By Colleen Sym
Published: July 2010
Related Topics: Social Justice
"Stories matter. Telling our stories is important. Hearing the stories [of those living in poverty] is even more important". This is how David Pfrimmer, the past chair of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC) started his theological reflection at the Religious Leaders Forum on June 2. The forum was a provincial gathering to hear and discuss the initial findings from the ISARC community hearings on poverty.
In the winter and spring of 2010, the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC) led a Social Audit for the purpose of assessing the Ontario Poverty Reduction Strategy. People with lived experience of poverty were invited to come forward to share their experiences and insights into changes that are required to enable people in poverty to live with dignity. Audits were held in thirty communities across the province.
On April 22 Archdeacon Michael Patterson participated in the Social Audit hearings in Hamilton. The audit day was organized and supported by volunteers from 25 in 5 Hamilton Network for Poverty Reduction.
On April 26 Bishop Michael Bird participated in the Social Audit hearings in Halton Region. The day was organized and supported by staff of Halton Community Legal Services.
Each responded to the request for their participation with a willingness to serve and the gift of their time. Both the Bishop and the Archdeacon participated as 'Rapporteurs'.
As such, they were charged with listening to the witnesses and writing their reflections of the day. Theirs was an active listening role, paying attention not only to what they heard but also to what the witnesses' stories evoked within them.
After hearing the stories of the witnesses, each acknowledged that they had started the day with the stereotypes that far too many of us share about those who live in poverty as being responsible for their situation.
In his reflection Bishop Bird wrote: "Contrary to the common stereotype of a person receiving social assistance, these individuals would much sooner return to the work force and many are engaged in volunteer organizations and activities that contribute significantly to the well-being of their communities. For the most part they find themselves in their present situation through an unavoidable and calamitous event or series of events that include major health problems, mental health issues, abusive relationships and recessionary employment challenges."
Archdeacon Patterson expressed it this way: "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
These are questions that I have asked of others many times as part of the rite of baptism. My participation in the social audit as a Rapporteur requires that now I must again ask them of myself as one of those who shares responsibility for the ongoing deprivation experienced by so many resulting from government policies of the 90's. Before the opportunity to hear directly the stories of those with lived experience did I truly appreciate the implications of the policies and consider the human faces? Did I strive for justice for those oppressed by the system created and sustained by those who overtly supported it and those who did so through indifference or inaction?
Did I go into the day of the audit with expectations regarding what I would hear that were impacted by internalized stereotypes, shared by so many, of those living in poverty as people responsible for their situations due to character flaws, laziness or a sense of entitlement? I know that too often our society 'pathologizes' issues as being personal trouble resulting from poor choices or inherent weaknesses of character instead of acknowledging and responding to the structural source of these troubles."...
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