On September 28 (2019), The Varnum Memorial Library, along with Second Congregational Church of Jeffersonville and the Waterville Union Church, invited the community to an Uprooting Poverty Round-Table Discussion hosted by Will Eberle from the Vermont Agency of Human Services. We explored our own perception of poverty, what it truly looks like here in Lamoille County, and how we, as good neighbors, can be a part of the solution. ~ Rev. Devon Thomas attended and was inspired to share his thoughts in the following letter.
I am pretty privileged! Am I driving around the county in a fancy car? No, but still, I’m privileged. Like many millennials, am I weighed down by student debt? Yes, but still, I am privileged. Can I afford to live in my own home? Nope! But still, I have privilege! I may not be living the high life, but I am able to live a fulfilling one. I have a roof over my head, I make a good living wage, and this is in large part because, as a minister serving three small-town churches, I have people who are looking out for me. This keeps me out of poverty. I am privileged to have this social safety net; many in our county are not as lucky.
As a religious leader, I look at poverty as a moral issue; and as a Christian minister, I see the gospel being pretty clear in its stance that our moral character can be summed up by how well we treat our poor. As stated in Matthew 25, “Just as you do unto the least of my family, you do unto me.” It seems clear, those of us with power, privilege and wealth have a responsibility to help those who do not. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods, and sees a brother or sister in need, and yet refuses help?” (1 John: 3:17)
At the time of this writing, I have just had the opportunity to attend the Uprooting Poverty discussion at the Varnum Library, where I got to meet Will Eberle from the Vermont Agency for Human Services. He shared with us some realities about living in poverty here in Lamoille County. First off, we do have an issue with poverty here in Lamoille. According to the Capstone Needs Assessment Report, 12 to 13% of our brothers and sisters here in Lamoille were living in a state of poverty in 2016. Those who are saddled with this type of financial hardship disproportionately are young, female and have children. This brings to mind certain biblical sayings about the desperate situation of widows and orphans, and we need to be aware that as the income disparity in our state grows, these are the people who are getting hurt most. I found it alarming to learn that some of these mothers are trying to get by with an income of little more than five dollars a day.
How can we allow this to happen, when our local communities seem to be so interconnected and willing to help a neighbor in need? The truth is a lot of these folks are not strongly connected to local communities. They do not all have the type of support structure that I have as a minister, and that many of us have with our friends in the community. They go unnoticed and unaided, and we do not have the local resources needed to help them effectively work their way out of poverty.
This is the reason it is so important for our local communities to have discussions on the issues of poverty where we live. So much of it goes unnoticed by those of us who have privilege. And because no one else is going to shed light on the poverty around us, it falls to us alone to educate ourselves on what poverty looks like where we live, so that we can uproot it and properly begin to address this issue.
But the thing that really struck me is that one of the most impactful things we as a community could be doing to alleviate poverty here in Lamoille would be to build affordable housing. It has been shown that a family that has a stable and affordable place to live can, in most cases, works its way out of poverty. Just having a place to sleep and take a shower can go a long way to helping a person get by. When the Agency of Human Services conducted a study to find out how much housing in Lamoille met the standards to be considered affordable, they found that 0% of homes in Lamoille fit that criteria. If this state were serious about addressing poverty, we would be doing more than just talking about it. We would be passing measures to address our housing problem, we would be working to address living wages that pay $20 or more, we would be working on childcare, transportation as well as letting people know that being in poverty does not make us less of a human being! We can do this, and pay for this if we start talking about taxes. We are not, so what can we do to address this need on a local level?
The good news is that there are a lot of people having these discussions and working to address poverty. Volunteering at shelters, or food pantries, or being a COSA (Circle of Support and Accountability) volunteer, or a mentor, are wonderful ways to tangibly and immediately get involved. You can also write an IMPASSIONED letter to your elected representatives asking them to pass fair taxation to address poverty.
I thank the Varnum Memorial Library, the Second Congregational Church in Jeffersonville and the Waterville Union Church for holding and continuing to have these discussions on poverty to shed light on some real suffering that is happening among us. I am privileged! I get that! It is because I have privilege that I can help.
Rev. Devon Thomas serves: The Waterville Union Church, The Second Congregational Church in Jeffersonville UCC, and the United Church of Bakersfield and Fairfield.