This Is America

Rase De Los Santos

When I first started the Brown Bag Lunch Assistant role, I remember that a volunteer, Bill Patrikos, mentioned to me that “hunger doesn’t take a holiday.” Those five words have continuously echoed in my head during my time at Trinity. The impact, the pain, and the stories that are contained in these words remind us that we are all human. Imagine with me—that intense feeling of hunger or feeling unsafe, wondering “when am I getting home?” For many people that moment is every day; it’s their life.

Working at Brown Bag, you get to know the guests. You learn their names, their stories, and what makes them laugh. A relationship begins to form, and the level of trust grows with each encounter. It is nice to see resources like the Brown Bag Lunch Ministry being utilized, but unsettling to see so many people who need it, and it makes me wonder, why?

To some people, Lower Manhattan appears like it doesn’t need assistance, but there are more people living in poverty in New York City than the national average (19.5% of New Yorkers are living in poverty and the national average is 12.3%). Speaking about poverty and acknowledging that it exists does a lot more than people realize. You’re taking the first step in changing the systems that keep poverty alive today. We must recognize that there is a problem in our neighborhood, state, and country, but also realize that there is a solution.

Trinity Church Wall Street is in Lower Manhattan and is surrounded by a mixed community. There are people living in poverty, needing assistance, and there are people who are well-off. For our team, it was important for Trinity to bring a poverty simulation to this community last month on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to help New Yorkers become more aware of the poverty around them. There are guests who come to Brown Bag and ask if we have any clothes that have been donated because it’s freezing and they’re sleeping outside. What they have is worn down, or they simply don’t have much on them. Meanwhile, clothing stores are all around us.

While the simulation was taking place, I walked around the room and captured the emotions of the participants. A few of them found it maddening to try and figure out how they were supposed to find a job, pay their rent, stay healthy, and take their kids to school or daycare. The resource tables, such as the bank, utility center, and social services, only added to the frustration. Many complained about the lines being too long. Once it was their turn to be helped, they were treated poorly, or the facilities had closed.

For other participants, this was a reality for them or a situation they had encountered in the past. Jeffery Greaux is one of our guests at Brown Bag and gave his view on the simulation. “I felt like I’ve lived nearly 7 or 8 of the scenarios from the simulation on Monday. The thing is, I felt like I was the only one that this happened to. This experience helped me understand that I’m not alone. This simulation [was] based on lots of people’s lives and experiences. It was scary how real-life it was, but also comforting to see my fellow congregants as frustrated as I have been.”

Participants who portrayed the different family roles were faced with scenarios such as:

  • A grandfather and grandmother are raising their grandchild. The grandfather is a diabetic and has mobility problems, and the grandmother works full-time, and her English is very limited. The grandchild is diagnosed with ADHD and is a handful for the grandparents. Their rent is $505, utilities bill is $295 per month, medical prescriptions are $350, and their automobile loan is $225.
  • A single mother living with her boyfriend is renting to own a mobile home. She wants to go back to school to receive her diploma, but must pay a total of $620.00 a month for all her bills. The child’s father does not pay child support, and she is currently unemployed.
  • An elderly widower who has been evicted from his home is now living in a homeless shelter. He is fearful of going out by himself and receives medication.

During the debrief, participants gathered to speak about their experience during the simulation and expressed disbelief, frustration, understanding, and what they now view differently. Kim Mallard, took on the role of someone living in poverty trying to take care of herself, protect her home from being evicted, and find a job. “This is one of the experiences that really made me re-think what people go through. I want this show to go on the road. It’s more timely now than ever!”

The poverty simulation did exactly what was intended. It was eye opening for the people that never experienced poverty, had a misconception surrounding poverty, or felt like their help didn’t matter. Having gone through the simulation and debrief, the event showed everyone what the big picture is.

This is America, but it doesn’t have to be.