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Summer is usually a time of relaxation from the cares of the world. The summer of 2011, however, was of an entirely different kind: it was no vacation from the issues facing the poor in America.
That summer, I worked as an intern with Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick, New Jersey:
From a small soup kitchen serving meals to moving people out of poverty, Elijah’s Promise uses food as a tool to feed people, train people and employ people in the work of ending hunger. The agency’s mission is simple: to empower lives, invite justice, and alleviate hunger. We do this by providing culinary training, education, employment, and social services (empowering lives), opportunities for community service (inviting justice,) and nutritious meals (alleviating hunger). Together, we are working to feed and fuel a healthy community.
During my internship, I was tasked with connecting people with social service programs, leading a male support group and computer classes, and screening people for drug programs. It was an eye-opening experience to see first-hand people that are struggling to survive in America because of their oppressed economic condition. There were four experiences in particular that had a lasting impression on me.
I first experienced the issue of hunger in the stories of a middle-aged African American woman and a Jewish man. The woman came to the social services office one afternoon, needing food. I was part of a group of staff members who helped by supplying her with canned food as well as drinks, and we told her about the food bank on Saturdays. When I talked to her about her situation, she explained to me that she and her son had no more food. We were the only thing standing in between this family and hunger.
My other experience was with a white Jewish male. He came to us early one afternoon, because he has not eaten in three days. I later found out that his tragic situation was caused by not receiving the proper monetary compensation that was supposed to be allotted to him by some social service. I was deeply touched and pained. After these two instances, I realized the depth of the hunger issue in New Brunswick, an issue that did not bother with stereotypes but affected people of all ages, races, and creeds. I saw with my own eyes the worry, pain, and anxiety in the faces of these children of God. I could not help but be changed by this sight.
My next experience demonstrated to me the needs of the homeless in New Brunswick. One day, two men (one white and the other black) came to my superior and me looking for affordable housing. They came because they had heard about the four affordable housing units that were provided by the government. My superior and I had to inform them that the four units were already occupied. Over forty people had applied for these same four housing units and the residents had already been chosen. Over time, I came into contact with many people just like these two men, people desperately looking for housing. Government services such as Section 8 and Rapid-Rehousing, were not working, not when considering all the housing shortages and a bureaucracy that had people waiting for months or more to hear back on their housing status. I had known that homelessness was bad but never before had I imagined such a magnitude of problems. I came to the conclusion that homelessness must be seen by America as an issue of national importance!
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A final experience opened my eyes to the deep-seeded financial issues facing the poor. One day, as Elijah’s Promise volunteers were serving lunch, a young African American woman wanted to talk with me. She told me that she needed help with her prescription payment. I told her there was a free healthcare clinic nearby and open on Thursdays. When I asked her how much her prescription was, I was shocked to hear that it was only four dollars! I wondered how dismal are the financial struggles of the poor, if someone cannot pay for a four dollar prescription? I was deeply disturbed by this experience. This was a young woman. She had a job. But she could not pay for a four dollar prescription. Suddenly, I was standing face to face with the social issue of economic insufficiency (not being able to afford what you need).
All four of these experiences, I believe, are a microcosm of the issues facing the poor in America. We all know or have seen people on the street, at the train station, or at a homeless shelter. The question we all have to ask ourselves is when we see them or encounter these children of God again, what will we do? I submit to you that we have at least two choices: apathy or compassion. I believe that some of us are apathetic toward the issues of hunger, homelessness, and economic insufficiency because of at least one of these reasons: 1) we do not believe that things can really change in society, 2) we have lost hope, 3) we have been directly or indirectly let down when we or someone we have known needed help, and/or 4) it is too emotionally taxing to care for and about the poor.
In the summer of 2011, I chose compassion. I chose compassion because apathy was not going to help the people with whom I was working, and it was not going to help me. I chose compassion because, through it, I was given something very dear: a glimpse into lives different from my own. The empathy that came with that glimpse was a gift. Moreover, I chose compassion because it moved me beyond pity and sympathy to action with and beside. I did not need to feel powerless. For, while I had little, I came to understand my own meager resources as capable of real transformation in the lives of others—and of myself. I did not have money for the young lady, I did not have a home for those seeking houses, and I did not have enough food to supply all the needs of the hungry woman or the Jewish man. However, I did have compassionate service, and that is what I gave them. I compassionately served them in love with what I had. Next time we encounter these issues in our lives, next time we see that homeless man on the street, or that hungry woman desperately trying to make eye contact with us, what will we choose: apathy or compassion? Pity or action? Will we walk on or will we stop and notice—perhaps for the first time?
Dawan Buie is a committed servant of Christ who in his brief 23 years has decided to serve the kingdom. His service has led him to places like News Brunswick, NJ to serve the “least of these” and India to acquire knowledge of global poverty. Dawan plans in the next decade of his life to work in the USA as a future pastor and/or professor, whose ministry will focus on serving the poor and giving a voice to those in this society who don’t have one. Dawan is currently a Master of Divinity student at Princeton Theological Seminary. Article Photo by “weatherbox.”
 Mission statement of Elijah’s Promise, http://www.elijahspromise.net/.