Life in Marvelous Times

Praying and expecting everything to come from God and not doing anything yourself is not praying. This is laziness; this is alienation. This is passivity, conformity. This is not the time, dear brothers and sisters, to say: It is God’s will. Many things happen that are not God’s will. When people can contribute something of themselves to improve the situation and ask God for the courage to do so, then there is prayer.
Oscar Romero, 1979, El Salvador

This week, amid news of political debates, two death row executions, mass graves in Libya, plummeting stocks, and hand-wringing from the General Assembly of the United Nations, I found myself standing in a crowd in downtown Chicago listening to the words of the rapper and political/social critic, Mos Def in his song, Life in Marvelous Times:

…we are alive in amazing times

delicate hearts, diabolical minds

revelations, hatred, love and war

and more and more and more and more

and more of less than ever before

it’s just too much more for your mind to absorb…

In times like these, when world issues swirl in our heads and politicians ascend the bully pulpit with what seems like no direction at all, I struggle to find focus. I struggle to avoid hopelessness, even despair. What can we do in the face of all of this pain, this fear—what, among all of these issues, lies at the heart of the upheaval?

On Friday, new statistics were released on poverty in the state of Illinois. This information comes on the heels of national poverty stats that place the U.S. poverty rate at its highest level in 52 years. As both sets of census information reveal, poverty levels have skyrocketed.

Given the fact that there are 1,731,711 million people in Illinois and 46.2 million in the U.S. living below the poverty line, I think this is a good place to start.

The effects of the economic crisis on working people in Illinois and throughout the nation have been devastating. The vulnerable include the unemployed, the under-employed, the elderly and the disabled. As unemployment rises and the state of Illinois experiences yet another budget crisis, a growing number of working people are falling into poverty. As income disparity between the upper and lower classes grows, those who had least to begin with are now faced with, in the words of Mos Def, “more of less than ever before.”

In the wake of these startling figures, and in the face of the utter devastation of countless sisters, brothers, children around us, people of faith are called to respond. The poor are always with us, yes, but this does not mean that poverty is an issue to be ignored, and while it’s hard to imagine a simple solution to an overwhelming problem, I would propose that the first step we should take as Christians, people of faith, or even just as people of conviction, is to simply bring attention to this issue.

The poverty line in the United States is established at an annual income of $14,710 for a family of two. For a family of four, the poverty threshold is an annual income of less than $22,350. There are 46.2 million people in this country living below that line. These numbers are astounding, and the worst part of looking at figures like these is the realization that behind every statistic is the face of a person who cannot make ends meet.

Last week, we heard presidential candidates wax poetic about everything from HPV vaccinations to climate change. We shook our heads as Barack Obama introduced a bill that may or may not increase jobs and boost our economy. We walked down the streets of our major cities and passed protestors calling for an end to corporate personhood. But then what did we do? What can we do?

Perhaps the easiest place to start (or maybe this is the hardest) is to think about the way we are voting. When we think about the upcoming elections we are inclined to think about our own self-interest, but now is the time as people of faith to remember the 46.2 million people around us and to be sure that our voices and our votes speak out for this population.

In these hard times, there are glimmers of hope. Churches and charities continue to do a really good job of helping people in need. There are more and more food pantries, shelters, etc. popping up all over the city of Chicago. These are all helpful and necessary resources when poverty is running rampant. But clearly poverty is a systemic problem and one that continues to grow.

In the coming months, we are going to hear all sorts of politicians talk about the policies that are good and the policies that are bad. I urge you to do your best to remember these facts and figures. Think of the faces of the people you pass on the street. And imagine raising your two children on $22,000 a year.

We have seen the way that politics can stir a nation. As a new election season approaches, and as a host of potential new leaders emerge, my prayer is that our hands, our feet, our voices and our votes can be used to help those who need it most.

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