I Can't Forget and I Won't Ignore

Every day is a learning process. Seven months ago I spent three days learning about a problem that has no clear, definite solution. The problem still waits; I have not solved it — yet. I say "yet" because of what those three days taught me.

The apparent insolubility of a problem is not a comfortable excuse to give in, but a call for fortitude in the struggle to achieve a solution. I spent three days in August of 1999 in Philadelphia soup kitchens as part of a community outreach program organized by the Community Service Core. I am not a monument of piety. I was simply bored and looking to even out the score a little. I've never had to struggle for much; I was born into a wonderful family and a relatively secure financial situation. Others were born, and continue to be born, into less than nothing: poverty, drugs, prostitution. They don't deserve destitution any more than I deserve plenitude.

So for three days, I lived with about ten other volunteers in a parish-owned row home in northeast Philadelphia. There was one shower, little hot water, no beds, and no air conditioning. Sparse, but as temporary residents none of us minded much, especially when we witnessed the living conditions of the people we were there to help. During the day we served lunch at different kitchens. At night we split up to canvass downtown Philadelphia and tell the people on the street about shelters offering food and an escape from the heat. We talked to many people; some were grateful, others were angry, many were indifferent, a few were crazy. I listened and before I knew it, my thinking had changed.

I believe in the American Dream; if you work hard and make the most of what you have you can succeed. But how do you make the most of a cocaine addiction that began at age ten when the local dealer first got you hooked? How do you succeed when you're kicked out of your house at age thirteen, picked up by a pimp on the street and forced into prostitution? If you have no family, where do you go after a maiming car accident puts you in the hospital for a month, you lose your job and you're left with bills your insurance doesn't cover? Those are only a few stories I heard during my three days of community service in one small section of my city.

When I decided to volunteer for this program it was not my intention to attempt to find a solution for poverty. I wanted to help some homeless people, feel good about myself, even a little self-righteous, and move on, content that I had done my part in the war on poverty. The men, women, and children I spoke to made such detachment impossible. I couldn't make eye contact with these people without thinking: There has got to be a cure. This can't be it. There must be some simple solution that just hasn't occurred to anyone yet. I thought of nothing else.

I strove to find the answer that was surely lurking somewhere in the recesses of my mind. The recesses proved barren; I could not solve the problem of poverty in my city after working in it and think about it unflaggingly for three days.

The problem remains. It confronts me every time another homeless person asks me for change on my way home. It's the coins jingling in the Styrofoam cup as I pass. It's the empty hand reaching out to me. It's the cardboard sign held up to my car window. So what do I do? I can't forget and I won't ignore. My own alternative is to hold this problem close, where every opportunity to chip away at it can be fully utilized. I know I will return to the kitchens, for I must keep contact with the concrete reality of poverty if I can ever hope to eradicate it.

In the struggle to solve this massive dilemma I may one day come to the revelation that has eluded so many. Until then I have to keep going; in life there is no such thing as a simple solution.

Submitted by Anonymous


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