This article was originally published by The Mennonite

We need each other

From the editor

Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute.—Psalm 82:3

The Bible often mentions the poor. The word occurs more than 200 times in the NRSV. And it’s clear from these verses that God wants justice for the poor. Yet for many of us, poor people remain hidden, both to our and their detriment. We need each other.

About a year ago, I became involved in Circles of Hope, an organization whose motto is, “Working to end poverty one family at a time.” In general terms, here’s how it works: A group of people in poverty (though not in crisis; they are screened by people) joins a “getting ahead class,” where they learn how to set goals (financial, physical, social) and work at them. Meanwhile, a group of volunteers go through training to become “allies.” This training, which I took, is similar to what’s taught in the getting ahead class. We learned about the cultural differences between people in poverty and those in the middle class. We learned about generational poverty, about systems that keep poor people from escaping the cycle of poverty many find themselves in.

Many of those who graduate from the 15-session getting-ahead class become circle leaders. Each circle leader is joined by two to four allies, and they meet monthly to encourage the circle leader in meeting his or her goals.

I joined a circle group last September, and this whole process has been an eye-opening experience. Let me mention a few lessons I’ve learned.

Once a month the circle groups, including circle leaders and allies, plus other support people, meet at a local Methodist church for a meal that circle groups take turns providing. Then the circle groups meet for an hour or so.

I began attending the monthly meals last summer, before I was assigned to a circle leader, just to get to know people. One evening, I sat at a table with my plate and introduced myself to a person at the table. He asked me if I was in the getting-ahead class. I loved the fact that we didn’t automatically know who of us was in poverty and who was not. And I’ve come to see more clearly that but for some circumstances, I could easily be among those in poverty.

The woman who teaches the getting-ahead class once said, “Poverty isolates people.” The genius of the Circles model is that it simply brings people together. As allies, we are not allowed to help our circle leaders monetarily, but we can offer encouragement and advice, if asked. More importantly, the wider a person’s circle of acquaintance, the more resources are available. I may know someone with a used car for sale; another ally may have a contact that could lead to a job. Community is a great agent in fighting poverty.

I’ve also been amazed at the courage and fortitude of the circle leaders. My own leader not only asks us to hold her accountable for the goals she has set but has us set our own goals and holds us accountable for those.

We need each other.

The night before Jesus was killed, he took the position of a servant and washed his disciples’ feet (John 13). After his death and resurrection, he visited his followers, who had scattered in fear, and drew them together, offering them peace and breathing on them the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). Later he said to Simon Peter, “Tend my sheep” (John 21:16).

James (2:5) says that God has “chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith.” I’ve witnessed that richness and seen I have much to learn.

We have much to learn from each other.

Gordon Houser is associate editor of The Mennonite.

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