When Is Poor, Poor?

MS. ELLEN IS AN OLD black woman, dark skinned. I imagine she is somewhere in her seventies. I’ve known Ms. Ellen for years. She knows me too. Ms. Ellen always wears a skirt down past her knees, but not so long to keep her from walking with a purposed stride. Ms. Ellen always has a covering on her head. The kids today would call it a do-rag. I am sure she doesn’t.

Every time I see her and greet her she gives me the same reply she has given me all these years. It goes something like this.

“Hey Ms. Ellen.” I’ll say.

“How you doin’?” She’ll reply.

And her reply is always the same volume, tone, and cadence. Every time. The truth is, it does not matter how I greet her. She will always give me this same reply.

“Mornin’ Ms. Ellen.”

“How you doin’?”

“Sure is hot today.”

“How you doin’?”

“Looks like it is going to storm today?”

“How you doin?”

“The sky is green.”

“How you doin?”

I have found that this is just her natural response. It is simple and courteous. It is not confrontational. It is disarming. It is in reality a wall, a defense. Of course, after getting past this initial response, after climbing over the wall, Ms. Ellen is a quite capable and able conversationalist.

Ms. Ellen is skinny. She is missing teeth. She is lean and strong. She is hungry. She lives on the east side of town now, across the river four and a half miles away from the ministry. Every Friday afternoon she will walk those four and half miles to our ministries food and clothing distribution. Following behind her she will have a little pull cart. Other times not. Her purse is always in the crook of her arm which she keeps close to her side, her elbow bent at ninety degrees.

Back last year before the city had received a federal grant, before they tore the Jo Johnston projects down, Ms. Ellen lived across the street from the ministry, only a few blocks away. On those Fridays when I would see her I would offer to walk her home, and carry her two bags of groceries. They are not so heavy for me. I was a familiar face in the neighborhood, so, back then Ms. Ellen would let me walk her to her front door, where she would then take her two bags of groceries just inside the front door.

Today I see Ms. Ellen come walking up the street, just as the doors are about to close for the afternoon. These days Ms. Ellen usually arrives right around closing time. We know she is going to be late. We always keep two bags aside for her and a can of coffee if we have it. Ms. Ellen enjoys and always asks for coffee. So we wait for her, after all, four and half miles is a long walk. The summer sun is hot. She’s seventy years old.

I live on the east side of town too, so, I offer Ms. Ellen a ride home as I do most Friday afternoons.

“Ms. Ellen, can I give you and your groceries a ride home? I’m going that way.”

She politely declines. Says she will walk. Says she will take her time.


In some circles, not all, not always in this neighborhood, you can still find old school propriety.

I smile and laugh a little but only to myself. I only want to give her a ride and to help with the groceries like I used to the years prior. But, I know what she is saying. I know where she is coming from.


I respect it.

I like it.

Ms. Ellen has a fifty year old daughter who has been strung out on crack and hanging on her Momma ever since I’ve known her. Some families are so faithful. Sometimes I wonder, faithful to what?

I think to myself, that perhaps Ms. Ellen enjoys the walk. The walk away.

I tell Ms. Ellen that if she ever changes her mind and wants a ride home so she doesn’t have to carry those two bags of groceries in the Nashville summer heat to just let me know. I tell her to have a good day and drive away.

At the stop sign I take a right and a block and half later I am at an intersection waiting at the stop light, waiting to be released onto the Interstate.

Standing on the corner is a white man forty years Ms. Ellen’s junior. He is of strong build and able body. Yet, it is readily evident that he has had a hard time no doubt. There is no telling how crippled his mind is.

He is not working. He is not walking for food. He is holding a cardboard sign that simply says, HUNGRY.

I think to the words of Jesus. “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”

The red light is long. It gives me time to wonder

When is poor, poor?

Perhaps the poorest are the ones who are broken and finally just give in.

Is poor all relative? Do you know you’re poor when you’re a child?

I have an older friend who grew up in the hills of southern Missouri, he told me once he had know idea whatsoever that he and his family were poor until the seventh grade. The revelation came right before gym class, in the locker room, where he quickly noticed that all the other boys were wearing clean white underwear. He was wearing underwear made from a flour sack.

I read a statistic a few years back, I am sure the numbers have increased by now, but at the time this was stated as a fact: 6 billion people live on the face of the earth today. Of those 6 billion, 3 billion are children under the age of 15 years old. Of those 3 billion children, 2 billion live in abject poverty.

I read an article in National Geographic magazine about the Dharavi slum which is smack dab in the middle of India’s capital city of Mumbai. That’s a problem for city planners. The author of the article was amazed at how many people he spoke with who lived within the endless ramblings of tin shacks and open sewers didn’t even consider where they lived a slum. It was where they were born, where their father and their fathers father was born. It was the life they knew. A portion of the article centered on a man who said the people of the Dharavi slum were his greatest heroes and that he wanted to rid the slum and put up high rises for the people to live in. Yes, new accommodations, 250 square foot apartments and everyone gets their own toilet! Not so surprising that not many of the residents of the Dharvi slum were not so hip to the idea of losing their home, losing what they knew and had always known, even if meant clean porcelain thrones for the masses.

The Bible says the Lord will provide for our food, raiment and shelter…don’t complain about anything that is more than that. I thought about that for a while. I thanked the Lord. I have my own toilet. I may not be able to always take my wife out on a date, but I do have the proverbial pot. I can’t complain about getting paid for working in the inner-city, it was just an inconsistent pay, a salaried position that didn’t necessarily run on schedule. I would save up money for a vacation, or for fixing up needed things around the house and then the ministry finances would dry up. I would suddenly find myself a month, a month and a half behind on wages, then all the money I had saved for a vacation, or for painting the house, would have to be used to live on; groceries, mortgage, electric and water bills. So, no vacation and the chipped paint on the trim of the house would have to weather another year.

Yet, I had food, clothes, and a roof over my head. I just didn’t have money for a baby sitter, or a restaurant dinner or a movie ticket.

How poor is poor? Poor is certainly not me. Perhaps to some it may appear I am poor in my little home and late model car. But, there are 2 billion children who I am sure would certainly think otherwise.

That is if they knew they were poor.

They only know that they’re hungry.

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