The poor you will always have with you," Jesus said. Pure statement of fact. There will always be those who lack the physical, mental, social, or emotional resources to provide for themselves in any given economic system, so "deal with it," Jesus says. "Deal with it," not by condemning them, or sending them away, or treating them as worthy of any less dignity and respect and kindness than you’d deal with me, he said. In fact, whenever you feed or house or visit or bind up the wounds of any of these, my brothers and sisters, Jesus said, you’ve done it to me. Deal with it. The poor are part of every community that’s remotely open, i.e. not gated or walled in or protected by 24-7 security guards.
The ongoing community discussion about the Panhandling Ordinance passed by the Select Board is an opportunity for us to "deal with it." Some tourists have said that they’re made "uncomfortable" by the presence of "panhandlers" outside of local businesses. While safety is a legitimate concern, "discomfort" can be a helpful thing. We all should be "uncomfortable" with the fact that there are those in our community who do not have enough to eat or adequate housing or sufficient support for their physical or mental needs. The ones who are out on Main Street are simply the obvious ones, but there are dozens --hundreds actually -- of our neighbors who consistently hungry, lack decent housing, are numbing the pain of their depression, discouragement, hopelessness, illness with a variety of various substances. We know that at least a quarter of the families in Bennington rely upon the Kitchen Cupboard for food each month. The Free Clinic is full to overflowing. Good Shepherd Shelter can house six people on any given night, leaving dozens without a place to sleep or even find shelter from the elements, with or without the ban on sleeping in cars.
There are many good and compassionate people working everyday to assist the poor and those down on their luck in our community. Agencies from the Department of Human Services to Sunrise to BROC to the Homeless Coalition to PAVE to the Greater Bennington Interfaith Community Services to any number of faith communities work tirelessly -- and even "tiredly"! -- to be of assistance, to stand in solidarity, to work through systems with those who find themselves in need. But too often it can feel like sticking fingers in the dike, holding back the flood of human need that any day might overwhelm us.
This is an issue that demands a wider discussion, greater creativity and imagination, more sectors of our community involved in coming to the table. Pope Francis, in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, called on the people of faith to address the structures that keep people in poverty.
Those structures include tax codes, educational systems, distribution of resources, advertising that defines us as consumers only, social systems that separate people into permanent different economic classes, health care systems, economic systems that put profits over people. Addressing the structures that keep people in poverty is neither simple nor easy. But "deal with it" we must.
While many people’s experience of life is one of scarcity -- scarcity of resources, of hope, of safety, of health, of joy --the underlying principle of the two religious holidays we celebrate in this season -- Christmas and Hanukkah -- is abundance. Out of the fullness of God’s grace and love, Jesus came to live among us, to preach good news to the poor, to embody the truth that Love and Light are in fact all around and within each human being. Hanukkah celebrates the abundance of oil which allowed the flame in the Temple to continue burning, symbolizing the abundance of God’s faithfulness and care for God’s people.
So may we acknowledge that abundance and together work toward making our community one in which all have enough, all are treated with dignity and respect, children and youth can grow up with hope, adults are empowered to contribute to the common good, and visitors will marvel at how we live together.
The Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark is pastor of Second Congregational Church, UCC, in Bennington.