Poverty and the Modern Christian
By Stephen Webster
Publication date: March 31, 2006
A couple weeks ago Dr. Jim Ozier, pastor of Trietsch United Methodist church in Flower Mound, Texas, called me with a great idea for a story. He planned to give a sermon about poverty, and the responsibility of Christians to help the least of those among them. Ozier reached out to me, as something of a rookie Investigative Reporter, to go to his church under cover.
I was to be homeless, if only for one day.
Me, on a good day
Once I accepted the assignment I realized that I had bought a ticket for a ride that I could not abandon, like it or not. In order to better articulate the soul-crushing hopelessness of poverty, I refrained from bathing and shaving for 10 days. I spent my evenings leading up to the infiltration drinking heavily and eating little. I picked up some clothes from a local thrift store and soiled them with liquor, beef stew, syrup and coffee creamer. I spent the night before the service sleeping on the floor. I simply could not bring myself to crawl into a warm bed.
I awoke early Sunday morning and put together my ensemble. I wore a tattered suit jacket with rips under both armpits. It covered a dirty black shirt featuring art from the first album by the band Incubus. Mangled, crusty sweat pants draped my legs and flip-flops from a dollar store padded my feet. My fiancée was absolutely disgusted. It was perfect.
I drove to Trietsch and parked about a quarter-mile down the street. I turned off my car and popped the top of a beer, downing it as fast as possible. The smell of alcohol was thick, but the stench of days-old stew far overpowered it. I somberly walked toward the church, deciding it would be best to approach from behind.
At first I was intimidated. This place, this house of worship, is huge. Beautiful vehicles lined the parking lot. I stopped and gawked at a sight rarely seen outside of a car dealership: four Hummers, each a different color, parked within mere feet of each other. All of them sported “Support the Troops” ribbons and “Bush/Cheney ‘04” stickers. A strange coincidence, I thought. As though the cars’ owners all got together after service one Sunday and planned their parking arrangement. I wondered aloud if they all sprint to church each week to snag those same spots.
As I strolled down the sidewalk, sandals flipping at my heels, a woman holding a tray of what looked to be cupcakes approached me. “Oh, hmm,” she said in passing, her gaze locking on me for about six steps. As the distance between us widened her pace doubled as she shuffled away, downwind.
I entered the building through a door near one of the two playgrounds I spotted. The first thing I saw was a Sunday School class full of children sitting on the floor. Several of them stared at me as I walked past. Nobody said a word. I pressed on through the hall, walking past a couple of adults. They were engaged in conversation and did not look at me.
I walked up the stairs and came upon a row of tan-colored plastic bins. A printed sign on the wall read, “Food Donations.” I opened one bin and looked inside. A Nutri-Grain bar was the first foodstuff I spotted. Picking it up I tore open the wrapper and shoved about half of it into my mouth, crumbs falling all over the floor as I smacked the snack between my teeth. A girl of probably 13 or 14 years approached me. “Hey, that’s not yours!” she exclaimed. “Oh,” I said, posing my best startled expression. “I’m so sorry! Is it yours?” I offered the half eaten treat to her with both hands, bits of fruit goop and wheat flakes still falling from my mouth. She looked at me like I had just kicked a small animal. “Ach!” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes. She then turned on heel and walked in the opposite direction.
Approaching the sanctuary, the sound of music floated through the hall. I walked up to a door and paused, gazing through the window. A couple approached from behind. I turned and smiled, nodding my head in acknowledgement. I opened the door and motioned for them to enter before me. “Thank you,” said the woman. That common phrase would be the only words of kindness I heard all morning.
Once in the sanctuary, I found my way to an unoccupied pew toward the back-left. I sat down behind a man who looked to be in his late 20’s or early 30’s. He looked over his left shoulder at me and grimaced, then moved about eight feet to his right, to the very end of his pew. There I sat for the entire sermon, focused intently on the pastor’s message.
Ozier spoke about the people Jesus loved, and reminded the congregation that Jesus was a peacemaker above all. He repeated the fact that helping the poor was the topic most frequented by the Christian savior. He even went as far as mentioning the Iraq war, emphasizing the importance of understanding ethnic and religious differences around the world. I would have gone much further with this line of thought if I had the pulpit.
As the sermon approached its end, Ozier called upon the parishioners to welcome any newcomers into the fold. He reminded them that Christ calls Christians to be accepting of all his children, big and small, young and old, rich and poor. I stood and began walking out with the rest of the group, making my way toward the closest door. As before, nobody said a word.
When I left the church, I felt an odd sense of relief, as though a damning judgment had just been overturned. I suddenly felt at peace, having come to a conclusion as to what I would convey from this experience. Leading up to this undercover black-op, I troubled myself with how I could describe my experience as well as address the sprawling human stain that is poverty on an individual, community, state, national and world-wide level.
I realized my freedom to editorialize on this topic through the knowledge that no matter what my experiences were, no matter how I was treated, and no matter what I say in the aftermath, only the shock of becoming broke and homeless themselves is enough to move common people of any faith to action.
I was raised a literalist Christian in a very poor, mostly-immigrant town on the Texas gulf coast. Even then, the religious affluent did not come to the aid of those suffering in the streets outside. Indeed, the town simply split into several parts – the rich, white neighborhoods and the poor, non-white neighborhoods. This “flight” of sorts can be seen in all aspects of our society.
But things have changed since I was a child. Today’s reality is not as much “white flight” as it is “rich flight.” The middle class of America is the Upper Class of the world. And those fortunate enough to be pulling down millions in our country are literally the global elite, even if they don’t flex that muscle but for their own benefit. As our monies become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, those left without economic Manifest Destiny are simply locked out. Now the infamous gated neighborhoods run by Home Owners Associations like miniature banana republics are becoming the desirable norm for the elite. I call this phenomenon what it really is: a Gulag for the rich, increasingly paranoid from being surrounded by “undesirables” of the lower class.
Why should the well-to-do help the poor and forgotten when there is so much undeveloped land to aid the further spread of this sociological oddity? Broaden the tax base, they say. Expand the infrastructure - damn the torpedoes. Those left behind when the wealth moves elsewhere are stuck in what has literally become economic apartheid. My freedom from this self-imposed oppression came in knowing that no matter what I say or do, things simply do not change without consensus. And consensus is the farthest thing from reality in modern America, let alone between Christian denominations and the world’s major religions.
Christ commanded his followers to help the poor; indeed, the book of Proverbs calls such kindness a form of worship. Buddha said that a man with love in his heart considers the entire world part of his family. The prophet Mohammed urged disciples to live the “ideal” life by rejecting greed and giving a portion of their wealth to the poor. And in spite of the shared goals of these faiths, America – the melting pot of the world, the home of all cultures, the most affluent and wealthy nation on the face of the planet – claims more poverty-stricken citizens than all third-world countries combined.
What did I learn from my covert invasion of this local house of worship? Poverty is truly a flaw in the human character, fueled by greed, perpetuated by war, in a cycle that will not end until we as a species heed the words of our most followed philosophers. Until the actions of our faithful reflect the teachings of their prophets, mankind is doomed to repeat its own torrid history.
Stephen Webster is an Investigative Reporter and Syndicated Columnist with The News Connection, a Staff Columnist with George W. Bushs hometown weekly The Lone Star Iconoclast, and a former Contributor to The Dallas Morning News Science & Technology section. For more of Webster's musings, visit The Gonzo Muckraker.