Poverty and providence

I grew up in a typical middle-class family. While I weren't surrounded by luxury, I do not remember lacking anything. Of course, that didn't mean I always appreciated what I had. I suppose that is the negative side of being a child blessed with a general sense of material security — you risk taking things for granted, not out of ill-will, but simply out of inexperience.

Still, this did not meant that I didn't know poverty existed. I remember seeing images of extreme poverty on television — families experiencing famine in some distant country, for example, who were on display as part of some telethon to raise money for a charity. Of course, the producers of these telethons would put up the most pitiful scenes, such as of hungry mothers trying to tend to their malnourished children. I was very disturbed by such images, and I remember asking my father about them. My naive question was direct and to the point:

"Why do they have so many children if they can't feed them?" I asked. It seemed to me to be a basic element of parental responsibility.

"Well," my father replied, "they probably had those children at a time when there was enough food. It is only after that the problems began. But you know, Tom, there is enough food in the world to feed everyone. The problem isn't growing it. The problem is sharing it, and getting it to everyone."

My father's answer shed a completely new light on the situation. I suddenly realised that poverty was a deeply moral question, and that it wasn't just a moral question for those who were poor. Somehow, everyone was involved, whatever their wealth or poverty. It was a question of solidarity.

I had a chance to experience in a practical way through an activity organized at a local parish sometime later. It was called a "poor man's supper". I had been to such an event before. They were normally fundraising dinners, in which the participants paid for tickets as for a typical fundraising dinner, but for which the meal was very simple (usually not much more than soup). The goal was to be in solidarity with the poor, not only through the donation of money, but also in what we ate. In the case of this parish, however, there was an additional twist. Once we were seated, an explanation was given regarding what would happen next. Each participant would turn over their plate to see what kind of meal they would get. Most participants were going to get the usual simple meal, but two at each table were to be exceptions: one participant was to only receive water and a bit of bread, while the other would get a sumptuous feast. The goal was to sensitize us to the way food was actually distributed in the world — most got something, while some got almost nothing, and a few were able to eat like kings.

One thing was for sure: in my little kid brain (and little kids are always hungry), I really didn't want to get the non-meal. I remember being quite nervous about it, in fact. As it turned out, however, I ended up with the sumptuous feast! At first I ate with relish — after all, it wasn't as if it was my fault that I got lucky in my choice of seat. Still, as the meal progressed I couldn't help but think that something was wrong with this scenario.

I'd like to claim that I immediately started to share my meal with others, but to be honest I don't remember if I did or not. However, I do remember reflecting on the experience afterwards, putting it in a bigger context. "How is it," I wondered, "that I was born in Canada, in a place of plenty, when I could have just as easily been born someplace else, such as the place shown in the television program, where people lived in desperate poverty?"

In other words, was it just luck, like it had been with the plate?

Or was it a sign of God's providence?

And if it was providence, what responsibility did that mean for me to share what I had with others?

Heavy thoughts for a little kid, but looking back I know now that these were the first stirrings of a sense of social justice and solidarity within me.