I needed a pie for a Yule potluck. Or a cake. Something.
I searched through the pile on the table. This one was broken. That one was squashed. Broken. Squashed. Squashed and broken. At last, I found a cobbler with a whole and solid crust. I looked closely, not wanting to appear at the Yule celebration with a dish that announced I’d rummaged it from among the supermarket cast-offs at a South St. Louis food pantry.
Suddenly, my prize was yanked from my hands. A small, dark-haired boy grinned at me, dared me to snatch it back. He shot across the room and gave it to his mother. She took the pie and said nothing. She stared at me, sullen. The boy laughed.
I did not go to the Yule party. I was ashamed to appear without a dish to share. I was ashamed that the only source of food I had was food pantries. That I had been more than a year without a steady income. That even I was starting to believe I’d be poor forever. I had no compassion for myself, or for the boy and his mother, even though I knew it was likely both were war refugees. None.
Involuntary poverty does violence to the human spirit. I say “involuntary” to distinguish it from poverty chosen by some religious orders, or by those who have chosen to live a life of voluntary simplicity. My poverty was thrust upon me by a layoff during a recession, and complicated by clinical depression for which I could not afford medical assistance.
I include that explanation because I have read many harsh comments lately about “the poor.” Apparently many people, even people of faith, see being poor or living in poverty as a personal failing. There is an assumption that “the poor” are somehow different. Less educated, less motivated, less sophisticated. It is easier to think of “the poor” as a kind apart from those living safe middle-class lives. Easier to think poverty only happens to those who deserve it. Nicholas Kristof addressed those kinds of comments in an op ed piece for the New York Times; and thanks much for that, Mr. Kristof. Thank you for the compassion. I think compassion is the most important thing any of us can offer to alleviate poverty.
Compassion is seen as a virtue by every faith with which I am familiar. It is something each of us can provide. We Pagans do not at this time have the numbers or infrastructure for our own food pantries or thrift shops or clinics. Many of us work quietly alongside Christians, Jews, Atheists, Humanists . . . whomever is doing charitable work we think important. Sometimes we are open about our religious affiliation. Sometimes we are not. What is important is the alleviation of suffering. The joining with others in a spirit of compassion. The doing of it.
My own branch of Paganism teaches that the universe and all that is in it was birthed from the Star Goddess at the beginning of time. Extending the metaphor, that means each of us is a part of God Herself. That all of us are related through this holy origin. So to fail to extend compassion, and assistance, to another being is an offense against the Divine Mother and the Divine in each of us.
Compassion for the poor can be working for an organization. It can be giving money and a blessing to the man standing at the highway exit with a “No Job, No Food, No Family” cardboard sign. It can be a dinner invitation to a friend who’s been out of work for months. It can be just listening without judgment.
Compassion doesn’t require anything but empathy and a loving heart. All of us, regardless of the size of our faith community or our personal beliefs, can afford compassion.
I was hesitant to open this piece with the story of what was one of my lowest points during the years of deep poverty I endured. I have never shared it before, not even with close friends or family. Shame is a powerful silencer. But I now think it is important for those of us who have been very poor to be open about the experience. To give ourselves compassion about having experienced poverty. To remember what we have endured, and to offer compassion to others who are standing where we once did.
I made my way out of poverty by hard work. But I had help as well. I had compassionate Pagan friends who listened when things were grim. I had Pagan community members who gifted me small sums or floated loans that required sacrifice on their part. I had other friends and Pagan friends of friends who opened spare rooms for nominal rent while I worked part-time jobs to build cash reserves and start a business. I had family that stood by me and encouraged me to stand on my own when I thought I’d be dependent on others forever. I had an education and memories of a middle-class upbringing to sustain me and give me something to strive for. I had my own personal Goddess and faith in Her. I had spiritual teachers. And it took all those things to climb back to the lower rungs of the middle class.
This Yule season, I am blessed to be able to support myself. I have a bit of disposable income. I can buy my own healthy food. I shop at supermarkets and at a small, Catholic-sponsored CSA whose mission is to bring local, organic foods to lower-income neighborhoods. I remember what it was like to subsist on the expired milk, un-labeled frozen foods and cast-off bread boxed up for me by someone else. I make sure that when I donate to food pantries, I buy foods I would want to eat. Yes, buy. I don’t use donation as an excuse to clean the pantry.
I have always been passionate about food, good food, well-cooked and shared. Having been poor has made me compassionate about it as well.