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First Poverty Plunge held in Kansas City,
Missouri In September, I was an adult small group leader and chaperone for a
group of young people from my parish who attended the first Poverty Plunge sponsored by
the Bishop Sullivan Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Below is a post I sent to CINJUST
and Sojourners-list about this event, written on the night I returned home, very tired, but
very blessed. Robert Waldrop
My muscles ache and my feet hurt, but there is a feeling of a good job
Commencing yesterday evening about 7 PM and ending 23 hours later about 6
PM tonight, the Bishop Sullivan Center in KCMO conducted its first-ever
Poverty Plunge. This is a poverty "immersion" program that brings middle and upper
class high school students to the inner city for 24 hours (OK, 23 hours, we
were late getting started) of poverty reality-check.
I was along for the ride as one of the small group leaders and adult
chaperones. There were five students from my parish, plus me and the
confirmation coordinator, and three students from two other parishes.
Originally more had made reservations, but there were a
last minute cancellations. There was a mix of several different
public and Catholic high schools.
So last night we gathered at the former St. Stanislaus parish, a big old
stone building built in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and
twenty-seven by mostly Polish immigrants on a hill a few blocks from where
I live. Now it is known as Peace Hall, after the consolidation of three
area parishes into Our Lady Queen of Peace parish, whose building is about
a dozen blocks north of the hall. To get the picture, think of a haunted
castle on a hill; grey dressed limestone blocks, big windows made of those
thick glass blocks, three levels, kitchen and refrectory in the basement,
former school on the second floor, former church on the top floor, the site
of our initial discussions, constructed in the year of our Lord 1927..
Kind of a musty smell. When I drove up to the building yesterday evening,
(I should be ashamed to admit this) the song "There's a light" from the
Rocky Horror Picture Show creeped through my brain.
We began with an "icebreaker" exercise (introduce yourself and tell us five
things about you besides your name). We then separated into our small
groups, and each group was given an assignment to draw something on a
transparency for use later. We were assigned "rich and poor", and were
told not to tell anyone else what we were drawing.
Each person was then given 10 cards, with a different statement on each
card. We were told to pick the five most defensible statements (that is,
that we felt would be easy to defend) and we gave our discards back to Tom,
head of the Bishop Sullivan Center and facilitator for the evening of
reflection. We then were divided into groups of 2 and 3 (there were seven
other adults present -- staff from the diocese and the Bishop Sullivan
Center and three people who have been helped by the Center. These groups
were then to sort through what each person in the group had, and come to a
group consensus on the most defensible statements. We then went back to
our original small groups of 6, put our cards together, and came up with
the 3 most defensible statements. Thus, the "cuts" were made by
individuals, groups or two or three, and then groups of six.
The statements that I picked included: the poor are blessed, all people
are created equal, single mothers with small children should be helped by
government and charities to stay home with their kids, high school students
should do service hours as a criteria for graduation, and middle class
people should sell some of their posessions and give the money to the poor
(or words to those effect, the exact wording escapes my tired brain at the
moment). My discards included statements like, rich and poor kids can't
associate together in school, the most popular students are the best
looking, single mothers with children should get a job, all people are
created unequal (I actually wanted to include this one too, but ended up
opting for stay-at-home moms).
In the second cut, my partner was a 16 year old sophomore at at suburban
public high school. We laid our cards out side by side, and found that we
had two in common: all people are created equal, and the poor are blessed.
So we picked those two. He strongly disagreed with the stay-at-home moms
and the service hour requirement (for the reason he cited that if people
are required to do it, they wouldn't get anything out of it because it
would be just another requirement, which IMHO is a pretty good argument).
He felt strongly about the rich and poor kids not being able to associate
with each other, and the other two we picked escape me at the moment.
When we got to the final cut, we ended up with all are created equal, the
poor are blessed, and the rich and poor kids are not able to associate with
each other. We put those cards temporarily away and went on to the next
Each group was given a stack of cards with basic budgetary items for a
suburban family, both parents work, monthly budget is $4,000. Then we are
told, "Father has been demoted", and we had to cut $1,000 for the budget.
So we dropped out of Catholic school, slashed recreational expenses,
reduced savings, one student wanted to get rid of the pets, but I appealed
to save Buffy and she was spared the budgetary ax. We did cut food,
Troubles continue to befall the family. Now Mom loses her job, so we cut
child care, vacations, sports fees, books and magazines, savings, cable
television, we got a smaller car, reduced car and insurance expense,
stopped buying any meat but sausage, hamburger and chicken thighs and legs,
but we stayed in our house.
The final blow falls. Father deserts the family, leaving Mom with three
kids. Now the budget has to be cut to $300 in foodstamps plus $440 cash.
So the family of four moved to a one bedroom slum apartment, heat and water
paid ($330/month, an actual apartment in KCMO), gave up the car, the pets,
medical and life insurance, everything else basically except $30 for
electricity and $80 "monthly discretionary spending" for a mother and three
children. A lot of the students were pretty speechless at the end of this
exercise. Most of them had no idea what their family budget was or how
much was spent on what.
The feeling was pretty unanimous that this was impossible -- except that
each small group had a visitor from a woman who has gone through something
just like that. One was a young mother, age 23, with 6 children, ages 7-1.
The other two were in the 40s, had lost husbands, jobs; one, a black
woman, had just had an accident which destroyed her car, it was her
"fault", so she has no car. She works 80 hours every two weeks at a job
she has had for 17 years, and takes home about $330, after social security
taxes, every two weeks (the job does provide full medical insurance).
Three years ago she was middle class, working for a bit of extra
money, and then her husband died of cancer. She was without water for 6
months last year because she didn't have money for the bill. She doesn't
have a refrigerator, hers I guess died, or maybe it was sold to pay some
bill (don't know for sure how you end up without a refrigerator these days,
but these are two possibilities). LaBrenda was not at all bitter or
complaining, she said she was in God's hands and he had always taken care
The small groups then assembled together, and we talked about the cards and
phrases we selected. Every group had chosen the poor are blessed and all
people are created equal, and two of the three groups had selected the rich
and poor kids card. Tom then conducted a socratic-style dialogue on the
first two -- is it really true that all people are created equal? What
about crack babies? And etc.
Are the poor really blessed? LaBrenda doesn't have a refrigerator, is she
really blessed? (Strong affirmation from LaBrenda.)
No particular conclusion was reached, it seems we ended on a note that
differentiated between creation and birth, but hardly satisfactory. I
don't think it was meant to find a conclusion or resolution, only to
introduce questions, thinking. The young people told some interesting
stories about the interactions of poor kids with the middle and upper
classes at their schools, and were unanimous in reporting that poor kids
were shunned and marginalized at their schools. There wasn't any dissent
about the existence of such social discrimination, and us adults on this
one basically kept quiet and let the young people lead this part of the
We then took a break, snacked on expensive Sam's Club individually packaged
snacks, drank soft drinks from individual aluminum cans, and threw them
away in the general trash, KC not being very much of a recycling kind of
Reassembled and refreshed, we looked at the transparencies each group had
drawn. For our picture of rich and poor, we drew a stick figure in a suit,
with a cartoon "dream cloud" with a $ sign in it, standing on top of a
large house with a circular drive. For the poor, we drew a stick figure in
a box, a small house in a circle with a red slash over it, and a third
figure, a square face (which I never did quite understand, but the kids
knew what it meant). We kept quiet while the others tried to discern what
we had drawn, and they figured it out. A second group described Jesus
visiting their school by drawing a Jesus figure associating with "out
groups" -- a poor kid, a geek (stick figure with propeller beanie by a
chess board), a radical punk kid. The third group escapes me at the
We ended the evening about midnight with a prayer service conducted by the
diocesan director of youth. We slept on the floor, and as you can imagine,
getting the crew settled down was its own challenge but eventually we were
asleep. We were awakened at 6 AM for a breakfast of dry bagels and muffins
plus orange juice. We made peanut butter sandwiches for our lunch.
During the night, the driver's side window of one of the cars of the Bishop
Sullivan Center staff (a young Americorps volunteer working on community
organization in the neighborhood) was smashed and was in pieces all over
her car and the street. So our first service project for the day was
cleaning the glass up from the car and street. Nothing was stolen, she had
the "club" on the wheel. Who knows, a thwarted car theft, simple meanness,
We joined together in a prayer circle, and then the groups went off walking
to various streets to catch buses to do service projects. Here was a bit
of reality check for me -- some of the students had never been on a city
bus. I had to explain tokens and transfers. They were all astonished at
the amount of trash we walked through to get to the bus line (broken
bottles), and that we would have to ride the bus all the way into town to
catch another bus to take us back in this general direction, a mile or so
south of where we were at, basically 45 minutes on the bus for a five
minute or so car drive. Taking the bus was part of the program, there were
plenty of cars available.
One group went to the Cathedral to make sandwiches for their daily
distribution to the homeless. A second group went to a low-income nursing
home, to spend time with the people there. Our group went to the home of a
woman who has suffered from polio since her childhood. She lives
independently, but in recent years her mobility is declining and she
basically isn't able to do her housework, and she has three cats. Our
group of three students and two adults spent 4-1/2 hours doing basic stuff
like sweeping, mopping, cleaning, organizing, washing, some yard work and
visiting with our host. At 1:30 it was back to the bus line, getting us
back to the Peace Hall at 3 PM, where we began cooking dinner for clients
of the Bishop Sullivan Center who would be arriving at 4 PM. We served hot
dogs and baked beans and etc and a football game was organized on the lawn
with the students and neighborhood youth mixed together on teams. The hall
was then cleaned, and we went back upstairs and each person told a little
bit about how the weekend had affected them. Some comments --
+ lots of amazement of how dirty and trashy the streets and etc. are in the
area and downtown.
+ pandhandlers at the downtown bus-stops,
+ how helpless some people can be, but how good it can be to associate with
+ how much time it takes to get anywhere on the bus (the group that went to
the nursing home had to leave an hour before everybody else and got back
about 45 minutes after the rest of us had returned, spending about 4 hours
of their day on the bus).
+ the budget game was a big revelation to the students.
+ how a big job can be done in little bites.
+ how hard and complicated it is to be poor.
+ the sites you see while riding a bus -- a pimp shaking down and berating
a prostitute, people in nice cars laughing at people getting on buses, how
all those people we see wandering around in poor areas aren't just
wandering around aimlessly, they don't have cars so they are getting from
one place to another, how many poor people there are, homeless people, how
happy the poor people we had been with today and yesterday had been, how
people get along without so many things the students take for granted.
We closed with the Lord's Prayer and I came home, took a shower, and
decided that writing and sending this post would be a good way to write
some things down about the weekend while it was still fresh in my mind; it
wasn't really a note-taking kind of experience, but I found myself wishing
that I had taken some notes.
This was the first one of these down by the Bishop Sullivan Center, but I
think they did a pretty outstanding job (OK, I picked a nit about the
expensive snacks and no recycling, but that's a very minor detail). I was
glad to be along for the experience, and I recommend this as something that is worthy of
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