Monday, March 3, 2008

Urban Spirit

A week from today five Pacific students and I will be in Louisville, KY at Urban Spirit, a non-profit organization that teaches people about poverty through a week-long poverty immersion experience. We won't really be living on the streets, but in a church basement, earning "Urban Spirit" dollars at minimum wage and using those dollars to pay for food, shelter, utilities and many of the other necessities of life like transportation and insurance, or not! What we can't afford, we don't get.

In truth, I'll be sleeping in the comparatively luxurious dormitory with an actual mattress while the students are in the basement. I completed the program three years ago, but I trust that I will learn and re-learn as much as I did the first time. The program was started by Dr. Deb Conrad who sees her mission as "changing the world by changing the way we see the world." It's different from many other service trips in that we won't build a house or do much that we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands. We will spend time each day working with local agencies in Urban Spirit's neighborhood, like Neighborhood House and the Boys & Girls Club. That's important work and will certainly make us feel good about ourselves. The other stuff probably won't make us feel so good, but it will make us more aware of the reality of systemic poverty in our country, and it will motivate us to work harder to end it.

People aren't poor because they are lazy or stupid or morally lax. People are poor because we not only allow them to be, but because we insist that people stay poor. One year ago this week I fell down a flight of stairs and badly dislocated my right elbow. (I am right handed.) It was painful and frightening and recovery was slow. But I had good medical insurance and a job that allowed me to take time off when I was on pain meds, and to work from home when I couldn't get dressed alone. And my insurance covered the cost of my physical therapy, which is what gave me the use of my arm back. It was an expensive fall, but because I have had easy access to education and reliable employment, I could afford it.

It could have been very different. If I hadn't had insurance, I would be in deep debt, having to choose between paying hospital bills and paying rent. I might have lost a great deal of mobility in my right arm from a lack of enough physical therapy. And I might have lost my job when I didn't show up for a week and tried to work every other day for another two weeks. One fall can be the difference between stability and destitution. In a country with such great wealth, life should not be that precarious.

There are numerous other reasons why people fall through the economic cracks in our society: mental health issues, lack of education, natural disaster (such as in New Orleans), domestic abuse, and on and on. We are smart enough and compassionate enough to make things better for everyone, if we are willing to change the world by changing the way we see the world. Urban Spirit is going to help me do that - again.

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