Poverty: A Quick call for Venn Diagrams

There’s no question that Ta’Nahisi Coates’s work at The Atlantic Magazine, on racism and economic injustice, combines solid research and scholarship in multiple academic fields with personal and community experiences and diversities. The resultant conversation, in multiple fora, leads me to wonder if we UUs need to get ourselves a social media small group ministry just to keep up with this unfolding opportunity.

But after a brief attempt at providing UU parish ministry in one of the neighborhoods where longterm poverty shelters in Boston, I can tell you that each family is a tiny Venn diagram of opportunities and challenges, in each case, both short and long-term. While history plays a role, only the most faithful commitment to Process Theology — a belief in constantly shifting, interacting, mutually-transformative micro-elements — will truly unpack every person’s best potential or safest landings. At the same time, as evidenced by the statement “A sneeze in Brooklyn impacts a butterfly in Beijing,” these micro-elements do have some combinations that endure long enough to gain shape, substance, and location, before disappearing. TNC’s genius is capturing both the dynamism and the gravitational pulls which keep reformulating these shapes, substances, and locations.

What endures in these neighborhoods, usually for only one or two generations, is a particular Venn Diagram. Separate elements I observed are:

  • Above all, mental and physical disabilities, many of them nothing more than learning or developmental disabilities for which we are not equipping families to break out of learned responses from earlier, undiagnosed generations. What I saw in white families — and am experiencing now, as caregiver for a partner with a vicious hereditary disease — is that many disability genes will completely trump so-called “white privilege.” Where “white privilege” plays out is when it allows other family members, either in previous or contemporary generations, to help the impacted nuclear group. In non-Caucasian families, lack of these disabilities is the key to advancing over time. Just listen to the protests against “affirmative advancement” as the prioritizing of the allegedly less capable over the allegedly more capable.
  • Racism against families whose previous generations had fewer opportunities than traumatic oppressions, deprivations, and displacements. A single traumatic event in a healthy family often fails to change a healthy family system, which is why immigrants, refugees, even most African-American families exhibit great capacity to recover and repair themselves. It’s also why power-hungry exploiters of racism keep coming back again and again: to disrupt the family system, not just one person. Again, as TNC points out, the assets of previous generations and contemporary relatives make all the difference in withstanding these assaults.
  • Government commitment to marginal business enterprises, including housing, which serve the radically local lifestyle of people who can’t afford cars, can’t drive, or only feel comfortable dealing with merchants they know and trust.
  • Affordable, reliable, preventive, proactive medical and lifestyle supports for families whose disabilities long ago removed the ability to partake of any market system for wellness.
  • Financial support for family caregivers, whether raising children or assisting the elderly and disabled.
  • Safe, adequate, community-based policing of the pernicious, pervasive personal crimes — theft, harassment, vandalism — in which local news has no interest, either personal or financial.

There are probably others, but these are the ones that come to my mind in a hurry.

What surprised me was the value of Unitarian Universalism in such an environment. What worked for the neighborhood included a long list of things that many Social Justice UUs disdain:

  • Critical thinking about discrete individuals, events, situations,
  • Willingness to observe behaviors rather than run toward the noisiest voices.
  • insistence that it’s best to wait for a full accounting of facts, including from institutional players like banks and cops
  • A strong message of faith in a loving God or Universe or Whatever, tempered by the humanist right to envision that Whatever in a personal way
  • Openness to the moment when someone’s discovery that there can be an open-minded divinity completely overwhelms the social issue that brought them into the meeting, and a parish-based institutional way to welcome and support that person while helping them deal with more than one element of the Venn Diagram listed above.

I didn’t have the strength to maintain a parish ministry in that environment. But what I learned in that setting made it possible for me to embrace a life partner with a major Venn Diagram characteristic.

We’ll be getting married on the Solstice, later this month, supported and celebrated by a strong combination of family, friends, neighbors, and faith community. And we’re still UUs. It can be done. We are doing it.


3 thoughts on “Poverty: A Quick call for Venn Diagrams

  1. I sit with MLK’s critique of liberal theology a lot and it makes me remember why I’m so attracted to liberation theology moreso than liberal theology. I wrote about it a few years ago now, so maybe it’s time for me to take another look at it.

    Did I read that both of the favorite baseball teams of your house lost their games on the same day? Hope things go better for both teams soon.

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