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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

Dear friends,

My muscles ache and my feet hurt, but there is a feeling of a good job

well done.

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

of her.

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,

random chaos.

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


Robert Waldrop

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