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What the Rich Need from the Poor

Paul Luikart

homeless I was talking to a guy at church a while ago and he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I worked with homeless men and women and his immediate response was, “They’re all drunk, right? On drugs?” I came to find out he owned his own construction business and had, in the past, employed a few homeless people to do general labor on his construction sites. He’d been burned. “They’re never on time. They don’t work hard.” That kind of stuff. This guy was wealthy. He’d built the construction business from the ground up and put a lot of hard work into it over many years. He’d seen hard times, no doubt, but now lived in a palace off Lake Shore Drive.

At the very least, he had a logic problem—extrapolating an ironclad belief about an entire demographic from the behaviors of a small percentage of that demographic. On a grander scale, what he didn’t realize is just how closely linked the rich and the poor are meant to be. The poor see this need for connection more clearly than the rich see it. At the very least, the poor are typically much more aware of what they need from the rich. But Dorothy Day went so far as to say, “I firmly believe that our salvation depends on the poor.” If this is true, then a positive outcome in terms of heaven or hell necessitates an intimacy between the rich and the poor. It has to go both ways. But there’s a tragic affection common only to the rich that prevents this intimacy from forming. An affection not for stuff, like the big TVs, summerhouses and all the rest, but for privilege. Privilege allows for the unfair expectation that the poor should act like the rich if they are ever to become un-poor. It also allows for the notion that help without strings from the rich to the poor will only produce a sense of entitlement in the poor. What’s swept under the rug, in that case, is the enormous sense of entitlement possessed by the rich. The rich perceive irreversible failure in the lives of the poor but if they, the rich, are to lend their help, privilege expects conformity from the poor to an impossible standard.

By the way, I only know the guy lived in a palace off Lake Shore Drive because I ended up in a Bible study with him. Sometimes we met there. How ironic and personally irksome. Over the Word of God, I had to figure out if I could love this guy like he was my brother, if I could stand being linked to him for the sake of my own soul. I’m not rich. I’m not poor either, but my sentiments obviously favor the poor. I often wondered what he thought about my job. He and I never talked about homeless people again.