The Journey

Finding Commonality among Social Classes

By Michele Gregg

Personal Essay

It was 22 degrees the night I slept beside the Spokane River. With the bitter January cold came high winds, rain and snow. My fellow interns at New Community Church wanted to experience a small taste of poverty, so we were given $6 a day to find food. That was not hard if we didn't worry about a healthy diet. A weekend of fast food burgers and Safeway doughnuts awaited us.

Our goal was to understand how to reach the Spokane homeless community, so we spent three days working with agencies serving them. Our projects ranged anywhere from sorting clothing to working in the cold outside scrubbing newly donated chairs. This experience taught me that the homeless and I have much more in common than I thought possible, and helped me to let go of my previous prejudices.

When I was eight years old, I saw a homeless woman for the first time. As she dug through a garbage can near Baskin-Robbins in Kennewick, I was overwhelmed with grief. I pulled at my father's arm and begged him to let me give her some money. He said no. Over the next 12 years, until I made my way to downtown Spokane, I lost that compassion and believed what everyone else told me: Homelessness is a sign of laziness.

In fact, most homeless people blame themselves for their circumstances rather than laying the blame on everyone else, said Jan Martinez, director of Christ Kitchen. Christ Kitchen is a nonprofit organization that provides jobs to poor women. Crews make gift baskets and soup mixes, and sell them in a newly refurbished shop and at craft fairs. Visible just inside the Christ Kitchen shop door are neatly sealed jars lining the shelves. Women, young and old, were constructing elegant gift baskets or attaching bows to their creations when I was there. Not only have these women been given a second chance, but they prove they are willing to work hard at the tasks before them.

Despite their hard work, few of these women and few of Spokane's poor can afford insurance. Nearly 46 million Americans are uninsured, according to the 2004 U.S. Census. Most people treated at Spokane's free Christ Clinic are just hardworking people who cannot afford medical insurance, said R.N. Debbie Cunningham. One of Cunningham's favorite patients is a man in his 40s who has prostate cancer. The cancer is treatable, but he has no insurance or money to pay for treatment, and cancer therapy just is not available at Christ Clinic. He is doing all he can to provide for his family, but that still is not enough, as his children most likely will soon be without a father. So, why him and not me? I can no longer believe that those in poverty are there because of their own bad decisions. As a result of the time I spent at Christ Kitchen and Christ Clinic, I've learned to look at the similarities rather than the differences between social classes.

At the youth recreation center Cup of Cool Water, the walls overflowed with the art of teenagers. One boy wrote in black paint his interpretation of how to survive his struggles: sex and drugs. He may smoke weed to cope; I cope by journaling. I just simply learned to deal with my baggage differently.

As a Christian, I am called not only to help the poor but also to understand that I am no different than they are. More than 300 verses in the Bible concern the poor, and that is a big indication that I need to do my part. I need to go further than just understanding the need.

Martinez has worked more than eight years with Spokane's poor, and she says, "What makes a difference is showing up every day." That requires stepping out of what is comfortable. Urban ministry has to be more than a once-a-week activity; it has to be a lifestyle. I believe looking at the homeless with a "glass is half full" attitude will transform urban missions. When I learn to recognize my similarities with those living in poverty, maybe I can begin to make a difference in their lives.