I had the privilege of being part of a group of 9 from my church who traveled to far western Virginia, to the small town of Grundy, spending a week to work on a couple of dilapidated houses, restoring them to a liveable condition. Our church has sent work teams for a number of summers, partnering with an impressive local organization called Buchanan [County] Neighbors United. For us and a number of other work teams, BNU people identified needs, lined up work crews, bought materials and helped with getting to and from the work sites and even supervised and worked alongside us. They have done a phenomenal job, by us at least.
I can’t speak for any of the other projects, but the needs we were addressing were deplorable. One trailer that members of our team worked on was home to a grandmother and seven children 9 and under. Two of her daughters were in prison on drug charges. The trailer had 2 bedrooms, maybe 3. The bathroom floor had rotted through, as had the floor in the main bedroom. Our task was to fix the floors so the children wouldn’t fall through.
The second site was the home of a sick old woman. What passed as a bathroom had totally rotted and collapsed, and she was reduced to relieving herself in a bucket. One team tore out what remained of the old bathroom, another framed a new one in, another put a tin roof on it, and we were to finish the drywall, do the plumbing and put in the shower, vanity/sink and toilet. Which is what we did, though not without the usual small dramas that accompany small construction projects.
While we were successful in completing our several projects, we were less successful in resolving the real issue behind it. Buchanan County is coal country, and coal is not doing so good, which means that people are not working and having a real hard time supporting their families. This obviously puts pressure on already challenged relationships, and already dysfunctional ways of coping, reflected in the high rates of alcohol and drug addiction, as well as incidences of domestic violence. Men, women and children caught up in this maelstrom get hollowed out pretty quickly. Some family systems have been mired in this quicksand for generations, with each generation inflicting on their children what was done to them by their fathers and mothers.
In both cases that we were helping with, both the grandmother and the old woman had family who lived nearby. Not a single one of the extended family members offered to help us. And we determined from talking with our hosts that both situations were allowed to deteriorate to the present unlivable and dangerous situation in full view of an extended family who in both cases chose to do nothing. Of course we weren’t privy to family histories or family dynamics, but at the very least, I think one could say that something wasn’t right here.
I also observed that ‘poor’ is an elastic concept. The house I was working on had a lot of stuff. There was a TV with cable, a fridge, stove, washing machine, and two annoying yap dogs. But the house itself was not far behind the old bathroom in terms of soon going the way of all things. The woman who lived there was either on the sofa, on her bed or on a chair on the front porch, or moving with difficulty in between. She did have a daughter who was helping her, who was herself recently out of jail for drug issues. The county provided an aide who came several hours on most days we were there to help. Her situation was described by people who knew the family as ‘generational’.
I’ve lived in Ethiopia and in Kenya. I’ve stayed in the homes of people who were much ‘poorer’ than these folks in Buchanan County, who had much less in terms of things, whose homes were made of tin or wood scraps, who had an outhouse maybe. And yet my friends in Ethiopia and Kenya often didn’t seem ‘poor’. Their lives were rich, with lots of family, lots of relationships, church activities, community activities. There was no government handout to be had – they were on their own. But somehow these families lived lives that were full of meaning and even joy. I saw very little joy in the hollers of western Virginia.
Which raises the possibility that our normal ways of thinking about poverty may be too simplistic. There is poverty of material things. And there is poverty of heart and soul. One poor in material things may be rich in relationships and quality of life. One rich in stuff may be live in a relational and interior desert. Evidently there’s poverty, and then there’s poverty.