When we were very little, I remember driving through the worst section of a big city with my family. We were lost, I believe, and my dad was gripping the steering wheel of our 1970s station wagon tightly as he navigated unfamiliar streets. Scroungy looking men were hanging out on the corners, and my mom locked our car doors and whispered a tense command to the back seat: "If I say the word, duck."
Poverty was generally unfamliar to us. It is not that we were rich. I grew up in a middle class suburban neighborhood - extremely blue collar. My town's claim to fame was that we had the world's biggest limestone quarry. Every day, around 10 am, a dynamite blast would shake the walls of our ranch-style home. My parents were public school teachers, and, while money was tight, we always had clean clothes and new shoes when we needed them, and a hot-cooked meal on our table every night.
My first real experience with poverty came during my time as a college student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Just blocks to the west of our school was one of the city's toughest housing projects: Cabrini Greene. During my freshman year, I tutored a young boy named Roy who lived in the projects. In most ways he was just like any other 2nd grade boy, except he had grown up being used to shootings and violence. Now, when I thought of the dangerous projects, I also thought of Roy.
I saw poverty face to face when I worked at the Pacific Garden Mission on Chicago's south side. Women would come to the mission after many nights on the street or just after they had been released from prison. Their skin was weathered and their hair dishevelled. Their eyes were tired and hardened by the difficulties they had seen. I was often asked to spend time talking with the younger woman. Maria was a runaway. She was tired and angry and defiant. Her hair was greasy and her nail polish chipped. She looked away from me when she talked and wiped the stray tear from her eyes. She spoke of being lost and scared and afraid. When I returned the next week, Maria had gone. She was back on the streets. Now, when I thought of homelessness, I thought of Maria.
It is hard, as a mom, to know when and where to introduce my daughter (who lives a very comfortable suburban life) to the realities of poverty. I want her to be safe. I want her to avoid danger. Yet, I also want her to be grounded in the awareness of the world around her and the needs of people who have had a harder road to walk. Many of us have opportuntiies to take our kids on international trips or to help out with a charity. My one good friend takes her daughters to serve food at a soup kitchen. She is helping put a face to the concept of hunger.
Because this concept is near to my heart, I was pleased, this week, to watch my first episode of ABC's Secret Millionaire. Each week, the show features a wealthy individual or couple who want to bestow some of their wealth to some deserving individuals. They go undercover and are sent to some of the worst neighborhoods in our nation. The week that I watched, a very wealthy businessman went to Los Angeles's Skid Row neighborhood.
During their stay, they interact with both the needy residents and the volunteer organizations who are working to make a difference.
The show was inspiring. Not only did it highlight the work being done for those in poverty, but it put a face on the homeless and the underprivileged. The most remarkable thing about the episode that I watched was not the change that this millionaire was able to make in the neighborhood by writing checks for thousands of dollars. The more significant change happened in his own heart. He began to see not just an area with shady characters and dangerous dark alleys, but real people who are struggling and hurting and needing. He began to see faces, not just issues. He began to see a lot more like Jesus.
Secret Millionaire is not a Christian television show, but it could be.
It is just one way to teach your child, and maybe yourself, a little more about poverty and the ways we can join together to make a difference.