It’s been too long since I have seen a cockroach.
Lying on a resort beach chair while on a mini-vacation a few days ago, I thought about how much my life has changed since growing up fairly poor. Some people will tell you that they were poor as children but didn’t know it. I remember it vividly!
In a divorced home as the oldest of four children, I watched my mother scramble for rent, school clothes, and even food. We lived in a meager apartment, a roof over our heads, but not much more. Roaches are common in apartments, though they were not, and are not, value judgements. You could have an immaculate home but whenever a neighbor moved out, their pests lost a food supply, so they migrated to you until you beat them back. I remember being mortified when on a rare occasion I would invite a friend to our place and a cockroach appeared. By necessity I learned the art of misdirection! Living with roaches was a constant battle that the roaches always inevitably seemed to win.
In my 60s now, education, the values Mom and others taught me, and income have taken me far away from those meager times. It would be fairly easy now not to see poverty in others — one could spend your way out, right?
Not really. Poverty, like roaches, is all around us whether or not we choose to see it. It’s in the cashier we paid to buy our coffee, who is working her second, or third, job to make ends meet. Its in the apartments just behind the shopping center that house the workers in the shops and office who can’t otherwise afford to live where they work. Its the frail, elderly grandmother we see in the grocery store, buying food for her extended family because her adult child is ill or in prison. You would likely be surprised to know how many children in your local elementary school are on a free breakfast and lunch program. It will break your Vincentian heart.
Those of us who grew up poor rarely thank God directly for the experience. Instead we thank Him for helping us to have the persistence, providential breaks, and the loving hearts of others who helped us escape poverty and “graduate” to the middle class or above. We also thank God for Saints Vincent and Louise, Blesseds Frédéric and Rosalie, and others who both set examples of serving the less fortunate and who educated others not to judge people’s character by their surroundings, misfortune, and current circumstances. As Vincentians today, we carry on these examples and works. We choose not to be blind to the poverty surrounding us, and then to do something positive about it, even if it helps just one person.
Everything created by God has a purpose. Maybe God created the humble cockroach not as a symbol of those who are poor, but to remind us of poverty itself. No matter how hard we fight it, poverty will still be with us. Perhaps we can’t totally eradicate it, but neither should we approve of living with it, either. What can we do ourselves, and how can we enlist others to see what we see and then to act?
Your in Christ,