Culture is defined as the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.
There are ways of understanding poverty that we hold in common at Despensa de la Paz. It is a lens through which we all look at the struggles of our community. Looking at it that way is a part of what makes us “us”. The common understanding shapes our activities and strategies and behavior, and it creates a bond between us. If enough of those bonding threads exist between us, a thickness of threads of common customs, ways of speaking and ways of understanding ourselves, then something called “culture” emerges. Culture is a subtle teacher, shaper, and bonder. It is the immersion into healthy and life-affirming culture that creates lasting healing and change.
We understand poverty not as the absence of “stuff”. Poverty is not merely a material state of being. That is simply being poor. Anyone who has been to college or graduate school has been poor. We’ve all come to the end of our resources in that setting and had to resort to finding “happy hours” that serve free food, or staving off hunger with a thirty-nine cent bean burrito or a pack of ramen noodles. That’s not poverty. We know that we are trading being poor for a while to get a degree that will ensure on some level that we won’t be poor forever. We have hope.
Poverty is the absence of hope. It is a crushing, grinding set of experiences over time that make a person think that no matter what they do, it will always be this way. Poverty is such that the resources and opportunities that give a person the means to pull themselves out of their situation on their own are not accessible due to the myriad of obstacles and barriers to accessing them. Poverty also marginalizes people, disconnecting them from proximity to and relationship with others who have the means to help them get out. Those who find themselves in the crushing reality of poverty find that while society has institutions and mechanisms designed to protect its members, they now find themselves pushed to the edges, being seen not as worthy of societal protection, but as something that society needs to be protected from.
As such, the absence of hope is not fixed with a material remedy, though a material remedy is a part of it. Poverty is a “whole person” experience. As Howard Thurman once wrote, poverty is like a fog that sets in around a person. It is experienced in body, mind, and spirit. Hopelessness is when a person just gives up and gives in, and can’t see any way out of the situation they’re in. They can no longer see the real fruits of life: meaning in shared suffering, joy in overcoming, and a connection to a larger story with an ending that brings purpose to their struggle. There is an underlying fear that places the impoverished person in a traumatized state. On the margins, one mistake can bring disaster. Poverty robs a person of safety, dignity, respect, meaningful connections to others, and meaningful place in society. People crushed by poverty get swallowed up in a culture of hopelessness, with ways of being and doing that are subtly taught that drive people deeper into the despair that holds them invisibly in that psychic and spiritual place.
As such, the antidote to poverty is not simply giving away food and clothing. Yes, we do that. And, yes, our community needs it. But it is inclusion in a culture that is a contradiction to the culture of hopelessness that heals the deeper wound, and reorients the deeper state of being. It is a way and a place of being where hope is fostered, learned, and where it is shared among others that people find themselves set free from the invisible bondage of hopelessness. Hope isn’t taught. It’s caught. We catch it by interacting meaningfully with people who have it. Hope is conveyed by participating in it, both in receiving it and in giving it. Poverty is not something to be fixed. It is a wound to be healed, a psychological and spiritual injury not simply to be treated, but to be transformed into something else entirely.
Sociology understands culture as the languages, customs, beliefs, rules, arts, knowledge, and collective identities, narratives or “stories” and memories developed by members of groups that make their social interactions and relationships meaningful. In essence culture is where one makes their life make sense in a meaningful way. For most of us, we are socialized into our native culture largely by the age of five simply by being in it. We are shaped by the stories such that we see ourselves and what’s around us through the lens of that story. We conform to the folkways of culture as we participate in them. For example, in our national culture, we probably never asked ourselves why we get into an elevator and face the front. It’s just as efficient to face the back. But we just do it because we’ve learned without knowing it that that’s the way it’s done. That’s a benign example. Others are more pernicious. For example, we are raised in this country with an ethic of scarcity. Our economic system is based on it. There isn’t enough to go around. That story of the world shapes our behavior, too. And it often shapes us in ways we aren’t even aware of. We better get it now before somebody else does. If we share things, we might not have it when we need it.
At Despensa de la Paz, everyone is welcomed into service by participating in an orientation. That orientation is really a creation story with several smaller stories that connect what people are going to do that day to a larger narrative that binds us all together in purpose. Each person is invited to use their imagination to find ways to participate in the principles that bind us in common purpose and greater good. We have a saying at Despensa that Despensa isn’t simply a place. It’s an idea. Or more correctly, it’s a way of being; a set of ideas and guiding principles that people are invited to participate in and make their own. It is a culture in which they will move that day. For many it is not native and quite alien to them. Intangibles like the ideas of acceptance, autonomy, and anonymity (principles above personalities, team above self) are conveyed through story. The gravity of what we’re about is conveyed through sharing experiences in our community. The guiding principles of being both the giver and receiver, the importance of doing justice rather than charity, being relational rather than transactional, and being informed by the trauma that our community members deal with daily are shared. People are invited to imagine how they might participate in those principles. People are included in the on-going story. We all play a meaningful role right from day one. Since marginalization is a root cause of poverty, then inclusion in this counter-culture must be a part of the solution.
After the orientation, community members go and live those principles out, witnessing them in themselves and in others. At the end, we have a briefback to process our experience through those lenses. They are reshaped in their reflection. The story becomes their story. The culture becomes more and more their own. This is a process of acculturation. This is the process of transformation. It’s intentional. It’s intentional because it’s not food or clothing that heals the wound of poverty. It’s the restoration of hope that does that. And hope is the fruit of this very intentional culture of abundance and sharing, vulnerability and being other-oriented. It is a way of goodness lived out in relationship to one another.
In closing, I’d offer a few words on goodness. Goodness is felt at a visceral level. It’s very hard to define intellectually. People know it when they’re in it, even if they can’t name what they’re in. It is warm. It is kind. It is joyful. It is patient. It is humble. It is without condemnation or envy. It isn’t self-seeking or selfish. Anger is rarely seen. Scores are not kept. Goodness rejoices in other’s victories and bears with others in our failures and defeats. Goodness protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. I don’t know why, but people move toward it. For those who have never known it, they often don’t know what to do with it. Sometimes they even find it frightening at first. But if they don’t reject it, it has the power to change them without them even seeing the transformation happening. It moves from being something experienced as outside themselves, to something they one day mysteriously find moving within themselves. Goodness is the spirit underneath the culture at Despensa that shapes it, corrects it, and guides it. We can’t define it exactly. We don’t need to. We let it define us. Without it, we would cease to be who we are.