“As soon as she boarded the streetcar I could tell she was poor.”
That’s how Hannah began her story.
“There was a sameness about her. I see it in so many people who are poor. They’re overweight, have stringy hair, and are dirty. I wanted to tell her she could at least dress with more care. So often poor women dress in uncoordinated clothes that are too small and too tight.
“They look so hopeless, so frustrated, and harassed and they seem to come equipped with bad mannered kids. Sometimes I think they are almost subhuman. As I watched this woman enter the car I thought “O God, why are they are like that?’”
As I heard Hanna’s pronouncement, a wave of defensiveness rose in me, chased by a tide of anger, and then, surprise and disappointment.
Defensive anger, because I have met many hundreds of people who have almost no resources yet they are immaculate and stylish, their children models of good behavior, and their homes a nurturing space — the very antithesis of Hannah’s caricature.
Surprise and disappointment, because it was Hannah speaking.
Hannah was a faithful Mission supporter. She prayed for us frequently, was quick to volunteer her time and was exceedingly generous with her money. And Hannah’s commitment to us was tied to her belief that God cares for people living with poverty and is deeply moved by their situation. That’s why her question threw me.
But before I got over my initial shock Hannah continued.
“Two weeks later I went out into my garden to get a tomato.”
“I found a beauty. It was large, ripe and luscious. I looked for another and found a strangely deformed, gross, ugly excuse for a tomato. It had not ripened properly and so was a mixture of green, brown, yellow and pinkish-red. It was lopsided and there was a deep gash that ran across its entire face. What a contrast. But then as I reached in to pick it I realized I had been responsible for its deformity.
“Earlier in the year, as the plant grew taller, I dutifully tied it to a stake for support. In the process I must have bound the young blossom which was to become this tomato. It grew hard against the side of the stake so that it was completely flat on one side. The string I tied it with ate right into the flesh of the fruit. I was just trying to get a good harvest. But I built a structure which, while good for the plant, was fatal to this particular blossom.
“Through no fault of its own, the fruit was denied the life giving nourishment and environment required for health and beauty. It was deformed and ugly.
“I remembered my question to God and found myself thinking about people who, through no fault of their own, live in environments that deny them the resources required for health. I realized that my misshaped tomato had much the same potential as my beautiful tomato but the environment I created limited its future.
“I wondered if the society we had created robbed some of the opportunity to live healthy and whole lives.”
Retelling Hannah’s story now provokes the same mixture of reactions in me as it did then. I want to defend those living with poverty and rail against her one-dimensional images of poverty.
Yet what most upsets me about Hannah’s story is that I see too much of me in her reactions. Sometimes the outward manifestations of poverty repulse me as well, and sometimes I also want to distance myself from that which I find unattractive, unappealing or embarrassing, and to avoid all that causes fear to rise within me.
As did Hannah, I also wonder to what degree societal systems that perform well for the mainstream can damage those on the margins: some individuals and families must live with society’s failed intentions, ignorant mistakes and purposeful maltreatment.
There is no perfection. Even the best-intended interventions can have a shadow side, a ‘Hannah’s string’ with unforeseen consequence. Those unforeseen impacts, however, do not justify despair, but rather call us to diligence, vigilance, creativity and continuous review and dialogue with all stakeholders — especially those on the margins — as we endeavor to unfold compassion and justice.
My friend Hannah has passed on. I knew her for 30 years and I have no doubt she dwells in paradise. Her faith was like a mountain and she spent her life investing in others. When she had much she gave much, and when she had little she still found something to share.
And Hannah was open to God and to receiving fresh insight. She learned and embraced deep truths about poverty, and its impact on peoples lives. Hannah came to the recognition that so much is beyond peoples’ control, and for that, they deserve compassion and justice, not disdain and judgment.
– Blessings … Rick Tobias
Gabriel and the Vagabond
Foy Vance is an Irish Catholic singer song writer. Gabriel and the Vagabond is a tender song about perceptions; both private and public. It almost always draws deep emotions from me. It reminds me that we might find grace in the most unlikely places. -RT