Recently I decided to participate in a poverty simulation with Unite Greater Dallas. It was called COPE, The Cost of Poverty Experience. I was given the role of a 10yr old AA boy. My character(who is a real person) has African-American mother and father. His mother is a stay at home mom and expecting another child. His father is employed and rely’s on public transportation to get around. The family can only afford a one bedroom apartment so therefore my character sleeps on the couch and to top it all off has ADHD and is beginning to act out.
*From this point on I will type as if I am in character.
We were told to get in character as much as we could. All of the families where taking an hour of our day to fast track what it is like to live a month in poverty. We were given folders which outlined our assets, expenses and activities that needed to happen that month. For instance, my families assets where a T.V. and Stereo. My mother had to go to a prenatal appointment, both of my parents had to make it to AA and they had to get my ADHD medication. That’s just a few of the responsibilities my parents had. Each 15min equaled one week in the life of my family.
The first week I had to go to school first. Meanwhile my parents were running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to pay bills, purchase bus passes, work, buy groceries, go to AA, Pawn shop, prenatal ect. I was let out of school 6min into the “week” and told to go anywhere. I chose to go home and wait on my parents to get home. As soon as they got home they were trying to figure out a plan to get through the next week while assessing what they did and did not accomplish. I just sat there.
*The facilitator got everyone’s attention and asked who fed their family that week. Out of 10-15 groups only 2-3 families raised their hand.
The next week I went to school again and instead of waiting until I was released I left early. I went straight to the food market and stole a banana. I was then arrested for stealing. Time was up. It was time to go back home and prepare for the next week. I let my parents know that I was arrested and they continued trying to figure out what to do for the next week.
*The facilitator announces that it is spring break.
My parents look at each other and are like “what are we going to do with him?”. They are planning to pawn the stereo and the t.v. so that they can pay the electric bill and then realize that they shouldn’t pawn the t.v. because I’ll need something to keep me occupied. They figure out the plan and in the meantime are “gifted” with a free voucher for my ADHD medication. Let week three begin.
Well, while they are trying to pay the electricity I am left with nothing to do so I take it upon myself to find something to do. I stole food from strangers(wasn’t caught), smoke cigarettes with the local dealer. My dad catches me on the street and took me home. He gives me a lecture on drug usage and I throw it right back in his face. I get back out and steal money from the local store and then I am arrested…..again. My mother noticed that I was in jail and comes to try to get me out. Due to my parents not showing up to my last hearing(because they were unaware) they could not get me out and CPS got involved. TIMES UP!
Week four happens…..
By then end of the month I was arrested twice, only my father made it to AA, my mother had to choose between going to her prenatal appointment or getting my ADHD medication because each required a co-pay that they could not afford. She went to her prenatal. CPS was involved. My dad tried to by alcohol but they were closed when he went. I remember my mother telling me to go the faith center after school in week four. I did not. Why? Because at this point I did not trust adults. I kept getting in trouble for doing things that I felt I needed to do. I was hungry and my parents needed money. I was off my meds for the entire month and there was not a single fun thing that I did with my parents. I felt like a burden and I’d be even more of a burden once my sibling was born. I even remember how if felt hearing my parents rejoice when school was back in session. They had somewhere to put me.
*I’m stepping out of character now.
Each time I was arrested I was bawling. This wasn’t an act. Like I said, the character I was playing is an actual child. That alone is what pierced my heart to the core. As I described my experience I could not stop crying. My husband and I have worked with at risk youth for over ten years. We know what they are going through. We know youth who have gone to juve. We hear their pain and we have walked with them. But this…..
This situation broke me.
I saw a child who felt alone but I also saw parents that LOVED this child but had to do what they had to do just to survive. I saw parents who are battling addictions and the system only perpetuated it. I didn’t mention and we did not know, but we, as an African-American family were treated differently. The people who played my parents where white but we all had to wear red bracelets which signified that we were an African American family. The people who played “resources” had to treat us with various biases. We did not know this until the end.
I chose to participate in this experience because of Abide. As I’ve been looking more closely at my community I realize that things must be handled even more delicately and the people must be central to any programs in place. South Dallas has a history that is filled with a tremendous amount of pain via segregation, racism, corruption and sheer hatred of its people. Dallas has a treacherous history of KKK involvement and Fair Park(an entertainment hub for people in DFW) has a history that screams of White Supremacy. But this is the history and history impacts our future. So as I look at the past of my community I can see better how to serve in the present. One way is through relationships. Breaking patterns of distrust is a key element here and I know that it’s going to take a solid foundation in biblical truth that will help guide us.
“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” – Romans 13:8
And just as it took generations of oppressive systems to create this beast, it will require a tremendous amount of time and patience to heal a community that has suffered much trauma. But let us not put God and His capacity to bring about restoration in a box. I have much hope for Sunny South D. The poverty experience did what is should have done. It broke me and it should break you. My hope is that our hearts will break for what breaks His so that we may be driven to seek racial conciliation and the physical, financial and spiritual restoration of our city. My hope is that God will use the people of South Dallas(fellow image bearers of Christ) to heal the hearts of those in positions of power and cause everyone to pursue further introspection of ones own heart.
Someone asked me recently, if I could share one thing about South Dallas, what would it be? Today my answer is that South Dallas consists of your brothers and your sisters who are worthy of dignity, love and respect. We are image bearers of Christ and we must not be forgotten or looked upon with pity. We are Sunny South D a place where hope lies and dreams can come true. We seek gospel centered justice and that power lies in not us alone….but you.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. – Romans 12:3-8
Every person who works with people needs to experience COPE. Every teacher, politician, government employee, healthcare worker…everyone. Please find one near you and register. http://www.unitethechurch.org/cope
Remember that we can take a vacation from work, a break from reality but you cannot take a “break” from poverty.