Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Thousand Points of Light…

…won’t cut it. On Christmas morning Katherine and I joined volunteers at the Tucson Convention Center to assist the Salvation Army in serving Christmas dinner. Our particular job was to drive around Tucson and deliver Christmas dinners to the sick or elderly who simply couldn’t leave their homes.

Christmas and Thanksgiving attract great numbers of volunteers eager to reach out to serve their fellow Tucsonans who are struck down by illness, homelessness, poverty, or the isolated loneliness of the elderly.

The Salvation Army PR person reports that more than 200 people volunteered on each of the two holidays. 3600 meals were served or delivered on Thanksgiving and 2400 on Christmas.

I think it’s fair to ask what good, in the long run, this annual feeding of the poor does. Of course it certainly provides a hot meal to people in need on two days out of the year. What it does not do is solve the problems of homelessness, poverty, the mentally ill forced on the streets as the result of the arbitrary closure of mental health facilities, or the social isolation that frequently comes with old age.

Feeding the poor is a ritual act, like washing feet, but as at least one famous foot-washer observed, “The poor you shall have always with you.” However extensive volunteerism becomes it will not solve problems embedded in a socie
ty’s social and political structure. The solutions require political action.

The value in volunteering is that it puts volunteers in direct contact with the poor and dispossessed. It reminds them (and I include myself here) that “the poor” are not just a category of social analysis but human beings. If we could get more people to spend just one day working in a homeless shelter they would be more inclined to endorse the political action nec
essary to really address the problems of poverty.

I wonder if that might not be the idea behind John Edwards’s One Corp?

1 comment:

Liza said...

This is a GREAT post. And, its very timely as well.

For a couple of months this year I volunteered to work for a local group that attempts to find employment for people over 50. I really didn't know what to expect initially. I was told that the program provided services for a whole range of people from professionals to the homeless.

I can assure you that very few, if any, professionals use this program. The people I interviewed were, for the most part, from the working poor. Many of them were in their 60's and 70's, and for different reasons found themselves without enough money to make ends meet. In almost all cases, they were doing without something most of us consider essential such as a car, dental work, health care, whatever. They were willing to work for 7,8 or 9 dollars an hour.

What you say is absolutely true. A theoretical discussion about poverty is very different from poverty that stares into your face.

I like the fact that John Edwards is so involved with poverty related issues and is making that a major part of his campaign. I'm just wondering how well this message will resonate with middle class voters who tend to assume that "the government" is taking care of people.