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The Blessing of Poverty



This was written last March, but it remains as poignant as ever.

~ ~ ~ ~

This weekend I had two vendor tables at a benefit for a local organization which supports Israel. It was a lovely thing, great dancing, a lovely lunch, but it was not held where the Jewish population normally resides – it was held across town in a Christian building, for it was intended to be an 'inter-faith' outreach/ benefit, and the building rental was free. Vendors were asked to donate a percentage of their earnings, which we gladly did.


The building housing this benefit was the very definition of a "mega-church". Rivaling big-box marts and wholesale food clubs in size, this building dwarfed churches of traditional proportions. With a sanctuary to easily seat 2,000 – 3,000 and 'fellowship rooms' that could house a few hundred; the enormity of it stunned me. Another thing that stood out was that even though it was relatively new (it had been built within the past five years), everything was pristine and spoke of grandeur. There were marble floors, posh upholstered chairs in the halls, a coffee bistro in the lobby, and paper towels soft enough to clean babies' faces in the restrooms.


Mind you, cleanliness and class is something that should befit a house of worship. But the building, grounds, and touches were beyond pristine. Not that spotless is a bad thing, but in Congregations where there is much use, even the 'newness' begins to look 'loved' after a few years. This building didn't appear to see regular use it was so well taken care of.


Mind you, I was grateful that this church had donated the use of their building. It was indeed a lovely and spacious room, one that met our needs nicely. However, I was told that instead of using restrooms right across the hall from our room, everyone would need to walk about 500 feet across the marble-tiled lobby to where the restrooms were located. The rooms that were off-limits were marked "staff" and we were not 'staff' at the church. Being a younger person, I didn't mind walking the distance. It was inconvenient, but not debilitating. However, when a small group of elderly people attended (walkers and canes were present), and were told they had to walk the 500 feet across polished marble-slick flooring to find the restrooms, I was appalled. I was further shocked to find the 'elderly friendly' seats in the back of the restroom, as if they were an after-thought, not accessible for most in walkers or wheelchairs.


What bothered me the most however, was not this form of disrespect, nor was it the fact that the elderly people in need were Shoah (Holocaust) Survivors. They had been through the worst treatment imaginable in their youth and survived to have a family and belong to a safe community. It is only whereupon they visit a 'christian' church that they are made to feel like a third class citizen again.


What bothered me was the way this obvious and tangible need was treated by people in this community. When I told one of the maintenance people of this issue, they blinked a few times and said that unless they were under strict orders not to open those rooms unless there was a celebrity or staff. I couldn't find an available minister to help. I found myself thinking, what could be so special about a locked bathroom? Were there gold sinks, imported mineral water in the porcelain, what?


I was so disturbed by this blatant lack of respect, I was talking with my husband about it later that night. Working for the largest tv broadcaster in the world, he shared with me the construct behind these 'box-mart' churches. They are so huge, the ministers are equated with celebrity status (like Hollywood stars or presidents of nations) and are therefore untouchable. The 'average' person does not rub elbows with them, nor do many other people. Within these communities, there are classes of belonging, much like a kingdom or fiefdom. Should you require a minister, your name is checked against a database. If you are a 'member' or 'attendee', tithing records are frequently referenced to see what sort of service you get.


My mouth hung open as he shared this, for I thought, where is the community, respect for humanity, the personality, the relationship building? How can a congregational leader be on the same level as his congregants, encourage them to growth, share in their pain and joys if he doesn't know them? How can a person's needs be met if the leadership is so far removed from the people they can't remember what it's like to NOT have every bill paid completely at the end of the month? How can a minister relate to the single mom driving a beater car when their Jaguar was paid for in cash? What happens when a congregant needs something and can't leave a message? How does one connect with others on a personal level? How can a person freely learn and grow when a house of worship is designed like a five star hotel?


I called up a friend who was familiar with this church, hoping to understand a bit better about how this community was constructed. She confirmed the database and tithing records, stating that there were different levels of leadership, small home groups, and many volunteers. As she described it, it reminded me of a corporate business, a top-down design. I was wordless – how can a church – something designed to help, comfort, and encourage spiritual growth - be ran like a business?


True, my experience with Congregations has been as large as a few hundred and as few as twenty. I have seen old churches that are falling apart, inner city churches in need of paint, wealthy congregations that prefer to give money rather than service, and other congregations with support from their denomination to ensure everything is neat and in good repair. I've even traveled to churches overseas and seen multi-use buildings that have met many needs. So why is this bothering me???


Perhaps because I've never been the sort to treat one person different from another based on their economic standing. Possibly, I've got too many old fashioned values – I respect elders, treat people politely, and treat others the way I want to be treated. With great certainty, I can state that blatant wealth bothers me because as a teacher, I see so many people who need things – things that churches can provide – and don't because it's easier to polish a floor than visit the sick; more convenient to write a check than volunteer time at a shelter, easier to stay healthy when you're not mentoring families in transition.


I found myself turning to a devotional book in an effort to help me understand. I found some writings of Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sosov (1745 – 1807). He was a third generation Chassidic Rabbi who was known for his great love of Jews. I greatly appreciated what he said regarding wealth…" How easy it is for a poor man to depend on God! What else has he to depend on? And how hard it is for a rich man to depend on God! All his possessions call out to him, "Depend on us! Depend on us!"


This helped me realize that in living my life, why I was completely flummoxed when faced with blatant wealth. In my humble living, I had nothing that called "depend on me!" No possession called out in complete conspicuous consumption or extreme self-adoration. I have a small car that gets me where I need to go in an economical way. My mortgage payments are very affordable. My clothes are neat and in good repair, my hair is trimmed, I am healthy. In reading this, I was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude that I am not rich and have to maintain marble floors.


I read further and Rabbi Moshe said, "To know the needs of men and to bear the burdens of their sorrow – that is the true love of man." I found myself again grateful that in my poverty, I have gotten to know people and become friends with individuals I might not otherwise get to know. I know what it means to live in the inner city from paycheck to paycheck. I know how your soul rips apart over the unexpected death of a loved one. I can rejoice when a friend pays off their car and is debt free. I can dance with great joy at a friend's wedding, or cry with happiness over the birth of a child. I am blessed that I have been able to help bear the burdens of my friends.


As I have thought about this, I realize that I'm not angry about the lack of respect to elders, but I am more sorrowful that people can't reach beyond themselves to grow and learn, and somehow leave the world a bit better for having lived and experienced another person's sorrow and joy.


Perhaps this writing will cause you to take a second look at how you treat people and examine how you can ease a bit of the world's suffering. It has certainly caused me reflection.

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I'm not sure I can say anything other than wow. I never could have written anything this well, but you mirrored my feelings almost exactly.

This is a beautiful post, thank you. Leah

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