You Can Be As Poor As You Want

Having experienced third world poverty, I know that I cannot live the poverty I want here in the US. On the other hand, I can absolutely live the poverty I need.

Having experienced third world poverty, I know that I cannot live the poverty I want here in the US. On the other hand, I can absolutely live the poverty I need.

I have mentioned a number of times that Franciscan poverty, freeing oneself of material possessions in order to identify with the poor Jesus, was a major attraction to me in my discernment; receiving a minor in Poverty Studies and completing an internship at a soup kitchen even before seriously considering the friars should tell a bit about me. I have also mentioned that defining Franciscan poverty has been an 800-year battle among Franciscans; what and how much one should be able to own has been fought over and divided the charism more than a few times.

In response to this (and the problems particular to our province of men in the 21st century), a number of our friars have taken the opinion that a friar “can be as poor as he wants in this province.” What they mean by this is that one’s personal decisions for a simpler lifestyle are one’s own free choice. No one is forcing us to spend any of our stipend, maintain excessive wardrobes, or consume any more food or drink that we want to. Even if others define poverty in an altogether different way and live much more comfortably than one would choose, their decisions, these friars would say, do not affect one’s ability to live poverty how they choose: you can be as poor as you want.

Over the past four years I’ve thought about and struggled to live out this opinion. There is great truth in it: why blame others or “the culture of the friars” for not living poorly enough when I take everything that’s given to me without question? I have been forced (in a very good way) to think about what I’ve been given by the friars and decide if that’s even too much. At times, it has meant giving back part of my stipend, abstaining from food or drink, and refusing gifts. And that helps. But I find that this is only part of the answer. When we choose to live together, whether that be in a Franciscan context, a family, or simply in a larger society, we are never free to do anything and everything we want.

It’s tough to be that poor in America. The broadest example of this is simply living in the United States. Having just spent ten days in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, I have now seen real poverty (as compared to the “poverty” we Franciscans live.) I saw houses the size of the bedroom I’m in right now with dirt floors and little-to-no sanitation, teenagers that walk 2 hours each way to get an education, children that had to drop out of school to help support their families, and meals in which a tortilla is the main (or only) item on the menu. Compared to even the poorest in the United States, the average person in Nicaragua has very little.

And yet, there is a great appeal to the simplicity of lifestyle we saw. Sure, they had much less, but their world was not tied to material possessions in the way that ours is. Most of them had very little, but many of them had a sufficient amount, and were happy. It’s no wonder that so many people go on trips like these and have a great desire to change their lives when they come home. Looking at the excesses all around them in the US, people like myself, feel very uncomfortable with all the things they now see as luxuries.

But good luck getting rid of them. What I mean by this is not a cynical take on one’s ability to let go but rather a realization that much of what we have is built into our societal structure. Are we really going to renounce clean drinking water to be in solidarity with our poor brothers and sisters in Nicaragua? Are we really going to throw our toilet paper in the trashcan rather than flushing it to go through some of the hardships they do? Are we really going to turn off our air conditioners AND lobby that every other home and business we visit do the same so that we can experience the relentless heat we knew there? I don’t think so. They’re kind of ridiculous questions, really. But that’s the point. So many of our luxuries are built into our societal structure and are outside of our control. Short of doing these radically ridiculous things, we are not free to live as poorly as we want.

Living together means shared decisions. Bringing this question back to where it started, the Franciscan friary, we can see a similar dynamic. One’s personal decisions can effect the situation to an extent, but are not the only factor in the situation. What if others in the house don’t agree with one’s conception of poverty? What if everyone in the house has a different conception? I may think it inappropriate to ever eat filet mignon as a friar (hypothetical), while others might think it’s appropriate sometimes, and even more think that it’s appropriate often. Does the house eat filet mignon? My personal desires only go so far in community because, believe it or not, there are other personal desires than mine. I would obviously be free to abstain from eating the steak as it is outside of my conception of poverty and no one can force me to eat it. True. I could go make a PB and J sandwich and be completely happy. But look what I have done. I have decided that my personal desire is great enough that I’m willing to remove myself from the group to do my own thing. I have chosen that it is better to be “right” than to be “together.”

And maybe, at times, that’s what we have to do. Everyone can’t be happy all of the time, and I don’t mind abstaining for someone else’s happiness. For one meal, that’s no big deal. But what if it’s every meal? What if it’s every friar outing? What if it is the general life of the friary? I can abstain from eating certain meals, but I cannot abstain from living in a certain house or using certain furniture. Just as in the situation with Nicaragua, there is a clear sense of culture in each friary that cannot be discounted. It is something outside of an individual’s control and has a great effect on their ability to act how they want.

So, can you be as poor as you want as a friar in Holy Name province? No, not at all. And I struggle with that. But it’s a struggle I want to have because I am not called to be a king. I am not called to be right all of the time and to get my way. I am called, as a Franciscan, to a humble life in community in which I have to learn to accept my brothers’ desires as legitimate, to grow outside of myself, and to live with the poverty that I am not in control. Sometimes, as difficult as it may sound, I have to compromise on my own ideals for the sake of community. Does this mean that I’m a fraud, that I’m weak and a hypocrite because I don’t stand up for what I believe? No. It means that, while I will challenge my brothers to a simpler lifestyle when I can, I realized very early in my Franciscan life that we are called to be together, not necessarily always “right.” A big part of being Franciscan is realizing that community life is never going to be exactly how we envision it, but that it is better to be challenged by our brothers than to easily have everything we want on our own. In this way, I know that I could live material poverty better on my own, but it is only in community can experience the poverty of not being in control and having to work with others that are different from you. As a Franciscan in this sense, you can can be as poor as you want.

Not So Minor

It is in serving the least of his day that Francis experienced perfect humility and minority.

It is in serving the least of his day that Francis experienced perfect humility and minority.

A man of great conversion, Francis is probably most well-known for dramatically renouncing his earthly wealth and high social status in order to minister to the lepers, those people so sick and disgusting that they needed to live outside the city (and wear a bell so that people could run away when they heard them coming.) The Franciscan charism follows in his example: As members of the Order of Friars Minor, the “lesser brothers,” we are called to live a life for the poor, with the poor, as the poor, renouncing any sort of wealth, power, or status, that would nurture a feeling of entitlement or honor. The lowest in society do not expect to be served or cared for, they know that they must serve others. That is what Francis wanted.

When I look at my own life, I struggle to identify a single way in which I am a minor in our society: I am a young, white, college-educated, middle class, heterosexual male, born in the United States to parents that are still married, a member of the largest religious organization in the world, and have no mental or physical disabilities. If that’s not enough, I joined one of the largest religious orders in the Catholic Church, giving me tremendous (and largely undeserved) respect as a religious and future member of the clergy. In literally every way that I can imagine I find myself among the privileged in society.

And unlike Francis who was able to renounce his status in society with a symbolic undressing before the bishop, I can hardly renounce the attributes that make me privileged in this one:

  • As I see racial discrimination continue to boil over in places like Furgeson, and I am reminded how much easier it is to be white. Upon arriving in Camden, one friar told me, “Oh don’t worry, you’re white. The gang members and drug dealers won’t hurt you because they don’t want to scare away their white customers.”
  • As I watch news coverage of the recent boarder crossings and immigration laws in Arizona and Georgia, I know that I will never be “randomly” stopped on the street and forced to prove that I belong, have to flee one country into a country that does not want me, or have to worry about my rights when abroad.
  • As a male, I know that I will never be given less money for doing the same job as a co-worker, fear being alone outside at night, or constantly have to prove my self and my gender as not inferior.
  • As our church and country continues to understand homosexuality, I am made aware that I have never had to worry about how my sexuality or sexual orientation could offend someone, what people might think of me if they found out, or being thrown out of my house by my parents.

This list could go on and on. As I look out into the world, I see people being discriminated against and made “lesser” in our society each day, and it is never me. I doubt it ever will be. And so I’m faced with a challenge. How do I ever become “lesser” in society? How do I ever even approach minority when things like race, gender, sexual orientation, education, and physical capability are not exactly things that can be stripped and handed to a bishop?

It is here that I would normally have a conclusion like, “For me, what’s important is… The key is… I’ve found that the best answer is…” Unfortunately, my reflection today is a little less complete than normal. The fact of the matter is that I simply do not know and I will have to sit with this struggle for a while longer. There are obviously some things that I can change, e.g. how I spend my money, with whom I associate, how intentional I am at being with the poor. As I leave formation and entire into a little more autonomous life as a friar, I know that there will be a little more freedom to choose where and how I live, and what ministry I do, making this a little easier to live out.

And yet, there is a part of me that realizes that I will never be the least in society and I am struggling to accept that. How can I say to be a friar minor, an imitator of Jesus and Francis of Assisi, with so much respect, authority, privilege, and “wealth,” both civilly and ecclesiastically? I don’t know. For now, all I can do is realize that this “great privilege” I have in our society is nothing but a lucky ticket in the womb lottery: I have done nothing to deserve it and ultimately am no better off than anyone else because of it. I am what I am before God, and nothing more. This is a bit of wisdom that I must always keep with me. For though I may never be able to fully renounce all that separates me from the least in our society, I know that there is always a full reserve of pretension, entitlement, and arrogance just waiting to be given up inside me. If I want to be minor in society, it starts with the attitude I bring to every situation: I am here to serve the people of God with perfect humility and minority, and they do not owe me anything because it is God who is truly doing all the work.

Begging For Your Respect

Have you ever been so desperate you had to resort to begging?

Have you ever been so desperate you had to resort to begging?











Yesterday when I was riding the bus to school, a man in his thirties got on the bus and began soliciting help from everyone one the bus. For the next fifteen minutes of the trip, he walked up and down the bus repeating this story:

Excuse me, sir. I’m sorry to bother you, but I was hoping that you could help me out. My name is Christian, and I was hit by a drunk driver nine years ago and lost my job and for three years I was in a wheelchair and couldn’t work but I’m better now. I still have some issues, you see my bruises [shows legs and arms with serious scars] but I’m working really hard and I run and when I do the dishes at night I do pushups in between each dish to get strong, you see, and it takes me an hour and a half but I’m getting stronger and able to work I even run each night although that can be really difficult I’m getting better. I used to be a glass installer making $60,000 a year before I got hit by the drunk driver and the company said that they would hire me back now if I got strong enough but in the mean time I’m on disability but I’m out of money and just need help for two days, I’ll get my disability check May 1. If you have any paper metro cards with anything on them or just some spare change or anything I could really use your help you know its just a few days but I don’t know what I’m going to eat and anything would help. If you don’t have any money that’s fine but I could really use some prayers so please pray to God that I get this job because it would get my life back together. Thank you so much, God bless you.

And again…

Excuse me sir…

And again…

Perdon Señor…

His story sounded genuine and my heart went out to him. At the same time, the cynical side of me analyzed everything he did, looking for a reason to make me believe that he was just a mooch on society, lying to people to get free money, or would go and immediately spend that money on drugs.

And do you know what? Those questions are irrelevant compared to the way people reacted to him. Person after person refused to look at him or even acknowledge his presence. One person didn’t even take his headphones off to see what he wanted. Because they had heard the story just a minute earlier when he had told it to someone else, they knew what he wanted, and completely shut off contact.

For all I know, he was a drug addict. For all I know, he was lying directly to my face. For all I know, he had blown his money on useless things like cigarettes or alcohol. I can’t prove that he hadn’t, and I’ll never know.

What I do know, however, is that this man was in a really bad place. He was in such a desperate place that he was willing to get on a bus, share his story with complete strangers, and lower himself to begging. How humiliating and dehumanizing! Even after being rejected by the first few people and having others refuse to even acknowledge that he existed, he kept trying, restarting the story in an attempt to get, as he said, “Even if you have a few pennies that will help.” Have you ever been so desperate that you had to ask complete strangers for pennies?

What should we as Christians do in situations like these, I wonder? Some will say that you should never, under any circumstances, give money to a person like this for fear that they might use it to hurt themselves with drugs or alcohol. There is a lot of merit to this argument: beyond that fear, money can serve as a way of simply getting rid of the person so that they won’t bother you anymore, making the giver feel good about giving but never actually having to enter into relationship or be challenged.

On the other hand, how can we look on someone in time of great desperation, even if it is their own fault, and do nothing?

If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? (Ja 2:15-16)

My experience with the poor and homeless is far from thorough and so I in no way claim to be an expert, but there are a number of things that I am trying out myself to see how they work. The first is making sure that I get every person’s name that I speak with, and make it a point to mention mine as well. We can never underestimate the power of humanizing a person that is rarely treated with respect. I let them talk, and I ask them about their life. It’s good to know what they need, and most times I will ask them if they know of a place where they can get food/shelter/clothing. The second this I do is carry extra food or gift cards that I know will go directly to a need. Granola bars are great to keep in my backpack because I know they won’t go bad for a while, and $5 Subway/McDonalds gift cards won’t break the bank for the few I give out but I feel that they are better to give than cash. Lastly, I tell them that I will pray for them, and then I offer a prayer for them right then as I walk away and as well as that evening at communal prayer.

Ultimately, people have to go with their comfort level when it comes to direct service such as this. Some people don’t feel comfortable giving out money, and that’s not a bad thing. What I will say, though, is that when you come to realize how humiliating it must be to beg, to walk up to a complete stranger and ask for something, you know that you can’t just pretend like you don’t see them. You have to acknowledge them, acknowledge their desperate situation, and at least speak to them as a human being even if that is just, “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything.”

For me at this point in my life, I think that I need to err on the side of charity not judgment. Sometimes we are simply called to be a brother or sister to someone in need, not wonder whether or not they’re being genuine or not. I look to Matthew 25:31-46 as a reminder that how I treat the poor is how I treat Jesus. Do I want to be his brother, or his judge? I imagine begging for his forgiveness is much more difficult than begging for a dollar on the street.

My [Continued] Struggle With Poverty

With the conclusion of this four part series on poverty, I would like to begin right where I left off because I believe that my motivation for writing these posts over the past few weeks is encapsulated in this paragraph:

But at the same time, it’s easy to see that there are clear limitations to what one can do and still consider oneself “poor.” At some point, using that word is an insult to those whose lives in no way resemble ours. As one friar put it, “the poor can always smell a rat.” I think that’s true, and I think that’s why our first step must always be to listen to and imitate the poor, erring on the side of going too far. Until we are able to do that, to put our health, safety, and dignity on the line, how can we ever begin to be compared to those who do it everyday without any choice in the matter? Our poverty is voluntary, and we will never be able to fully rid ourselves of the safety nets around us, but at some point we need to dive in and live poverty the way the real poor people do.

When I look at my life and the life of this Order, I struggle to see “poverty” in any real sense. Who, honestly, would confuse me for a poor person? This is a great disappointment of mine and a struggle I know that I will face for the rest of my life.

Being Institutionalized

As someone in formation, there is an overriding and unavoidable nature to the way we live: within an institution. Unlike the majority of our friars, friars in formation tend to live in large houses. (My postulancy house was 10, novitiate was 21, and now post-novitiate is 25.) With that many people, and without the skilled brothers we once had, it is both necessary and fiscally responsible to obtain external help cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the structure of the house. It is necessary and fiscally responsible to buy things in bulk and to have many options at hand at all times. It is necessary and fiscally responsible to have a fleet of cars, each assigned to an individual so as to keep it well maintained and organized.

There are, however, unintended consequences to these “necessary” and “fiscally responsible” measures. For one, there is a lost sense of cost in our houses. Laundry detergent magically appears in pallet-sized quantities; food shows up on our table without work or sacrifice; and satisfying the desires of only a few individuals still leaves us with 6 different soda options, 4 types of snacks, and an endless supply of ice cream. While it’s probably true that we live more cheaply per person than a house of four does, there is not such a thing as an unfulfilled need here. Sure, we may not have our first choice, but boy do we have a lot of choices and an endless supply!

The other problem I see with this is that it is very easy to slip from “external help cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the structure of the house” to “my personal chef, maid, and handyman.” With a house this size, I don’t see a problem with filling in the gaps with a professional, but I begin to feel uncomfortable when outside help replaces our own work. Yes, I’m in school, and don’t exactly want to come home after a long day and cook dinner and clean out the gutters, but I’m sure that the poor do, and I know for sure that students of other religious orders have to do that. For me, it’s not the idea of having employees that bother me; it’s the amount of work we allow them to do that I believe strips us of poverty and minority.

Rationalizing or Redefining Poverty

Another struggle I face each is the inability to come to consensus on what poverty is in our lives. This is not to blame my brothers, as I know my opinion is just one opinion, and I do not expect others to assent to it. It just makes it difficult to decide how to live if we are all working from different starting points.

That’s not to say that I think all opinions are created equal, as there are two “rationalizations” that really annoy me (and yet I find myself doing both of them!) The first is making poverty a purely spiritual matter. “It’s not really about what you have, it’s about how attached to it you are. I could very easily give up my flatscreen TV if I needed to.” Right. But you haven’t. While spiritual poverty is what I believe material poverty is leading us to, a freedom from desire and dependence on God, I don’t see how it can be separated from actual, material poverty. Knowing that one could go without something is quite different from actually going without it.

The other problem I see is more prevalent: allowing ministry to reign supreme. We all love the people of God and have committed ourselves to building up God’s kingdom. That’s no in question. But all too often we make compromises to our way of life for our work of life. Eating meals out rather than cooking at home; each friar having their own car instead of carpooling or using public transit; the newest and latest gadgets for “productivity” and convenience; and employees taking care of our house so that we can take care of others. Ultimately, especially for priests, we may decide that our work is so highly specialized and in such high demand that we must do anything we can to do as much ministry as we can. That’s very selfless for sure. But we are more than ministry machines. Let us not be shortsighted in sacrificing what gives our ministry such high quality, our poverty, minority, and fraternity, in order to provide a greater quantity.

Caught in a Safety Net

The last struggle that I must face comes with the reality that I may never be able to free myself from it. Ironic and insulting to most Americans, the burden I must face in this life is know that I will always have local and provincial safety nets to protect me. This means having medical insurance, retirement facilities (and brothers who will care for me financially and fraternally), and the comfort of never being too far away from a “transfer” if things get too bad. Sure, I will care about the success of ministries and people we serve, but I know that, even in the worst case scenario, I will never starve, never be alone, or be without sufficient aid.

On a day to day basis, I find the presence of an overarching structure to be a subtle challenge to my spiritual poverty and that of my brothers because of the ability to say these simple words: “The house will pay for that.” In most of our houses, we are given a stipend for personal expenses and the ability to charge to the house any necessary expenses, e.g. gas, oil change, and books, outside of that original stipend. Again, how do we define necessary? For me, even though the house will pay for lunch if we’re at school, I would have never spent money like that before becoming a friar: pack a lunch or don’t eat. Like the employee with the company credit card, however, the abstract entity that is the “province” or the “house” becomes the ever-flowing well that can always be pumped, and without malice or ill intent, we allow ourselves to rest, spend more, and care less about how we live because the safety net will provide. When I’m running behind, there is a temptation not to pack a lunch because, “the house will pay for it,” so there’s no need to go through the extra trouble. This is a seed, a seed that I do not want to plant. It is the seed of safety and complacency.

True and Perfect Joy

As so I conclude this post, but my struggle is just beginning. On the one hand, I must live within a system that is not ideal with people that vary from apathetic to fanatical on the subject. I must accept that we as a community will never meet the ideals I wish to achieve. In a very positive way, I have accepted that struggling on this issue together is more important to me than succeeding alone. Our charism recognizes that love is messy, that the world is not filled with easy answers, and that God is found in the struggle.

On the other hand, I know that I am given a tremendous amount of freedom when it comes to my personal decisions related to poverty. In some ways I succeed: I don’t have to eat everything that is placed before me, nor do I have to spend everything that is given to me, and so I often avoid meat and return part of my stipend or donate it. In some ways I struggle to do better: I could probably use public transit more often, go without some of my possessions, or offer to do more work where needed.

With that, I will close this belabored series and winded post with the story of St. Francis called “True and Perfect Joy” and an insight from my formator and guardian, Fr. Joseph Nangle, ofm. In this story, Francis teaches that true and perfect joy is not felt from great successes, incredible miracles, or powerful skills, but rather in showing up to a friary, cold and wet, and after being turned away by a fellow friar because the friar believes him to be a “rascal” trying to fool the friar, he accepts these insults and maltreatment with patience, that is perfect joy. Fr. Joe, in his book Engaged Spirituality, writes this:

Francis felt that being treated as a poor person, being mistaken for one, even by a fellow friar, was “perfect joy.” He had reached such a sublime point in his own conversion process where his option for the poor showed itself when others saw and treated him as a poor person.

My reading of this story before had always been focused on Francis’ patience and humility, but how true is this sentiment to me today? Given what I’ve said in the last four posts, and the struggles I will undoubtedly face in my future as a friar, I cannot think of a more perfect joy than to be truly mistaken as a poor person. To live a life so authentically like the poor, with the poor, and for the poor that I become poor enough myself to mistake my own brother is the life I wish to live.

How To: Poverty

Like the pope, we will probably never "really" be poor. That doesn't mean we shouldn't get our hands dirty and try.

Like the pope, we will probably never “really” be poor. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get our hands dirty and try.

After my overwhelmingly persuasive and thoroughly inspiring post about why we should voluntarily choose poverty, all of you have undoubtedly sold all of your possessions and are waiting in joyful anticipation for more details, am I right? Well, even if that’s not the case, we’ll press on.

Despite the potentially misleading title, I don’t believe that there is only one way to live Gospel poverty authentically, and so this post will refrain from being overly specific; poverty is a very relative term, and there are things that would fit one’s life that would not fit another. Instead, this “how to” of sorts will identify a few universal values and attempt to offer critical options for particular expressions in a 21st century American context.

Imitate the poor around us

While Jesus is certainly a great figure to imitate, and I in no way want to diminish his witness, following someone who lived 2000 years ago, from a different culture, in a different region, literally, may not be our best blueprint for action in 21st century America. Jesus simply did not have the conception of healthcare, economics, national security, or personal property that we do (which is not to say that our conceptions are better, just to say that there is a context in which we live that puts very real limits on our possibilities.)

Because of this, a much better “role model” for living poverty today is very obviously the poor of our time. How do the poor in our country/region/city live? What do they own? What are they [not] able to do? What are their needs and concerns? What are their social/political/economic struggles?

In a very clear sense, we ask these questions to be more like the poor, in love and in solidarity. As pope Francis has famously said, priests (and ministers in general) should be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” Wow. How beautiful of an image and powerful of a reminder of our role is that? A shepherd is not an administrative authority, well-learned in books and capable of making decisions; a shepherd is someone who comes into close contact with those s/he serves and can only say to have served his/her flock if s/he takes on the situation of the flock. If we are to be authentic, we must be willing to let ourselves be affected by the same conditions that affect them. Taking this seriously helps to form an “upper limit” to the amount of things we can own, luxuries in our life, and privileges we are allowed.

Educate and guide the poor

There is, however, another value that needs to be kept in mind that will undoubtedly muddle this discussion: we must be a witness to the poor. All poverty is not created equal, and we must not fall prey to romanticizing it or making it our absolute goal. Some things that happen to the poor (or are done to themselves) are destructive to the human person and even dehumanizing. Every day, people die of malnutrition, preventable and curable diseases, unnecessary violence, and as a result of inhumane living conditions. This level of poverty, poverty that strips people of their dignity as sons and daughters of God, is disgusting and intolerable.

In this way, poverty is not always something to be imitated because poverty is not the ultimate goal we seek. This is clear even in the witness of Jesus, who, though very poor, was not the poorest person of his day. To seek otherwise would be to seek a bottomless pit, a goal that could never be achieved, short of death by starvation. There will always be someone poorer. Thus, just as an imitation of the poor helped to form an “upper limit” for our own lifestyle, an acknowledgement of an unacceptable level of poverty helps to form a “lower limit” for our lifestyle, keeping us from making poverty an end rather than a means.

Living in this tension

This tension of values makes living Gospel poverty a very tricky and relative thing. We are at the same time called to be in solidarity with a person’s undesirable condition, forced to give up our comfort to experience their grief, while drawing an almost arbitrary line as to what is considered “subhuman” conditions. You can see why “poverty” takes on very different expressions within the Franciscan Order, and why we can seldom agree.

These questions are endless in number:

  • Should we live with the poor or in more comfortable places so to recharge and  better serve them?
  • Should we eat healthier, more expensive foods, or cheap foods that lack nutrition?
  • Should we have cars, or use public transportation? If cars, should we buy reliable cars that are more expensive, or cars more like the poor can afford?
  • Should we even have health insurance, and if so, how comprehensive?
  • Should we buy things in bulk because they are cheaper, or live day-to-day?
  • Should we buy higher-quality products that will last, or cheaper ones that the poor generally use?

For each issue, it’s clear to see how one could be swayed either direction depending on which value is most important and how one defines “subhuman” conditions. For some, it is an affront to humanity to have to share a bathroom. For others, it’s eating the same processed foods every day. Some won’t stop until they’re sleeping on the floor with six other men in the room, without heat or running water, having only eaten one meal that day.

But at the same time, it’s easy to see that there are clear limitations to what one can do and still consider oneself “poor.” At some point, using that word is an insult to those whose lives in no way resemble ours. As one friar put it, “the poor can always smell a rat.” I think that’s true, and I think that’s why our first step must always be to listen to and imitate the poor, erring on the side of going too far. Until we are able to do that, to put our health, safety, and dignity on the line, how can we ever begin to be compared to those who do it everyday without any choice in the matter? Our poverty is voluntary, and we will never be able to fully rid ourselves of the safety nets around us, but at some point we need to dive in and live poverty the way the real poor people do.