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In their shoes: Poverty simulation helps servants do ministry with, not to

By Jessica Connor

Imagine for a moment that you are a mother of two working 10 hours a day as a minimum-wage secretary. You are the breadwinner of your house because no one will hire your ex-felon husband – and you just got fired for being late to work.

It wasn’t your fault, but the fact remains that rent is due, your pantry is bare and your car is low on gas. What do you do? What do you pay first? How do you survive? How do you keep your family together, fed and warm when you’re barely hanging on by a thread?

That was the situation I got to live out during Cost of Poverty Experience, a two-hour role-playing hands-on poverty simulation held during General Conference. The simulation was sponsored by the General Board of Global Ministries and Rural and Urban Network and offered by the Circles Initiative, a nonprofit organization partnering with The United Methodist Church.

I and the other participants were assigned to a family group, where each member got to take on the role of a real-life low-income person living in Dayton, Ohio. I got to play Casey, and my family group included my “husband,” played by a middle aged woman from Florida; our 10-year-old daughter, played by an older woman from Michigan; and our toddler, represented by a stuffed doll.

Armed with some food stamps, a gas voucher for one week and a few brief instructions, we were to simulate this family’s daily life over the course of a month: trips to the county health office to reapply for food stamps, pawning your family computer because your monthly expenses exceeded your income, visits to the local church for food pantry items when our cupboard ran low.

We played our roles stilted at first, then more real as the simulation ran on. And a funny thing began to happen. My brain knew I was role-playing, but because everyone was in full character, I started to actually feel like this young mother with the weight of the world on her shoulders. I felt overwhelmed when I was fired and wondered what my family would do. A trip to the county agency was frustrating – I couldn’t get assistance for three more weeks. The local church steered me to the Sunday worship service instead of helping me. After an eviction notice, I was forced to pawn my child’s Nintendo so we could keep a roof over our heads.

We entered survival mode, started prioritizing: buy groceries, then pay rent and utilities (better to live in a house without electricity than have a hungry child). It felt like there was nowhere I could turn; all the available help seemed cold and distant. Everyone was an enemy: the dreaded red tape. My neighbors were all in the same predicament, spinning our wheels scrambling to live hand-to-mouth. The real eye-opener came when a man was “shot” in the middle of the street. I knew if I stopped to help him, I’d get shot too, or lose my job over being late. I had a family to care for, so I kept walking. And I lost a shred of humanity in the process.

By putting myself in the shoes of those who live daily in poverty, barely able to stay afloat, I was able to feel a whisper of their pain. The experience transformed me. It’s one thing to serve low-income families, as I do in my local church. It’s quite another to serve with a deeper, more personal understanding of their journey.

Serving with, not to – ah, there’s the rub. And now ignited with a deeper passion to help those whose plight I walked, I can only imagine how the Lord will use me.

Connor is the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate newspaper.