Poverty of Hope

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Guest Post by Jonathan Hankins

What does hope look like?

A paid power bill? A hug from a stranger? A free ride? An unsolicited smile? Hope is a powerful force. Sometimes a little hope is all you need to get through another day.

I have the privilege of working among members of our community who are facing extremely difficult circumstances. Although such difficulties can be associated with substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health, criminal activity, child abuse, neglect and related consequences; there is a single word which is a common thread throughout such circumstances: poverty. Before we jump to a political debate about welfare, entitlement, and enabling a life of poor decisions, I ask you to take a step back with me and consider what I mean by poverty. Although on many occasions, the word poverty can be related directly to economic status with reference to a demographic who has less than, I am referring to the poverty of hope.

Imagine you’re in a hurry to get to work and in the process of hustling up a flight of stairs you fall hard and incur a broken leg. Did you mean to miss that step? Blame it on the poor lighting, ice, or your own clumsiness, the reality is that you missed the step, resulting in a broken leg. Fortunately for you, there was someone to help you up and lend you their shoulder to cry on and walk with you as you hopped on one leg to the nearest bench. Thankfully, they had a mobile phone to call someone who could help.  After a series of visits to the doctor along with a team of nurses, orthopedic specialists, physical therapists, family and friends, you are able to heal, regain your strength, and learn to walk again.

Now imagine if any of those helpful folks and resources were not available. What if you fell while no one was looking and no matter how loud you yelled, no one paid any attention? What if someone walked by and said, “Bummer! Sucks to be you!” and carried on their way. What if you heard things like: “I would love to help you, but I don’t want you to take advantage of my generosity.” “I’m sorry, but I don’t have time.” “I can’t help you.” “Get up! Dust yourself off!” “You’re just looking for a hand-up.” Hopefully, this scenario will never happen to you.

But the harsh reality is that there are individuals in our community who, at no fault of their own, have fallen and broken their hope. Has your hope ever felt broken beyond repair? Consider the plight of Fantine in Les Miserables. Was prostitution the best life she could live? No. Was it a poor choice to give her daughter up to be cared for by a couple crooks masked as Inn keepers? Yes. Painful circumstances are certainly a result of poor decisions, but many poor decisions are the result of circumstances that are completely out of our control. Fantine’s hope was broken when the man she loved abandoned her with their child in an era where society failed to understand and provide the support necessary to inspire hope and healing to a single mother in distress.

The difference between a broken leg and a broken spirit is that with one you can see and easily navigate the emergency responses with the inclusion of doctors and medicine for tangible healing. A broken spirit resulting in hopelessness, depression, anger, mental illness, substance abuse, violence, homelessness or whatever face it looks like, is much more complicated, and yet more worthy of assistance, healing and attention. I’m not suggesting an unhealthy approach to enabling one’s need for entitlement or improper attention. Sometimes the best form of help is tough love. I get that, as long as love is the common denominator. Certainly there are those who rely on the crutches a little too long or perpetuate the damage by walking on their broken leg. However, as we continue to wrestle with the injustice of poverty of all kinds, I’d like to suggest that hope is the best response.

Years ago, I asked a young boy in juvenile hall what he dreamed about or hoped for in life. I have never forgotten this chilling moment. With dark eyes he stared right through me and said, “I have no dreams.”  Did he wrongfully choose to act violently towards another person? Yes. Did he ask for his two older brothers to be killed by gang activity? No. At an early age, life robbed him of his hope. This void of hope was more isolating than his incarceration. In some cases I’ve advocated for individuals who have been held back by an actual disability or a deficiency of hope and inspiration. On multiple occasions I have seen parents give up on parenting, paralyzed by the fear of inadequacy and hopelessness. I have also seen hope restored by listening, accompanying, and advocating. You’d be amazed how the words, “You’ve got this!” can transform a person’s outlook.

Why do people choose to live on the streets? I don’t know, but I can’t even begin to understand the amount of hopelessness and despair which may have brought them to that place. I do know that one doesn’t just wake up one day and decide, “I’m going to give up on living to the fullest”. One thing always leads to another. Why does one allow himself to lose everything for the sake of substance abuse? I have no idea, but I can’t imagine how difficult their life must have been that they would want to drown out their sorrows in such a way.

Perhaps these are the wrong questions. I don’t know why bad things happen or what causes people to do what they do. When people are afflicted by whatever it is that demonstrates a poverty of hope, where will I be? Will I be the one looking the other way, or looking in their eyes? Will I be the one pointing my finger, or the one wrapping my arm around them? Will I be the one sitting next to them or standing over them?

Collectively, we ought to silence the voice of the oppressor by giving ear to the voice of the oppressed. The oppressor is the one who has lead us to believe that caring for the stranger is a bad idea. The oppressor is the one who speaks fear into our ears when hope would inspire us to share our sandwich with the homeless man on the bench outside the office. The voice of the oppressor tells us to be silent and mind our own business when given the opportunity to advocate for someone who is in trouble. The voice of the oppressor convinces us that the poor are not our problem and that they should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, when hope sees they have no boots and longs to know their name and hear their story.

Hope does when nobody else is doing. Hope accompanies when everyone else is gone. Hope speaks up when everyone else is silent. While fear can paralyze a person, hope can get them out of the chair. Hope inspires dreams in place of nightmares. Hope helps, even when the recipient seems capable. Hope sees the barriers and assists in removing them. Hope advocates.  Hope gives without strings attached. Hope is a much needed shelter or warm meal. Hope empowers. Hope transforms the most tragic of situations. Hope shines bright in the darkness.

J Hankins



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