. All of the theories and speculations I came to Kansas City with were undone and proven inadequate in the presence of the flesh and blood icons of Christ that I was now face to face with in my work at RS!
At this point allow me to state the obvious. The Icons I see on the walls in my parish and in my home don’t display the effects of generational poverty. They don’t suffer from the fallout of years of addiction or even worse being born with developmental issues due to the addiction of the mother who gave them birth. They don’t fail to say, “please” or “thank you” when we provide them with the help they have asked for. The Icons I see in church show me what the Kingdom of Heaven is, but the icons of flesh and blood in midtown KC show me who the Kingdom of Heaven is for.
When I began to understand that the issues of the community we serve at RS are the fruit of generational poverty, and what that really is, I began to understand why the bible speaks so much on the service and protection of the poor. Generational poverty rips at the fabric of society by placing families and individuals in systemic and prolonged crisis. This perpetual state of crisis is often the catalyst and sustaining agent for trauma for both these groups and the communities they constitute.
Lets be clear; when talking about the life of trauma that characterizes generational poverty, we are not talking about a few bad choices here or there, some bad luck or the results of laziness, we are talking about horrors and tragedies that are consistent, prevalent and soul destroying on a community level. Ultimately, when I look at the individual stories and issues facing the community we serve, what is common for all of them is not so much a level of need, or that they may or may not be of agreeable disposition; rather, it is the harsh fact that they all recognize that they are human beings in need which goes beyond their ability to help themselves. The thing I have begun to understand is that charity given to those who I find pleasant isn’t charity. Often the real work is learning how to help those who by their behavior don’t seem to deserve help. This is exactly where tension comes into play.
For many in the modern world, the cross has become a symbol of oppression, bigotry and injustice; moreover, one could say that the association of these terrible acts with the cross of Christ is valid. I for one am actually inclined to agree. The caveat I would offer though, is that it is precisely these acts of hatred and injustice that make the cross so powerful. It is in the command given by Christ to those who would be his disciples to actually love those who would spitefully use you, to forgive those who would treat you as an enemy, and to give to those who ask, that reveals the transformative power in charity. Anything else simply serves to make someone feel good about themselves.
If there is a solution to generational poverty, it lies in the understanding that we must see the tension that is necessary to produce real change, and that tension is the commitment to help the individual, not according to whether they are worthy or not, or whether they were pleasant and polite. Dr. Martin Luther King profoundly stated, that hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can do that. Initially I was driven by a desire to see a large, sweeping change. It’s the idea that one at a time will not cut it. But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and each person we serve is a link in a larger chain. I see now that the right idea is to focus on the link and not the chain.
Whether it is through direct services or simply being present with them, by being a healing presence for those who have been cut off by society at large and even their own families, we seek to affect a larger change by focusing on the person, where they’re at and as they are. These are the very people we are committed to serve. These are the people falling through the cracks. It’s never easy, but we believe this is the key to helping the community.
Article by Fr. Deacon Turbo Qualls, Reconciliation Services