Krista's Journal: Moving Towards Others and Preserving the Structures of Democracy

August 24, 2006

The fact of inner-city poverty and racial isolation often comes to us in the form of statistics. Too often, they make us feel overwhelmed and hopeless. The pictures from New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina broke through that paralysis. Terrible images made many Americans feel outraged by the suffering of 100,000 New Orleanians, mostly African American, who were too poor to evacuate the city and then left to fester in sub-human conditions. Michael Brown, the then-director of FEMA, was quoted as saying, "We're seeing people we didn't know existed." This awakening echoed across our nation. I knew almost immediately after Katrina that I wanted to interview David Hilfiker. Several years ago I picked up a small booklet he wrote, Poverty in Urban America: Its Causes and Cures. This concise essay — an excerpt can be read on our Web site — lays out with clarity how concentrated centers of poverty and racial segregation came to form in major cities all across this country. The story as he tells it is straightforward and rich with irony. Some of the federal post-Depression initiatives that lifted many Americans out of poverty made the urban ghetto possible. Later programs, also with fine intentions, followed the same pattern. For example, the Interstate Highway Program connected most of America. But as a side effect, it often divided or decimated the poorest African-American neighborhoods. The problem, as David Hilfiker points out gently and eloquently, is that the same Americans who were invisible until after the hurricane hit have been invisible for a long time, stranded and isolated even by the march of progress. In laying out this basic history, David Hilfiker provides a place to start in engaging some of the questions many of us began to ask in the wake of Katrina: How can scenes of utter need and despair, with mostly African-American faces, be possible in the richest, most powerful democracy on earth? But Dr. Hilfiker provides practical guidance as well with the personally exacting questions that follow on this new awareness: How did the poor become invisible? That is to say: How did the rest of us become blind, and removed from such need at the heart of our country? Two decades ago, David Hilfiker and his wife opened their eyes and moved towards poverty rather than away from it, with their whole life. He reflects this hour on the challenges he had to face in himself as he did so. He speaks of the pragmatic understanding he has gained of pivotal virtues, such as the Christian mandate to love one's neighbor, and the mysterious idea that the nature of God is revealed in care for the poor. And he makes a helpful distinction between "charity" and "justice." Charity is something, he says, over which we have control and that we do in a profound sense for ourselves. He does not condemn charity, and he considers the work of his life to fall mostly into this category. But we must also find new ways to engage the structures that make inequities possible and perpetuate them. We need to make charity less necessary. A first and more manageable step he suggests — and the move that can help us know what structures to change — is relationship, a renewed human connection between richer and poorer people in our communities. Because of the deep segregation that defines our urban centers, middle-class and affluent people have to go somewhere else to know the stories and faces of their poorer neighbors, to recognize them as neighbors in the first place. David Hilfiker's children were 11, 9, and 4 when they first moved to Washington and began to live in community with three other doctors, their families, and the homeless men in the medical shelter (Christ House) below their apartments. Later, together, they founded a supportive residence for homeless men with AIDS and cancer, Joseph's House, and lived more closely in community there. I find Dr. Hilfiker's descriptions of his children's response to living with poverty as helpful as anything he relates. Like many parents, I turned off the worst images of despair from New Orleans, afraid of the fear and despair with which they would fill my children. Counterintuitively, David Hilfiker insists, our children will be better able to live constructively with the fear and pain of poverty in our world if they are not merely shielded from it. This is true, he reminds me, of every kind of pain and darkness that intersects our lives. And the everyday pain of the poorest members of our society does tangibly affect us all, he insists, whether we know it or not. The biblical injunction that God will not allow societies to survive that do not take care of their poor, he says, reflects a basic sociological truth. If the divisions among us continue to deepen, and the neglect that comes from "invisibility" continues to multiply, our sense of democracy and equality will not survive. We could become a culture we do not recognize.

Recommended Reading

Image of Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen
Author: David Hilfiker
Publisher: Seven Stories Press (2003)
Binding: Paperback, 158 pages

I wholeheartedly recommend the two books by David Hilfiker that find reference in this program: Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen is an extended version of his early booklet that caught my imagination. It has a long and helpful bibliography in addition to all the information it contains. Not All of Us Are Saints: A Doctor's Journey with the Poor is an eloquent and moving account of his family's experiences.

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David Hilfiker

is a physician and cofounder of Joseph's House. He's the author of Not All of Us Are Saints: A Doctor's Journey with the Poor and Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen.