There is always someone poorer

slum homes near railroadA year after we moved to our “new” slum, my wife and I shifted rooms in order to live with my best friend Salman1. Soon after the move came an unexpected, heartbreaking season for his family. It was not easy, but the opportunity to know their lives better was a gift.

The tragedy struck two months into our stay. Salman’s father Rafik, who had been infirm for some time, passed away during the night.1 His early passing made 21-year-old Salman the oldest male in a household with four younger sisters and a brother. It was a difficult time for them, and we did our best to support them through it. Often it felt like our reserves were low and what we could do was very little.

On the third day after Rafik’s death, a hafiz ji2 came by to lead a short prayer service. After the prayers Salman asked if I would come with him to do something. My friend took a large plate of food from his mother, covered it, and led me out the door.

We snaked down narrow alleys until we reached the railroad tracks. There small homes clung to a rise of dirt. Canvas walls propped up with sticks were shaded by tarp-and-plastic roofs. We ducked into an opening that passed for a door. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I made out an oil lamp, barely illuminating a family crowded onto a single wooden takaat.3

My heart caught as I understood their situation. I had not realized that right there in our neighborhood, there were families who still lived without electricity.

Salman handed them the food. They nodded and transferred it onto their own plate. I greeted them respectfully then blurted out, “I am Salman’s friend.” As we walked out, Salman shared, “That is our past. That used to be our state.”

life in a slum home with dirt floorSalman’s family was one of the poorest I knew. Their father had not had meaningful work since his health had turned. The floor of their home was dirt, their roof was plastic, their brick walls were collapsing. Yet a decade earlier, they had been even more destitute, and they could still remember how they had struggled. So here they were, giving food to a family poorer than themselves.

They proceeded to do the same thing on the 5th day, 7th day, 10th day, 20th day, 30th day, 40th day, and every other day of remembrance for the dead. It reminded me of the poor widow who served Elijah, the one who gave even when she had nothing left to live on.4

If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones. – Ma Joad, The Grapes of Wrath

This is something we see over and over and over again in our basti.5 The poor give to those poorer. And the poorer they are, the more dedicated they are to giving.

“Free meals on days of religious observance” isn’t a formula for ending poverty. If it is performed out of obligation or in lieu of other efforts to help, then it might not do much good at all. But in Salman’s act I saw a heart of compassion, and most of all I saw a core of trust – the trust that says no matter how tough our lives are, no matter how little we have, we will still give to those with less. That is a faith I have seen more often in the poor than in those who have avoided poverty.

What good is the security of wealth, if it makes you more insecure about giving it?

Footnotes:

[1] Name changed to protect privacy
[2] “hafiz ji”: a Muslim religious figure who gives prayers at formal events
[3] “takaat”: a simple wooden bedframe that often doubles as a couch
[4] 1 Kings 17:7-16
[5] “basti”: literally “community”, a local colloquialism for poor/urban slum communities

2 thoughts on “There is always someone poorer

  1. Mark Delaney

    Nice post.
    This certainly reflects my experience with the poor as well. Not all my poor friends, but many are incredibly generous.

    I wonder if this is some of what Jesus means by: –
    “Blessed are you who are Poor for yours is the Kingdom of God”,
    not so much that the experience of poverty is a blessed thing, but when it leads to care for others, that is blessed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. shar

    (I only came here because Shanti told me you were pining but it was actually very interesting!) This is something that is really hard to remember when I’m caught up in my own petty struggles (I have to make up my mind about which university to go to! my life is so hard!). From a position of privilege, it’s easy to know that there are always people in more need from us, yet it’s also easy not to do anything (even though we can do so much!). Jesus is always telling stories of the blessed poor, although I guess being poor rarely feels blessed. But yet there’s still great goodness in bleak situations, which you managed to capture. (Is this making me sound patronising? I’m not trying to be)

    Liked by 1 person

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