Informed compassion


Here’s another sign of the strange times we live in:  Today, while driving back and forth to Lima Mennonite Church for a CDC pastor peer meeting, listening to the recent five part series by On the Media called Busted: America’s Poverty Myths, I found myself being encouraged by these difficult stories of crushing poverty.

“Encouraged” maybe isn’t the right word.  “Heartened?”  Not quite.  “Fortified?”  Yes, something like that.  Fortified.

The series was released several months ago. In five episodes it confronts myths around poverty in the US such as poverty being the result of a poor work ethic, America being a land of equal opportunity for all, and public cash assistance, welfare, causing most people who receive it to become lazy and dependent.

One of the best parts about the series is that it gives extended time to hearing the stories of people in poverty, through their own voice.  There is narration with excellent investigative journalism, but a good percentage of time is given to hearing stories of people struggling, and regularly failing, to escape the treadmill of poverty.

On the Media is a project of WNYC in New York, but an added bonus of this series for us is that the stories are based in Ohio.  Apparently we are the heart of it all.  We hear from a welfare advocate in Athens County, and learn about the poverty of nearby Vinton County.  We are taken into the homes of people in Cleveland and Cincinnati.  Most surprising and personal for me, were stories from an impoverished couple dying by suicide in my hometown of Bellefontaine, and a substantive conversation with a recently homeless woman at the YWCA Family Center in Columbus, where our congregation serves a monthly meal.  Both of those stories are in episode 4 titled “When the Safety Net Doesn’t Catch You.”

I think the reason I find it encouraging, or fortifying, despite the difficult content, is that it gives depth and humanity to a persistent problem too easily reduced to p0larizing slogans.  We are certainly in the era of polarizing slogans, and I can almost literally feel by heart rate increase every time I log on to the New York Times to peruse the headlines these days.

A series like this provides depth and teaches us how to see in new ways.  While listening, I found my heart beating to the rhythm of informed compassion rather than kneejerk anxiety.  I’m highlighting that sentence because, as I wrote it, it helped me realize how hungry I am for informed compassion, and how easy it is to slip into kneejerk anxiety.

You can download the podcasts from On the Media or listen online HERE.