Numerous times throughout my life I have made comments, even jokes, about being raised poor. My friends through the years have heard my tired stories about having one fried egg or fried bologna sandwich to last all day while my parents went to work. They were too poor to pay for daycare so we were “latchkey kids”. We would all chuckle at the stories of renting a TV and VCR for some weekends. Most of our clothes were either on lay-a-way for a long time or purchased at local garage sales.
I have made no bones about the fact that my siblings and I were raised on Government Cheese or the occasional commodity boxes.
Some stories weren’t so comical. Only in the last year or so have I been to unpack the deep shame, trauma and embarrassment of poverty.
Last summer I was attending a conference with the Louisiana School Board Association. One of the early bird sessions was called, “Poverty Simulator”. I callously joked with my School Board colleagues that I didn’t want to attend that session, because I could teach it. Been there, done that. No need to participate in something I lived for my entire childhood.
As God would have it, when I was finally registered for the conference the only class left was, you guessed it… The Poverty Simulator. Essentially this is an exercise meant to sensitize the participants to the realities of poverty. Every person is assigned to a family and you were also given a certain set of tasks. You were given an envelope with limited coupons for groceries, daycare fees, medical bills and transportation. Your tasks may include applying for a job, going to the bank, or shopping for food.
When I entered the large conference room it was set up as a “community”. The outer areas of the room were set up as family homes and community services. The instructors were very clear that this was not a game, it is simulating a real day-today life for impoverished parents. It was so incredibly hard for me to participate in this exercise because I never thought of how my parents felt being poor and unable to provide much for me and my siblings.
I only looked at poverty from my own selfish, childlike point of view. Needless to say I did not fully complete the exercise. When it was over, the organizers interviewed the participants. It was emotional and stressful for everyone who was there, there were many tears shed. Not one person left that room unchanged.
It definitely changed me. It catapulted me to a year long journey of actually acknowledging that my childhood wasn’t perfect but also recognizing that God was with us the entire time. He was with us when we had nothing and he was with me when I used to dig in garbage cans as a child. I only recently disclosed that to my sister. The poverty shame was so deep it had me hiding small facts like this from family.
All of this made me even more grateful for the bumpy roads that make up the road map of my life.
Growing up I always felt like I was from the wrong side of the tracks because of poverty. I never had the right clothes, enough food, proper healthcare and even some basic needs. I was a horrible student who barely got by in school and made awful behavioral decisions. I was the child at school who you probably would not have invited to your birthday party. But, I was amazingly blessed with teachers in the Natchitoches Parish School System who never gave up on me and always encouraged me to do better.
According to Google, there are over 2,000 references to poverty in the Bible. Out of all of those references it is mentioned time and time again to care for the poor, share with the poor, seek justice and show mercy to the poor. It wasn’t until my father surrendered his life to the ministry that we began to climb out of poverty, slowly but surely…day by day life got better and better.
God doesn’t make mistakes and he has used every single detail of my life for his glory. God has used all of these details to make me a fierce defender of the poor within our public school system as well. As long as I live I will always put the needs of children in our community above politics or adult egos. We are tasked to be good stewards of the community that God gives us. Most of the time this means putting others needs above our own.
I was the face of poverty. That only changed by the grace of God. We see the faces of poverty every day in our communities…are you looking away? Or, are you looking at those faces with mercy and grace while asking God what you can do to help?
“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done.” – Proverbs 19:17
“The generous themselves will be blessed for they share their food with the poor”. – Proverbs 22:9