3 TVs and No Food: Growing Up Poor in America

Yesterday around noon, I met a woman who was going to sing at a funeral later in the afternoon.  I asked who had passed.  She said, kind of matter-of-factly, “It was my friend’s son.  He was shot.  We have a lot of killin’s round here.”  She lives roughly 15 miles from my house.

Today I stopped by my friend Neng’s place. (You might remember him, the Montagnard refugee who lived in the woods for seven years, and sometimes had to eat squirrels and birds.) I was bringing Neng some hot peppers, donated by my friend Lawrence. I knocked, and when he opened the door, he said, “No food ma’am! Need go bank. Food stamps no work. Two weeks.” We drove over to Compare Foods, at the corner of Summit and Bessemer.  Neng likes to go into the store and shop alone, so I sat in the car.

As I looked around, it didn’t look anything like the parking lot of The Fresh Market on New Garden, where I got my strawberries on sale this weekend.  The parking lot of Compare Foods was a literal sea of poverty.  It was about 5:30 pm, so lots of folks coming and going. Broken down, old cars, ragged clothes, even the way people walked… so different, more stooped, somehow.  Defeated.

To begin to understand, take a look at this New York Times article on poverty – published 4 days ago. Heartbreak.  These are the people I saw today at Compare Foods.  And they are the woman in whose neighborhood “There are a lot of killin’s.”

3 TVs and No Food: Growing Up Poor in America

Remember the words to the old Elvis Presley song, “In the Ghetto?”  Ringing in my ears.


My Confession

A few words from “The Limits of Charity,” by David Hilfiker, included below:

“Charity is necessary, but especially when extended long-term, it undermines human dignity. It wounds the self-worth of its recipients. Because some are givers and others are receivers, charity “acts out” inequality.”

I read this piece (included below) late last night, just before going to sleep.  Today I awoke in tears. Tears of shame, tears that it took me so long to understand.  Tears of fear that even now, when I speak, I don’t articulate what I’ve learned well enough to inch anything forward.  David Hilfiker’s words speak my confession: that I too, have offered charity, and have done precious little to work for justice.

I am asking you to please take ten minutes to read his words, the words of a doctor who has worked with folks living in poverty since 1983.  In a way, these are also the words of his confession.  As well as his call to action.

The Limits of Charity** by David Hilfiker

The words of the prophet Micah are familiar:

What does the Lord require of you?
To act justly,
to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God, (6:8)
But what if our love of mercy chokes out our ability to act justly?

Since 1983, I have worked as a doctor with poor people in the inner city of Washington, D.C. I began at Community of Hope Health Services, a small church-sponsored clinic, and at Christ House, a thirty-fourbed medical recovery shelter for homeless men. In 1990, I founded Joseph’s House, a ten-bed community for homeless men with AIDS where I work now. I intend to continue working there. But I’ve been having misgivings.

I have begun to see some “side effects” to the kind of work I do, and they concern the important difference between justice and charity. Justice has to do with fairness, with what people deserve. It results from social structures that guarantee moral rights. Charity has to do with benevolence or generosity. It results from people’s good will and can be withdrawn whenever they choose.

To put the question most bluntly: Do our works of charity impede the realization of justice in our society?

This is not a question of our personal commitment to justice. Throughout all of my years in Washington, I have yearned for justice and felt ready to sacrifice for it. I have hoped that my work brings attention to the plight of the poor and thus contributes to justice.

What I actually do, however, is offer help to poor people. Though I believe God calls me to do this, I could leave at any time. The poor people I have served over the past seventeen years have had no “right” to what I was giving them. While I believe in justice for the poor and in challenging the structures of our society that deprive them of that justice, in fact I have offered charity.

My overall concern is this: Charitable endeavors such as Joseph’s House serve to relieve the pressure for more fundamental societal changes. In her book Sweet Charity, sociologist Janet Poppendieck writes that charity acts as “a sort of a ‘moral safety valve”; it reduces the discomfort evoked by visible destitution in our midst by creating the illusion of effective action and offering us myriad ways of participating in it. It creates a culture of charity that normalizes destitution and legitimates personal generosity as a response to [injustice].”

I was reminded of this recently when I attended a Walk for the Homeless in Washington, one of those many good and important efforts to raise money for Joseph’s House and similar organizations. Before we began to walk, a nationally known sports star gave a little pep talk, exhorting the walkers to “go out and do your part to end homelessness.” I have nothing against the walk, and I suspect the sports star did not really intend the implication, but walking five kilometers on a beautiful Saturday morning is not “doing your part to end homelessness.”

Something similar happens at Joseph’s House itself. How many of our contributors and volunteers end up feeling that their participation with us fulfills their responsibilities to the poor? It will not be a conscious thought, of course. But you come down and volunteer for a while, or you write a check, and it feels good. Perhaps you develop a close relationship with a formerly homeless man with AIDS, and you realize your common humanity. You feel a real satisfaction in that. You bring your children. But in the process you risk forgetting what a scandal it is that Joseph’s House or your local soup kitchen is needed in the first place, forgetting that it is no coincidence that your new friend is black, poor, illiterate, and unskilled. It is easy to lose an appropriate sense of outrage.

Several factors to consider: [The following section in italics has been edited significantly. It contains the initial thoughts and many of the words of David Hilfiker. But many sentences have been summarized, reworded or deleted. For the full, unedited article, see: http://umcgbcs.org/content/general/Limits_of_Charity.pdf. Michael Smith 8/19/2014]

  • Places like Joseph’s House may give voters and policy makers the impression that the problem is being taken care of. A little publicity may create the illusion that the issue of AIDS and homelessness has been addressed.
  • It is the same with soup kitchens and shelters. They started as emergency responses to terrible problems–to help ensure that people do not starve or die from the elements. No one ever considered these services as permanent solutions. But soup kitchens and food pantries are now our standard response to hunger; cities see shelters as adequate housing for the homeless. Our shelters can divert attention from the fact that everyone has a right to decent housing. Our soup kitchens can mask the reality that everyone has a right to eat.
  • While we do charity, we also need to engage in advocacy to change the systems. But who has time for that demanding work? It takes lots of “people power” to run non-profits like Joseph’s House: board members, staff, and volunteers. Even those who understand that charity does not create a just society have little time or energy left for advocacy work.
  • And, the work of advocacy is less rewarding than day-to-day contact with needy people. It is less direct. As an advocate, the change I see may come slowly. Because direct service is more appealing, the desperately needed work of advocacy is often left undone.
  • A more subtle problem is that many social ministries may unwittingly contribute to the perception that governmental programs for the poor are inefficient and wasteful, and are better “privatized.” The last twenty years have seen a harsh turn against government. People in our society who oppose justice for the poor have used the inevitable organizational problems within some government programs to harshly judge any kind of governmental action. They point to the “efficiency” of nonprofit organizations.
  • It is not surprising that most nonprofits can do things with relatively little money. Volunteered hours, donated goods, low or non-existent salaries, and space donated by churches are the norm for many. Government programs do not get enormous infusions of free time and materials, so of course they are more expensive than ours. But “expensive” is different from “inefficient.”
  • Only the government–that is, “we the people,” acting in concert locally, state-wide, or nationally– can guarantee rights, can create or oversee programs that assure everyone adequate access to what they need. Only government can establish the policies by which business, nonprofit and faith communities can work together to resolve social problems. Government is often the best convener for those collaborative conversations.
  • Rebecca Blank was a government economist during the Bush administration and author of It Takes A Nation, an excellent, balanced look at U.S. poverty. She points out that if we asked churches to pay the costs of only three government programs–welfare for families, disability payments for the poor, and food stamps–every single church, synagogue, mosque, and other religious congregation would have to come up with $300,000 a year. Add in Medicaid, and the need for additional funding more than doubles!
  • Charity is necessary, but especially when extended long-term, it undermines human dignity. It wounds the self-worth of its recipients. Because some are givers and others are receivers, charity “acts out” inequality. Poppendieck writes that charity excuses the recipient from the usual socially required obligation to repay, which means sacrificing some piece of that person’s dignity.

Our charitable works simply cannot provide care for all who need these services. Yet our projects can give the illusion that charity is the solution.

I am not, of course, suggesting that we abandon charity. As an adjunct to justice, charity is both necessary in our current situation and a requirement of our faith. But we must acknowledge the broader implications of our charity and recognize that it alone is not enough. That done, we need to start thinking about ways for our charitable organizations to support those who work for justice.

Our promotional materials, for example, must at least refer to systemic factors, recognizing that charity is not the solution.

We must be careful about comparing our work to, or even alluding to, the “inefficiency” of government programs.

We must offer our volunteers reading materials, seminars, and discussion opportunities about the systemic issues. By putting themselves into face-to-face contact with the poor, they have taken an important first step. We need to encourage them to continue the journey.

We must include education as part of our mission. This can mean talking about larger issues in our newsletters and donor appeals. Perhaps it will result in a few people dropping their financial support, but that is the type of risk our organizations need to take.

We must engage in political advocacy. By law, tax-exempt organizations are able to use portions of their budget for advocacy. What if every social ministry dedicated 5 percent of its budget to advocacy, freeing up time for staff to preach sermons, to speak on justice issues in small groups at our churches, to testify before government commissions, to write letters to their newspaper, to call or write our elected representatives?

We must get behind the effort to drastically change campaign financing. Though barred from supporting individual candidates, nonprofits can use this election year to emphasize that the United States will not be an effective democracy until the enormous influence of money on government decisions is reduced. “We the people” currently have little power to persuade our representatives to vote for justice.

Working for justice is messier and far less rewarding than charity. There are no quick fixes, and the most common reason for quitting is discouragement. But we have little choice. Within an unjust society, there are limitations to our charity; we need to join others in the struggle for justice as well. It is a fundamental requirement of our faith.


**This piece is adapted from an abbreviated version of an article that first appeared under the title ”When Charity Chokes Justice” in The Other Side in the September-October, 2000 issue on pp 10 and following. © David Hilfiker 2000.


Post Note: In a June 2013 Bread for the World meeting in Washington, DC, Bread board member, Sharon Thornberry summarized well how these issues impact hunger in the United States: Rather than working to change the complex web of factors that perpetuate hunger and poverty, we have developed a parallel and second-class food distribution system that rivals the size and complexity of the retail food industry. This system also has the effect of subsidizing the profitability of many employers who pay their workers such low wages that they cannot afford to feed their families. Those employees thus are dependent on assistance from government and volunteer programs. We have chosen charity over justice. And yet we have the power to create a more just society.

Little Green and Blue Books available NOW!

Mission accomplished!  The fourth edition of “The Little Green Book” and the third edition of “The Little Blue Book” are now available in 83 locations (see list below) across the City of Greensboro.  Bottomless thanks to the League of Women Voters for helping get the word out that volunteers were needed to help with delivery, and to the responsiveness of that amazing organization.  Many dear friends, including some of our Monday Morning Breakfast Crew members, are also a part of this team.  If you see these kind souls around town, please join me in thanking:

Anna Fesmire                                    Ann Shaw                                     Cheryl Smith

Clarisse Grubby                                David Hanner                               Dian Carr

Beth Burt                                            Kathi and Dan Torok                  Laurey Solomon

Linda Danforth                                 Lynn Bennett                               Mary Pat Phaaf

Paula Stober                                      Shirley Vestal


Cone Health, United Healthcare and Greensboro Urban Ministry continue to sponsor printing of 10,000 copies of each book every April and October, 40,000 copies per year.  So needed, we ran out of both about 6 weeks ago.  I am very grateful for the compassion of folks in these organizations, and their willingness to support these ongoing efforts.

And never, ever forget Lawrence Ross, ever faithful in formatting the considerable amount of changes that come with verification regarding what locations are/are not still serving before each printing.  Lawrence, you’re awesome.  Thank you.

 To find the delivery location nearest you, please check out the list below:

Alamance Presbyterian Church 4000 Presbyterian Rd
Alcohol and Drug Services of Guilford County 301 East Washington St
Beloved Community Center 417 Arlington St
Bessemer United Methodist Church 3015 East Bessemer Ave
Blessed Table 3210 B Summit Ave
Bread of Life Food Pantry 1606 Phillips Ave
Cedar Grove Tabernacle of Praise 612 Norwalk St
Celia Phelps Memorial United Methodist 3709 Groometown Rd
Center for New North Carolinians 915 West Lee St
City of Greensboro 300 West Washington St
Community Health and Wellness 201 Wendover Ave East
Cone Center for Children 301 East Wendover Ave, Suite 100
Cone Internal Medicine Center 1200 N. Elm
Cone Urgent Care 1123 North Church St
Department of Social Services 1203 Maple St
Ebenezer Baptist Church 2700 West Vandalia Rd
Faith Action International 705 North Greene St
Faithworks Ministries 3304 Spring Garden St
First Lutheran Church 3600 West Friendly Ave
First Presbyterian 617 North Elm St
Friendly Avenue Church of Christ 5101 W Friendly Ave
Goodwill Industries, JOTO 1235 S. Eugene St
Grace Community Church 643 West Lee St
Grace United Methodist Church 438 West Friendly Ave
Greensboro Central Library Church Street
Greensboro Chamber of Commerce 342 North Elm St
Greensboro Christian Church 3232 Yanceyville St
Greensboro Housing Authority 1306 East Lee St.
Greensboro Housing Coalition 122 North Elm St, Suite 4
Greensboro Police Department 2602 South-Elm Eugene St
Greensboro Public Library 219 North Church St
Greensboro Urban Ministry 305 West Lee St
Groometown United Methodist Church 5005 Groometown Rd
Guilford Baptist Church 5904 West Market St
Guilford Child Development 1200 Arlington St
Guilford County Food Pantry 202 Franklin Blvd
Guilford County Health Department 1100 Wendover Ave East
Guilford County Schools 2500 Lees Chapel  Road
Interactive Resource Center 407 East Washington St
Jewish Family Services 5509 C West Friendly Ave
Lawndale Baptist Church 3505 Lawndale Dr
Lutheran Church of Our Father 3304 Groometown Rd
Mary’s House 520 Guilford Ave
Monarch 201 North Eugene St
Montagnard Dega Association 611 Summit Ave #10
Mount Zion Baptist Church 1301 Alamance Church Rd
Moye’s Barber Shop 629 MLK Drive
Muirs Chapel United Methodist Church 314 Muirs Chapel Rd
NC African Services Coalition 122 North Elm St
New Covenant Christian Center 1305 Ball St
New Zion Missionary Baptist Church 1310 MLK Dr
Northside Baptist Church 1100 East Cornwallis
Nu-Life Church 209 West Florida St
One Step Further 623 Eugene Ct
Partners Ending Homelessness 1500 Yanceyville St
Pathways 3517 North Church St
PDY&F Food Pantry 1523 Barto Place
Planned Parenthood 1704 Battleground Ave
Re4HIM 201 South Eugene St
Reading Connections 122 North Elm St
Red Cross 1501 Yanceyville St
Redeemed Christian Church of God 1808 Mack St
Salvation Army 1311 S. Eugene St
Sanctuary Deliverance Church 3631 Summit Ave
Senior Resources of Guilford County 301 East Washington St
Servant Center 1312 Lexington Ave
St. James Baptist Church 536 West Florida St
St. Matthews United Methodist Church 600 East Florida St
St. Paul Baptist Church 1309 Larkin St
St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church 2715 Horsepen Creek Rd
Triad Adult and Pediatric Medicine 1002 South Eugene St
Triad Clinical Trials 515 College Rd #15
Triad Health Project 801 Summit Ave
Trinity AME Zion Church 631 East Florida St
United Way 1500 Yanceyville St
United Youth Care Foundation 1207 4th St
US Probation Officers 101 South Edgeworth St
Vandalia Presbyterian Church 101 West Vandalia Rd
Women’s Resource Center 628 Summit Ave
Youth Focus 301 East Washington St
YWCA Family Shelter 1807 Wendover Ave East

Little Green and Blue Books October 2016 Editions

Lots of calls requesting copies are coming in!  So… here are the files – if you’re out, please feel free to print them yourself until we can get them out there.  I just sent the files over to Piedmont Graphics to print 20,000 copies, and they should be ready for delivery soon.  With the help of many volunteers, the goal is to have them delivered all over town by October 15th.

The Little Green Book October 2016 Edition

The Little Blue Book October 2016 Edition


YES! The City is working towards making it right

Lots of people have asked me what happened after my previous post titled, “We have the opportunity to make it right.” https://wordpress.com/post/themiraclesisee.wordpress.com/592  And I’ve had to respond, “I don’t know.  I haven’t heard anything.”

Until this morning.

Talk about seeing miracles.  About 7:30 am, as I was hugging folks coming through the breakfast line, I heard a voice behind me, “Hey, Miss Amy!”  It was my friend Kenneth Vaughan, with a smile the size of the Self Help building on his face.  I hadn’t seen him in several weeks, and I responded, “Hey, man!  What’s goin’ on?”  Kenneth told me, “The City hired me!  Full-time, $11 an hour.  All because of the work y’all done.”  He wagged his head from side to side, grinning ear-to-ear.  I said, “Permanently?  Do you get benefits?”  He said, “Yep!  We get everything!  Let me go get my chicken – my number is gettin’ close – and I’ll come back and tell you all about it.”   So a few minutes later, Kenneth reappeared, his bag of food in hand, and said, “Yep, it’s a real good thing, what y’all done.  It’s made a big difference for me and other people too!  They hired three of us, and they’re workin’ on hirin’ eight more.  They have to weed ’em out.  They asked me one day if I want to be hired and if I would, could I pass a drug test?  I said yes!  And they said how about tomorrow?”  Kenneth laughed, wagged his head some more and said, “I told ’em, why tomorrow?  What about today?  And they hired me that day!  Been there about a month.”  I hugged him again and said, “It’s a miracle.  Look what God has done!”  And Kenneth said, “Yep.  Soon as this happened, I started doin’ what I know He wants me to do.   Thank you, Miss Amy.  Thank you for everything.”  And I cried.

I am grateful to the City of Greensboro for doing the right thing.  So excited for Kenneth and all the others that the City has and will be hiring.  Hallelujah!

My prayer today is a simple one: that economic justice will continue to move in the right direction.

Children and addiction

Thursday morning, I got a text from a friend downtown that read, “Hey, Ms. Amy.  I was wondering do u know any1 that could help a friend of mine?  Her name is _____.    She has to go to court tmrw, and if she has nowhr for her 2 kids to go, DSS is going to adopt them out!  I can’t help her, b/cuz I have my son and grandson.  Her kids are 1 and 3.”  Late last night I got a call from a pastor.  She wanted to know how to help two women living in their cars with small children.  I referred everyone to Lindy Garnette at the Family Shelter. Thank God for Lindy and her work.

This link is from a graphic and gut-wrenching post this week, https://fatbeggars.wordpress.com/2016/08/10/jesus-the-hooker/#like-1297,  from a fellow blogger, Agent X, Fat Beggars School of Prophets, in Lubbock, Texas.  He has worked with folks dealing with homelessness, poverty and addiction for many, many years – as a volunteer.  He and his wife have recently become foster parents.

His post served as another reminder of the article in the News and Record on August 5, pleading for foster parents in Guilford County.


Last night, a friend and I had a discussion about what we see as the biggest issue downtown.  We both agreed addiction and it’s far-reaching consequences are pretty much it.

I know that posts like Agent X’s often evoke responses along the lines of, “I can’t do anything about that.  It’s too much.”  People feel overwhelmed.  But you can.  If you know anyone who can become foster parents, encourage them to do so.  Right now.

What I’ve learned so far

Y’all might remember my friend Neng, from a couple of years ago.  For some of the background, here’s a link to Jeri Rowe’s article from 2014:


In the summer of 2013, when Neng was still living in the woods, I went over late one Sunday afternoon to drop off some cucumbers and tomatoes.  As I crossed the two sets of railroad tracks, climbing the hill to get into his camp, a little wisp of smoke was rising from the woods.   Uh-oh.   First time I’d seen this.

I’m panicking, thinking OMG, is something on fire?  But as I walked into the woods, I could see Neng, squatting, cooking on a makeshift grill, a low, old barrel with plenty of rust on it.  There was a wood fire in the barrel, and on some metal bars across it were two halves of a chicken.  He didn’t have any tongs, and about every thirty seconds, he’d reach over and grab a chicken half with his hands, and turn it so it wouldn’t burn.   I said, “Where’d you get the chicken?”  Neng responded, in his very staccato way of speaking, “Mexican store!”  That meant he had walked to Compare Foods on Summit Avenue and gone shopping. (By that point, we’d gotten him food stamps, so he was no longer killing and eating squirrels and birds.)

After a couple of minutes, he took a chicken half off the grill and tried to hand it to me.  I said, “Ouch, that’s hot!”  He grinned and laid it on a plate.  Remember, we are in the woods.  There is no running water, no way to wash dishes.  But that chicken was the first thing Neng had ever had to give me.

He’d also bought canned Cokes, which were yucky hot, it was summer.  So he handed me a Coke and one of the cucumbers I’d just given him saying, “You!  Eat!”  So…. I started chomping on the whole, unwashed cucumber, quietly considering what insecticide I might be ingesting.  And eyeing the chicken, knowing I had to eat it.  And then… Neng pulled another chicken out of a plastic bag on the ground.  No cooler, no refrigeration.  He cut it down the middle with just a couple of strokes of an apparently very sharp knife, and plopped it on the fire.  No handwashing between cooked chicken and raw chicken, no washing of utensils, or the old piece of wood he was using as a cutting board.  I gulped, still eyeing the chicken he’d already put on the plate for me.

Well…. I’m very prone to food poisoning.  I’ve had it umpteen times.  So I said a little silent prayer, asking God to please let me not get sick.  I picked up the chicken, and started eating.  It was very done, which gave me a little hope to be well the next day.  Neng and I chatted away, as much as we could with his very limited English, me watching this man cook with no tongs and somehow not get burned.  When the second chicken came off the grill, he handed it to me, saying, “You, take!”  Conscious of his food stamps, I protested, “No, you keep it!”  But he insisted, “NO!  For YOU!”  Neng can get very loud, as he seems to think raising his voice somehow makes me understand better.  And I realized right then that I should take the second chicken.  He had something to give that day.  Did I eat it later? What do you think?

Now…. this post is not about Neng.  It’s about the two most important things I’ve learned in my journey of the past 3-4 years.

The first one is the significance of really getting to know people that we tend to “other.”  Knowing people who are different from you on a personal level is “othering” prevention.  As far as I can see at this juncture, it’s the only way.

The second thing is empowerment of the individual and thereby the community.  Having something to give, anything, and having a way to contribute, are both personal power.

As I strive to understand what will make this world a better place, at this point in my experience (and oh, boy, I know I don’t know all the things I don’t know J), here’s where I stand:

I’ll support any effort that brings communities together, black and white, rich and poor, from any class, for the purpose of knowing each other better and breaking down the barriers.

I’ll support any effort that empowers, but does not cause people to be beholden. 

I’m aware that change will be much slower than molasses.  But we have to, tiny change by tiny change, start making this world a better place, being cognizant of what we’re doing. Getting to know people and empowering them.

I will be writing to our Monday Breakfast Crew today to propose that we bring the food on Monday mornings and our friends downtown serve it.  Every one of the Crew should be with our friends in the serving line, and we should all eat together.  Otherwise, isn’t the Monday Crew the other?  And wouldn’t serving give our friends purpose, and something to give those who bring the food?  Just one tiny change in the world.

I am thankful to the Good Lord today for what I’ve learned so far, and prayerful that He will continue to let me learn and grant me an open heart.  Amen.