I want to tell you about one of the scariest days of my life.
But first let me give you some back story.
Once Upon a Time…
I was raised in a strong and loving conservative family. My Grandpa thought Ronald Reagan was akin to one of the twelve disciples. And following his lead, growing up I though Ronald Reagan was the greatest ever.
Believe it or not, until I was a young adult, I didn’t totally believe that Democrats existed.
I mean, a part of me knew they did. But I had just never met one, at least not that I was aware of.
As you may suspect, that is because I was raised in a Republican family. And I feel lucky because I was raised with the best historical values of the Republican party. These are values like hard work, love for family, respect for the Constitution and the wisdom of our Founding Fathers. And I still hold a lot of these same values today.
Even though I was raised around really committed Republicans, I was also lucky that my family emphasized kindness, love, generosity, compassion for the poor. My family was not at all wealthy. Growing up, my parents were ministers and teachers. And we rarely had money for extras and luxuries. But one of my strongest memories growing up was that my parents consistently gave money to those in need.
I grew up thinking both that hard work and responsibility are important. And I grew up learning that it is also really important to help those who are struggling.
The older I got, the more interested I became in political philosophy and social problems. Since I was young, I remember being burdened (or blessed–depending on how you look at it) with a deep concern for how to solve social problems like poverty, homelessness, and food scarcity. My desire to help solve these problems intensified as I got older.
“Migrant Mother”, Dorothea Lange
As I grew up, I remember hearing some Republicans around me say things like, “If people are poor, it is their own fault. They just needed to work harder or smarter.” Or I would hear people say, “Poor people on welfare are lazy.” I will call this view the Work Hard and You’ll Succeed View.
This was a different view of the poor than the one I grew up with. And I wondered for a while if it was true. In some ways, I am sorry to say, I felt comforted by it. After all, if people’s suffering, poverty, and homelessness was simply their own damn fault, that meant I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.
Honestly, it would often have been a relief not to worry. But the Work Hard and You’ll Succeed View was also comforting because it meant that if I just worked hard, I would be guaranteed success.
And this brings me to one of the scariest days in my life.
One of Those Days that Changed Me Forever
When my husband and I first got married, he worked at an outreach center in one of oldest and poorest neighborhoods of the city where we live. Many people who lived in the neighborhood were descendants of immigrants from Appalachia. They had left their homes when their land was destroyed by coal mining or by U.S. policies that destabilized farmers’ abilities to make a living.
The neighborhood in which my husband worked could be characterized as a very poor, semi-working class neighborhood. And there was a lot of drug addiction, alcoholism, abuse, and poverty. Much of this was due to folks’ inability to find a stable job and to provide for their family. A high percentage of the folks who grew up there never finished high school, primarily because of a lack of opportunity and stable family support.
I remember a woman who worked in the center saying one time that kids that grow up in the neighborhood often do not escape it unless they have some kind of meaningful connection outside the neighborhood. Such a connection might be something like a good school or caring teacher or mentor that showed them the way out.
My husband worked at the center for about ten years. And we attended the church associated with the center for about six of those years.
We spent a lot of time with the folks in that neighborhood. And I met so many people I will never forget.*
I remember a young woman who had suffered almost every conceivable disadvantage in life. Yet remained so sweet and kind and defied the odds to go on to college. I don’t know how she did it because if I had been in her place, I think I would have given up early on.
And I met a young man who was trying desperately to succeed at education and go to college one day. I watched his family become uncomfortable with his success and try to sabotage him at every turn until he gave up and sank into depression.