New associate director reflects on ministry with the poor
- Jun 17th, 2013
Editor's Note: The following originally appeared in the Baltimore-Washington Conference newsletter from May 15, 2013 and has been reposted with the permission of the author and the editor of the newsletter.
By my community’s standards, my family was considered “rich” because we had a cinder block house and an indoor toilet. My father was a truck driver-turned-carpenter’s-apprentice, married to a stay-at-home cosmetologist, with two sons in elementary school and two younger daughters (I was the elder of the two girls).
At age 4, I used to watch my brothers go off to school in the mornings and beg to go along with them. As a little black girl growing up in the isolated rural South (with a sister in a playpen), there was not very much to do except follow my mother around the house and watch television. Soon I developed a morning television ritual and a passion for watching Captain Kangaroo.
I was pretty content with mornings with the Captain and afternoons with Mr. Rogers, while learning to cook and do housework with my mother to fill the hours in-between. Then a few months before my sixth birthday, some people from town and our pastor came to talk with my parents.
After that conversation, my mother announced to me that I finally would be able to go to school, a special summer school.
Even as I watched, President Lyndon B. Johnson on our black and white TV, deliver his State of the Union address in January 1964, declarating “War on Poverty,” I didn’t realize its impact on me. At the time President Johnson appointed Sargent Shriver to oversee the coordination of academic activists and the assembly of civil rights activists to develop the strategy that would facilitate children in overcoming the obstacles intrinsic in poverty. By May 1965 President Johnson was announcing Project Head Start, an educational program for low-income communities.
In the summer of 1965 I went to school for the first time. At school we learned to read, write, count and color. Grown-ups there checked our vision, hearing, and gave us dental supplies. We ate a snack each morning. By mid-day we were on the way home. The program only lasted for eight weeks, but its impact has lasted a lifetime.
My love for learning had been stimulated, and my passion for Captain Kangaroo had been replaced by a passion for education. I still remember my teacher Mrs. Dantzler, and her daughter Jade, who was a teacher’s aide and a college student. As a 5-year-old I did not realize that I was one of the very first Head Start students. Not until I was well into my adulthood did I understand that I was an active participant in “The War on Poverty.” Recent headlines about the “sequestration,” which has put automatic spending cuts into effect, will impact Head Start programs all over the country.
Pre-school aged children of lower-income families will not only be denied the opportunity to begin the educational process with a solid foundation, they will also be denied nutritional meals, basic medical assessments, and the opportunity to socially prepare for entrance into the public school system. Shortages in educational funding can create long-term deficits in the lives of these children and consequently the larger communities in which they will grow, work and live.
Poverty, at its most basic, simply means lack or deficit. As a child in the rural South, poverty meant not having an indoor toilet. As an adult, poverty has taken on a multitude of different meanings, especially after the Holy Spirit led me to read Psalm 86. David cries out: “Bow down. Hear me, Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy!”
Whoa, overwhelmingly rich King David saying to God. “I am poor and needy”? That’s when the realization hit me that God was using the psalmist to address many areas of life in which we can be impoverished, lacking love, mercy, safety, peace, justice, spiritual soundness, political power, emotional well-being, physical health and strength – not to mention educational shortfalls.
While David does have economic wealth, the psalm speaks to other gravely impoverished areas of his life, which says to me that each of us has areas of wealth and each of us has areas of lack. The challenge is to pool our collective resources so that we may be able to give and to receive in mutually beneficial ways.
As the new Baltimore-Washington Conference associate director for ministry with the poor, I am challenged to bring what we have to a common table, a place where we share what we have and take what we need to both sustain ourselves and build up others. Considering King David was crying out to God about being poor and needy, I feel certain that he was not only crying out for himself but standing as an intercessory voice for others.
David’s prayer was and continues to be an investment into the lives of others, even as Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union Address (and his support of early childhood education) became intercession for me and thousands upon thousands like me.
About This Blog
Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.