October 2011

What am I doing about poverty?

Anti-Poverty Week (October 16-22) gives us a chance to stop and think about poverty at home, in our street and in the wider world; really wherever we find our neighbour, writes Graham West.

BY Graham West

I have been asked to reflect on Anti-Poverty Week through the eyes of the Good Samaritan, and the more I do, the more I realise that I am no theologian and that Anti-Poverty Week itself is a strange notion.

How can poverty be solved in a week? And surely we are all anti-poverty anyway? And what is poverty while we are at it?

Now these are all reasonable questions, and throughout the lead-up to the week, I have been mulling over them myself. But those questions really only mask the bigger question which flows from the week: what am I doing about poverty?

The week gives us a chance to stop and think about poverty at home, in our street and in the wider world; really wherever we find our neighbour.

It gives a chance for organisations to show the good works they are doing at various events and for people to re-focus and celebrate their achievements, while demonstrating that there are many ways to work against poverty. For some this will provide the answer to the question: what can I, me, an individual, do about poverty?

But how should we measure the success of the week?

The success should not be measured in the number of events (although this is used to highlight that people care about poverty) or the number of articles and news reports.

If we think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, this is the easy path. Did not the priest and the Levite see the injured man lying beaten and bleeding on the side of the road? Their eyes were giving witness to the plight, and yet, we know that this was not enough to be neighbour!

Just as they probably shook their heads as they wandered down the road, despairing at the state of the world, the temptation is for us to nod agreeingly about the need to eradicate poverty, before continuing on our way.

The success of the week, therefore, will be every one of those people who take a step to do something about poverty. In the terms of the parable, it will be those who see the man bleeding on the side of the road, bandage the wounds and take him to an inn for care.

If the week inspires more people to be the good Samaritan, then it will have made a difference in our world.

If, on hearing that over half of those in juvenile custody are Aboriginals, a grandparent starts to mentor a young person, or starts to campaign to change the law, the week has been a success.

If, on seeing the poverty of those suffering malnutrition, a young person starts to insist on debt relief for those wearing the yoke of unfair loans, or perhaps spends time working in those communities, the week has been a success.

Now I recognise that not everyone can join Medecins Sans Frontieres; in fact one of the traps that we fall into in tackling poverty is that we often only see these big, visible functions as making a difference.

We all have different gifts, but just as the widow in the temple gave the more for having less, so too can we all give of our unique and special gifts.

Perhaps this is captured in the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.

Anti-Poverty Week gives us the chance to recognise that right to dignity as part of our human family, by sharing our dignity and rights.

Perhaps one way to measure success is taken from the prologue of the Rule of St Benedict: “If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts (Ps 94 [95]:8)”.

If, in Anti-Poverty Week people hear the voice of the poor and open their hearts, and recognise those in poverty as their neighbour, then truly, we will have had an event to celebrate!

Graham West

Graham West is CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society in NSW and the NSW Co-chair for Anti Poverty Week (October 16-22). Born and educated in Campbelltown, NSW, by the Good Samaritan Sisters and the Marist Brothers, Graham went on to represent the Campbelltown electorate as a Member of Parliament from 2001 to 2011. He is married with three children, two dogs, eight chickens and three alpacas.

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