By Meghan Mast
“Rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is the Maker of them all,” reads Proverbs 22:2. This passage is a convicting reminder that none of us is above another. We are all equal in the eyes of our creator.
And yet, some of us undoubtedly face larger obstacles than others. In Canada, one out of every seven people live in poverty. People living with disabilities are twice as likely to live below the poverty line. In nearly every urban centre in Canada, Aboriginal people (Inuit, First Nations, and Metis people) are over-represented in the homeless population. And one out of every two status First Nations children live in poverty. These numbers point to the shameful truth that we have failed some of the most vulnerable people in our country.
Living in poverty comes with serious health consequences. This means that people living in poverty are more likely to face health issues than people living above the poverty line. A recent study out of McMaster University showed a 21-year difference in life expectancy between the poorest and wealthiest residents in Hamilton, Ont.
It's easy to become discouraged by these statistics. But despair doesn't do much good. And there is certainly plenty we can do to help. The Bible is full of passages encouraging us to do so. In his first letter, John writes, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with action and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18)
Action can take a variety of forms. It can be volunteer hours, monetary donations, advocacy work, and even simple acts of kindness at the street level.
A friend of mine worked for several years at Jacob's Well, a faith-based community space in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver. She once said that when you pass by someone who is asking for money, "the least you can do is give them a smile and make eye contact. People do not deserve to be ignored." This simple yet radical thought has stuck with me.
Maybe it's easier to look away, to ignore suffering. I would even suggest that when we look at people on the margins, we see our own perceived or real moral failings mirrored back at us. It's easier to blame someone for the situations they find themselves in, rather than recognizing the ways we are complicit. A couple years ago, Statistics Canada found that wealth and income inequality are growing. As the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.
These are complicated problems that require substantive policy changes. But we live in a democracy. One way to get involved in addressing these changes is to check out The Dignity for All campaign, led by CPJ and Canada Without Poverty. Mennonite Central Committee, where I work, also does advocacy work and raises awareness around inequality and poverty in Canada. Engaging your government representatives outside election season is especially conducive to a healthy democracy. So write your MP to ask them what they're doing to address the growing inequality in Canada.
Christ encourages us to face these difficult realities and calls us to show compassion when it is difficult, even painful. Jesus committed his life to serving those on the margins of society. He lived in poverty himself—born in a stable to a simple carpenter and his wife.
Be encouraged. Addressing poverty can be overwhelming, but you are not alone and there is so much you can do. Find strength in Isaiah 58:6-7 which tells us to "loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke," and "share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood."
Join the Dignity for All campaign this fall for our Chew on This! activities across Canada. Contact Darlene O’Leary.
Meghan Mast is trained as a journalist and is a multimedia storyteller at Mennonite Central Committee in Winnipeg.