Understanding blessings

I have spent time in the last couple of weeks reading, listening and learning in preparation for returning to the village of Pasquette, Haiti in June. I have been studying about micro-finance, sustainable development, tropical agriculture and Fair Trade certification. I have also been learning about Haitian history and about issues relating specifically to women in the Third World. Because I have a relationship with the women of Pasquette, the problems facing the women of Haiti are not abstract and academic. The problems are real and painful.

Even while I am grieving the hardship and often desperate conditions experienced by my Haitian sisters and their families, I am surrounded by more than enough. I’ve been cleaning out my kitchen cupboards and getting rid of things I no longer use or need. I wonder if I wasn’t just as good a cook and just as happy when as a newlywed I had two pots and one mixing bowl. I think of all the money I have spent accumulating tools I use once or twice a year. I am feeling more overwhelmed by deciding what to keep, what to throw and what to give away. My kitchen is bigger than most Haitian homes and still it doesn’t seem to have enough space.

My reading includes the current political debate about how we fund and administer our country’s programs to help the poor. Even though the level of poverty in Haiti is far greater than in this country, we also have a substantial part of our population who live in desperate situations. Living on less than two dollars a day may be even harder here where costs for rent, food and other necessities are much higher. According to the US Census Bureau, more than 1.4 million Americans live in households which meet that definition of extreme poverty.

Poverty in Haiti is complex and has many causes. A long history of colonization, exploitation, and political corruption combined with natural disasters and the greed of many contribute to the desperation of many. Just so, poverty in this country is just as complex. Yet it seems that many would blame the poor for their poverty. They make bad decisions. They spend their money on things they shouldn’t like drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, lottery tickets, hair dye, tattoos, expensive shoes. They drop out of school. They don’t want to work. Poor women have too many babies without fathers just to get more welfare payments. Everyone knows someone who milks the system.

I don’t doubt the stories. Being poor doesn’t automatically make you a noble person. I’m sure those stereotypes are based on real situations. Likewise, it is not difficult to find examples of the wealthy who worked very hard to achieve success and are generous with their wealth. How many more people are poor for reasons they cannot control? How many lost their job and can’t find another, got sick or injured and can’t work, or were born to parents suffering from mental illness or addiction? How many of the one percent wealthiest citizens of this country inherited wealth, got a hand up at just the right time, made money from someone else’s work, or cheated to obtain wealth?

My religious faith only makes things more complicated. If the poor are responsible for their own lot in life, then why do the Bible’s teachings show a preference for the poor and not those who have “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps?” Why does Jesus teach that feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and visiting the prisoner is the same as feeding, caring for and visiting him? Why is it easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven?

Visiting a place like Haiti can make a person feel guilty for having more than one needs and, at the same time, it can make one feel greatly blessed. Blessings, however, are not earned. I did not earn the blessing of being born in the United States rather than in Haiti. I did not earn the parents who gave me life, loved me and taught me the value of an education, how to work hard and how to use the money I earned wisely. I was given a free, public education. I inherited land. I have received the help of friends and neighbors when I needed it. I didn’t do anything to deserve any of those gifts.

If I have no control over where I was born, who my parents were, the generosity of my family and friends, then how can I judge someone who had none of those blessings? What is my responsibility to others who have not been blessed in the same way? Is the disparity between the gifts I have been given and those of my sisters in Haiti the will of God? Why would a loving God will that those women and their families (all created in God’s image) live without clean water, hungry and in a tent? Why not bless them in the same way as I have been blessed? How does my way of life and the public policies which benefit me affect others? What responsibilities come with my many blessings?

My cupboards are cleaner, emptier and more orderly. If only understanding complex issues was as easily accomplished.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains