Sometime, just for 'ha ha's' google the word 'poverty' and then click on images.
You'll find pages and pages of images of hungry children - mostly children from the so-called 'third world'.
You'll also see heaps of trash on a barren urban street blighted with decrepit buildings or high rise city ghettos.
In among them, you'll also find images urging us to "Make War on Poverty" or "Fight Poverty" or "End The Cycle of Poverty" or "Make Poverty History."
Wonderful slogans with altruistic if not unrealistic expectations.
What you won't see is the image of poverty that I have been dealing with most of this week.
I got a call on Monday evening from a man I'll call 'John' who lives in a small town I'll identify as being in "The Heartland" of these United States of America.
His voice was calm and steady, devoid of the usual tones of what I've come to wearily call "the long distance skammers."
Clergy get them all the time - people who look us up on the internet and tell us very sad tales of impossible woe which usually begins with, "I lost my job." Or, "My mother died last year." Or, "You're not going to believe my story, but I hope you'll listen because no one else will. I've got no where else to turn, pastor. May I call you pastor?"
You'll clearly hear my sarcasm when I tell you that I sometimes refer to them as "The Country Western Song" calls - you know, the ones with the litany that includes variations in the key of Sad: ". . . My wife done left me, my dog died and my car broke down . . . OOOOOh, my achey-breakey heart."
'John's' call was not like that. Not at all. He was polite but not solicitous. As I recall, he began with, "I wonder if I might have a few minutes of your time?" I thought it was a telemarketing call or my local police or fire station making a cold call for donations.
He explained that he was an Episcopalian who had been born in Northern New Jersey, but found himself transplanted to "The Heartland" which he now called home. He said he had looked me up on the Internet, along with several other clergy in the area, whom he named. He had spoken with two of them and had left messages for two others.
"I've gotten into a tough patch," he said, and I had this idea that if I called a few clergy in my old home state, maybe if a few of you got together, you might be able to help. It's really bad here in the Midwest, and churches can really only help with a few days supply of food, which is wonderful, but that's not what I need."
"Well," I said, trying not to sound sarcastic, "let me guess. You need money."
I was preparing myself to give him the bum's rush with my usual line about how I don't give money to people who call me on the phone from out of state, but his honesty stopped me dead in my tracks.
"Yes," he said, "Seven hundred dollars, to be exact."
"And how did you come to need seven hundred dollars?" I asked.
"Well, we've hit a rough patch, like I said," he began, "The medical bills got way ahead of us and the pharmacy sent our bill to a collection agency. All of a sudden, we were getting these calls and letters from a lawyer who told us that if we didn't have the money by the end of the week, he was going to foreclose on our house."
"For $700?" I asked incredulously. "He's going to leave a family homeless for $700 in medical bills?"
"I can give you his name and number," he said, "and you can hear him for yourself. The man may have more education than me," he said, quietly, even kindly, "but he don't know nothin' about being a gentleman."
He cleared his throat before he continued, "So, after I realized that the local churches here were almost as bad, if not worse off, financially, than we are, I thought maybe churches in the Northeast might not be so bad. So, I thought I'd start giving you a call. I mean, we're all 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church', right? Isn't that what we say in the Creed on Sunday?"
Okay, so now he had me, but I was still defensive because of my suspicion.
"I need you to know that I can't afford $700," I started.
"Oh, no, no," he said kindly, "I don't expect that. But, maybe if you give $25 or $50 and I can get other churches to do the same, I'll be able to make a dent in this loan."
"Wait," I said, clearly unnerved by his calm pragmatics, "you took out a loan?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said, "and that's the problem. See, after the lawyer called we met with him in his office. I thought, well, maybe if he saw us face-to-face, we might be able to work out a deal. It only made it worse. He yelled and screamed in my face and told me that he had just foreclosed on two other families just that week."
'John' grew quiet again, "Pastor, when I tell you that the man was heartless . . . well, I was taught not to say anything bad about other people, but . . .I'll just say this . . .I knew that I was in the presence of something evil."
Again, he cleared his throat and said, "So, the wife and I went to this place where the attorney said we could get a loan today and it would be all taken care of before we went to bed that night."
"We went down the street to a place called 'The Cash Store'. They seemed to know that we'd be coming. Within 15 minutes, the papers were all signed and we walked out of the place feeling relieved that we wouldn't lose our home."
And then, when I got home and read over the paper work, I realized the mistake we'd made. I knew it right a soon as I saw the annual finance charge. I couldn't believe my eyes. I couldn't believe that I heard the man say it in the store, but what I heard most was that I would get to keep my house for my wife and son."
"What is the percentage rate?" I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
Ready? No you're not, but here it is anyway: 403%.
Yes, that's Four Hundred and Three Percent.
He would later send me a fax of his Loan Agreement but here's how it broke down: the family would have to make nine weekly payments of $108.50 - which would not pay off the principle of the loan.
That would come with the tenth "balloon" payment of $805.50 which was the original loan plus the last finance charge.
If you're doing the math, that adds up to total payments of $1,785.00 on an original $700 debt, earning the loan company $1,085.00 - more than the family owed in the first place.
No wonder they call themselves "The Cash Store."
What I do wonder is how these people sleep at night. Or, look themselves in the mirror every day.
But wait! There's more!
As I was digesting this information, I asked, "How did you let your medical bills get so out of control? Is it your boy that's sick?"
Well, 'John' lost his job a few months ago, but his wife works full time for an agency that helps kids with disabilities. Thankfully, the position comes with health insurance benefits which is not the best, but it's something.
This would be the place where you should make sure you've got some tissues handy.
His wife, whom I'll call 'Jane' has a genetic disorder which she has and has passed on to her three children. It's call 'Turcot's Syndrome" in which there is clustering of colon and brain tumors within the same family and sometime within the same patient.
'Jane' has colon cancer which is under treatment and presently in remission. One of her sons died with rectal cancer at the age of 21 a few years ago. Her 22 year old daughter presently has rectal cancer and has developed a second malignancy which is a primary tumor of the brain. Her 12 year old son was just diagnosed with colon cancer which is now being treated and doctors are optimistic that it will go into remission, but, since he is an adolescent, he is a prime candidate for the development of a brain tumor, which is the pattern of the disease in adolescents.
Go ahead. You can read those two paragraph again. I'll wait. It's all true.
I gave over all the information that 'John' faxed to me to the scrutiny of Ms. Conroy's careful if not cynical eyes. She studied them for several long minutes and declared them legitimate.
Since Monday evening, in between all the other pastoral and administrative duties I've tended to, I've been making calls. I was able to convince a friend in a neighboring police department who owes me a few (ahem) favors to run a 'sheet' on the guy. No outstanding warrants, no prior convictions, no felonies.
I called The Cash Store and learned that, in fact, a loan had been taken out by 'John' and his wife, 'Jane' for $700. And yes, I was told, the interest rate was 403%. And yes, the first nine payments were finance charge which did not apply to the principle balance. And yes, she said, she slept well at night. (Yes, I asked.)
I called the drug store in the Midwest to check out the story of the loan. After a few calls, I eventually got the owner who sounded more desperate than 'John'. He's had so many outstanding debts that he, in his words, "had to resort to a lawyer who has been a godsend to me. He's helping me save my business."
When I tried to tell him what the attorney was doing to exact the income from his debtors, he said, "I don't want to hear it. I can't hear it. I have to provide for my family, too. You just don't understand how bad it is out here."
Apparently, I don't. It got worse.
I called the attorney. 'John' was right. He is an educated man, but he ain't no gentleman. He essentially said that this was none of my business and that I was to . . . wait . . . let me quote him exactly . . ."turn my goody-two-shoes in the opposite direction and mind your own damn business."
He did end our conversation on a somewhat compassionate note by saying something I had heard before, "You just don't understand how bad it is out here."
So, I decided that I probably needed to try and understand how bad it was out there.
I called the Episcopal Cathedral where 'John' said he had gone, but all they could give him was food - and someone slipped a $20 bill in his hand. I spoke with a woman who was as cold as a three day old codfish packed in ice.
I had introduced myself and told her that I was just trying to get a better understanding of the situation and could she fill me in. I'm trying hard not to believe that her rudeness was due to the fact that this particular Cathedral is in a highly conservative diocese with a bishop who has had a very high profile in the movement to leave the Episcopal Church.
Nah. Couldn't have been that. Or maybe, when they say the Nicene Creed every Sunday, when they get to the part about "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church," they cross their fingers.
So, I called a friend in a neighboring diocese who told me that "Yes, it's that bad here, Elizabeth. Most of us are just working on the principle of 'the greatest good for the greatest number'," adding, "I'm amazed that someone had $20 in cash to give your caller. That was probably an act of sacrificial giving."
I suddenly felt ashamed of the secret judgment I had made in my heart about that.
I also called the Dean of the Cathedral in a neighboring, friendly diocese. I left a message, explaining the nature of my call. That was two days ago. No word yet. I'm going to keep trying.
I had also emailed all the clergy whom 'John' said he had called, giving them all the information I had, and urging them to try to be as generous as they could.
Well, there's no 'happily ever after' - not in this economy - but there is Good News:
Three clergy were able to contribute $108.50 each.
One clergy person went to her Ecumenical Clergy Council and was able to secure a donation in the amount of $434.
I was able to contribute $216, for a total of $976.50 - or the equivalent of almost the entire finance charges on the loan - leaving them with the $700 original amount plus the last $108.50 finance charge.
Something in me prompted me to pick up the phone and call the Cash Store again. I got the same woman I had previously spoken with and told her what we were able to do. She seemed surprised but pleased in an amused sort of way.
So I pushed it a bit further: I asked if they received the $976.50 by Monday, the 27th of April, the date the first payment was due on the loan, would they forgive the entire rest of the loan?
Well, she did the math and muttered that there would be this penalty and that additional charge and would I wait while she made the adjustments.
It was my turn to be rude. I interrupted her mathematical pre-occupation and asked, in my best professional tones, of course: "Are you kidding me? You are going to get all your money back, plus earn $276.50 in 14 days without breaking a sweat and you want more?"
She was quiet for a while and said, "If you get a valid check or money order to me in the amount of $976.50 here by the close of business day on the 27th, we'll call it a deal."
I know how this is going to sound, but I'm going to say it anyway: I'm thinking she probably made money on the deal.
Whatever resentment I harbored for her melted away when I called 'John' and told him the Good News. He could hardly believe it, but as soon as he got his mind wrapped around the truth, the first thing he did was call out to his wife, "Honey," he said, "it's a miracle. It's an honest-to-God miracle!"
Okay, you can hand me one of those tissues, now.
I am so proud of my sister and brother clergy here I could just weep. These are kind, generous people with not a great deal of money in their discretionary funds, but they did the very best they could. I thank God that I am in this diocese with them.
But mostly, you know, I have a 'peace that passes human understanding' in my heart. I keep thinking about something 'John' said.
"I mean, we're all 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church', right? Isn't that what we say in the Creed on Sunday?"
Yes, it is, 'John'. Yes it is. Those are no longer ancient words on a page in my Book of Common Prayer.
I don't think I'll ever say that part of the Nicene Creed again without pausing to think of 'John' and 'Jane' and their son - and a few of my clergy colleagues here in what many in this church consider 'that apostate diocese' of Newark who really believe - and live - the words they profess with they lips.
And all to the glory of God.