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Poverty is much more than a lack of money

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By Mark Azzara

My Dear Friend,

When my editor asked if I would move my letter to Thursdays I agreed. I thought I’d catch a few extra days off this time around. No such luck. I have struggled for most of that time to write this letter because every time I thought it was done I got some new perspective. The crowning piece of wisdom didn’t come until Tuesday.

I mentioned my exasperation during last Saturday’s men’s Scripture study and a friend advised me not to criticize myself for what I see as failed efforts. It’s all part of the process of understanding, he said. Learn to love the process. And that was a bit of real wisdom that helped clarify what I’m writing about.

This letter was motivated by The New York Times’ comprehensive, compelling article about the growing resistance in Europe to the surge of refugees. As a volunteer in a soup kitchen I see a lot of guests who are needy. But what does it mean to be poor/needy?

During my working life my annual gross income never reached $40,000, and I now live on a lot less — Social Security and a pathetic annuity. Am I poor/needy? You might think so but I don’t. I have enough money so I can buy my own food rather than rely on the soup kitchen. And if I can go on vacation I’m rich, especially in the eyes of those refugees.

On my recent vacation I stayed in a bed-and-breakfast that’s in the poorest county in that state. Signs of poverty are everywhere, as I recently wrote. The man who co-owns the inn with his wife works for a federal agency. He was called to go to an Indian reservation in mid-August after some calamity. When he called his wife he confessed he’d never seen poverty like the kind endured by those native Americans.

Translation: In material terms, one man’s poverty/need is another man’s luxury. But in Matthew 5:3 Jesus speaks about spiritual poverty. This is the far worse poverty, the kind he wants to address in all of us.

As I said, I see a lot of poor/needy folks in the soup kitchen. I’m thinking of one person in particular — the guy who punched me in the nose Tuesday. He also belted the soup kitchen’s director and wound up in jail on six charges. He is suffering from spiritual poverty. He’s mentally ill and was probably high when he went off. He is banned for life from the soup kitchen, a necessary decision to protect volunteers and other guests.

I was surprised by my reaction when I was hit. I wasn’t angry but was frustrated because I knew there was no reasoning with this guy. My prayer — yes, I’m praying for him — is that he will find the direction he needs in prison or, better yet, a psychiatric hospital.

In a sense I’m grateful for Tuesday’s incident. Several of the guests rallied to the aid of the director and then to me before police arrived. It showed me that not all guests are like this assailant. Despite their material poverty and the other assorted woes that some of them face — mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism and criminal records among them — they know when enough is enough, and they know enough to defend those who feed them.

This incident freed me, at least a little, from stereotyping the people I serve. And I need a lot more of that. It’s all part of the lifelong God-directed process of moving from fear to love.

I’m going to leave it at that for now, although I plan to say a lot more about this topic. You may think you know what that topic is but I’m willing to bet you’re wrong. The only way to find out is to check back next week. In the meantime I hope you will think a little about poverty. How do you define it? And how would you respond?

All God’s blessings – Mark

Mark Azzara

About Mark Azzara

Mark Azzara spent 45 years in print journalism, most of them with the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut, where he was a features writer with a special focus on religion at the time of his retirement. He also worked for newspapers in New Haven and Danbury, Conn. At the latter paper, while sports editor, he won a national first-place writing award on college baseball. Azzara also has served as the only admissions recruiter for a small Catholic college in Connecticut and wrote a self-published book on spirituality, "And So Are You." He is active in his church and facilitates two Christian study groups for men. Azzara grew up in southern California, graduating from Cal State Los Angeles. He holds a master's degree from the University of Connecticut.

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