I was sitting at a table for four at one of the more exclusive country clubs in Florida. My friend and I were in fancy dresses, trying to enjoy a nice dinner with some relatives. I was headed back overseas a few days later. My anxiety always peaked a few days before going back.
The conversation over dinner wandered from one superficial topic to another. My mind traveled from the taste of the wine to the looks of the buffet, wondering how much this meal was costing and why people spend so much money to belong to a club in order to go to fancy, overpriced buffet meals that were honestly not that tasty. I was present in the conversation and the minions in my mind were chanting their common tune of the mindset of the rich and the poor.
I’m not quite sure how the question came up but all of the sudden one of the people at our table directed his attention towards me and asked: “so, are you poor?”
I think I blinked a few times, stunned, scrambling to find an appropriate answer to the inappropriate question. To this day, I’m mad at myself for how I didn’t speak up for myself and respond with a question of my own:
Are you rich?
Are you afraid of poor people?
What does poverty mean to you?
Yes, technically, I am materially poor right now. Is that a problem?
Is that any of your business?
Or, just get up, and leave the table, refusing to subject myself to such ignorance.
Instead, I stammered on in a very American way about how I’m volunteering in Haiti but am debt free, have a decent income potential in my profession in the US, etc. My American brain kicked in for me and said the right-ish thing that I thought the people around me wanted to hear. Inside of me, the Haitian and the American in me, the global citizen, felt indignant and also full of shame.
I have thought about that conversation so many times since that night several years ago. I have rehearsed different ways I wish I had responded with conviction and thinly veiled alarm.
I guess it’s human nature to differentiate ourselves from others. In American society it seems we have convinced ourselves that those who are different from us must have done something to deserve their state in the world. This is what privilege unchecked leads to. It leads to conclusions drawn about others rather than setting a table to learn about the way our fellow human has experienced the world. In the many sectors of privilege across the world, the walls built to differentiate have somehow helped us feel safe and our collective conscience at quasi-peace.
It’s easier to believe that we are different from them because if we were the same humanity with the same flesh and blood running through us, we may be compelled to live a different way.
It is our biases unchecked that have led to so many of the social ills and societal brokenness that presently linger in our ‘civil’ society today.
It seems we’ve convinced ourselves:
People with mental illness are somehow more flawed than we are.
The incarcerated deserve to be caged and their lives ruined as retribution for their sins.
People who abuse drugs are criminals and deserve punishment.
People who are homeless are a problem for society.
People who immigrate to America legally or illegally steal our jobs and need to speak English.
And those darn poor people. It must be their fault too. It’s the poor’s fault for being poor. Why can’t they just pick themselves up off the floor?
There was a message communicated without subtlety that poverty meant there was something wrong with me. I have wondered what compelled this man to ask that question. But honestly, the responses to that question are simply the armor that I put on to protect myself because the voices inside me were questioning:
Am I poor?
Am I doing something wrong?
Why don’t I fit into this country I once called home that now seems to be dominated by greedy capitalism and pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps mentality?
The truth I can see now, many years later, is how outside the norm I must have been as an educated professional choosing to live with the have-nots in a ‘poor’ country living my dream and passion. I suppose this radical way of living tends to get the people around thinking.
This post is not about being rich or poor. I have truly been in the company of both extremes and have felt incredibly loved, seen, and known by humans in both groups. But oh how I miss the simple and joyous company of my Haitian brother and sister eating rice, beans, chicken with sauce, and laughing carelessly in the warm breeze.
I have been gifted some of my favorite relationships, life lessons, and many graces by the materially poor in this world. I wonder if there’s really something radical to the words of Jesus:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.”
Luke 6:20-22 NIV
Rachel K. Zimmerman is a physical therapist who spent two years working alongside a capable Haitian team to establish a community health center outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A self-proclaimed ‘geographically confused’ individual with a Texas license plate, an Oklahoma license, and 40 Haitian stamps in her passport, Rachel currently resides in Washington where she enjoys coffee, teaching yoga, and gasping at the majestic view of Mount Rainier. She is a recovering perfectionist, lover of cross-cultural workers, and student of trauma and healing subjects. You can read along at her blog, catch her on Facebook, or follow her on Instagram.