So Far From Want

Thursday, November 28, 2013 - 8:50pm
Photo by Scott Olson

So Far From Want

When President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November as “a day of thanksgiving and praise” for the nation, he did so in the midst of war, 1863. He asked people to thank God for “bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come.”

Lincoln’s proclamation included another, equally weighty request: that we repent and remember the bereft, that we “do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to [God’s] tender care all who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation….”

That notion — that our celebrations of abundance should be coupled with mindfulness of need — goes back to the earliest American Thanksgiving in 1621. One witness described that event in rich detail: colonists, Indians, “their greatest king Massasoit,” deer, fowl, harvest, three days of feasting. He wrote that “although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

I thought about “want” the other day in the lockup at the courthouse where I work. I am a public defender in Chicago, and I start each workday in the place behind the courtroom where prisoners are held. On this morning, the small, stuffy cell was crammed with people.

They were all young men charged with burglaries. There had been a sweep of teenagers, most of them accused of breaking into homes and cars in Chicago’s suburbs.

As I interviewed them, one by one, a pattern emerged. Almost all had come from perilous childhoods: neglect, abandonment, abuse.

I asked one young man why he and his siblings had been taken away from their birth home. “My mom chose drugs over us,” he said simply. Most of the young men were living in group institutions, foster homes, or the apartments of overburdened relatives where the defining characteristics were poverty and the lack of any responsible adult who cared deeply for them.

Another pattern emerged. All were in school, even involved in after-school sports. None had a criminal background. These were promising young men.

I had to ask: how is it that a good kid like you is accused of stealing? One young man in foster care motioned to the clothes he was wearing — jogging pants with holes in the knees and a grimy t-shirt — and explained that by the time his foster mom paid the rent and food bills, there was no money left for clothes. Another dropped his head in his folded arms on the table, telling me how his aunt complained bitterly about the money he was costing her. She wanted him to help with expenses. Others had been part of a mentoring program; their mentor allegedly exploited them by recruiting them to do the crimes.

Scarcity. Want. My city is full of such children.

When they were brought into the courtroom for their hearings, the judge set bonds too high for the young men to post. They knew what that meant. They were going to jail.

After the last hearing, I heard wailing from the lockup. I went to check, and saw this sight: a cell full of teenaged boys, sobbing and wiping away tears. Two boys, perhaps strangers until that moment, clutched each other’s heads with their hands and held tight as they cried. It was a gesture of comfort in despair. These boys had no money for clothes or bail, but they had this: the impulse to care, to help.

The image of those boys, led by a thousand failures to that moment, should move us to a Thanksgiving repentance. Amid bounty, what do we owe to children unguided and uncared for? Amid scarcity, how do we celebrate abundance? To be so far from want that we wish others to be partakers of our plenty — that is something for which to give thanks.


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Jeanne Bishop

is an attorney with the Office of the Cook County Public Defender, an adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law, and a member of the Marty Center Advisory Board. Ms. Bishop is a regular contributor on religion for The Huffington Post and has written for, among other publications, the CNN Belief Blog, Sojourners, and The Christian Century.

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Your article gives broad insight into a world encountered by children seldom described in so eloquent terms. Children in "peril" on a daily basis, and exploited by "mentors" who are supposed to offer trusting, positive guidance and intervention, is appalling.
Our country needs a morality epiphany to move our approach to these children's situations as only arrest, detention and imprisonment.

Thank you. This is a poignant reminder of how unevenly our blessings are supplied, and how little we are "self made." oh, and of how little we need, on this "black Friday." I am humbled.

What a complex and paradoxical cycle need/scarcity is. It seems it's roots are quite consistent and begin with malformed parenting of one sort or another. For example, most often for boys a home without a male role model: 85% of youth in prison are from fatherless homes; 90% of runaway children are from fatherless homes; 71% of high school dropouts are from fatherless homes; 90% of inmates on death row are from fatherless homes. It appears that Daniel Patrick Moynihan quote from the 60s was prescient: "From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future -- that community asks for and gets chaos." No finger pointing here as the conundrum is complex and multiform. However, tertiary care cannot possibly stop this problem and we remain unwilling/unable as a culture to articulate or institute primary preventive measures to effectively treat such. There is much to repent of and current diagnosis and treatment plans must honestly be seen as a failure on all accounts. Yet the same bromides continue to be applied without honest reflection of causation. The patient is in desperate need and we have failed miserably.

Hello Mr. Flintstone,
I'd love to incorporate your comment into my 10th grade English classroom. But before I do so, could you point me in the direction of where you got the statistics?


Beautifully written, Ms. Bishop. Your words and the insights you shared touched me at my core. I believe you have put your finger, or mouse as the case may be, on the root cause of many of our social ills. This one observation (pattern) says it all: "Almost all had come from perilous childhoods: neglect, abandonment, abuse."

Your final paragraph reminds me of a quote by Captain Mark Kelly, "Behind every victim lies a matrix of our society's approach to poverty, violence and mental illness."

Thank you for the life-changing work you are doing and for creating awareness about this important issue. I hope Ms. Tippett interviews you for one of her shows :-)

To see that love, the essence of humanity, is in the darkest and lonliest places and times in life moved me and reminded me to do more to ease that burden. There is a burden in front of us each day to lighten in our fellow and I hope I will pay greater care daily to lighten that burden than i have yesterday.

In some form this story will be true in St. Louis, Mo. and in all other communities. If you live in St. Louis, support " Voices For Children" and hope that the CASA Volunteers (Court Appoointed Special Advocstes) help such situations.