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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. 

4 comments

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  1. George Olive

    What a powerful and enlightening, yet overwhelming and discouraging experience this must have been as you “lived” the despair that is so real and inescapable for so many.In my two small churches, I have three families facing situations analagous to the role play of which you were a part. My Pastor’s Discretionary Fund is down to less than $300. We raised nearly $1,700 last month by special appeal to help some in dire need, yet these three families collectively represent an even greater need this month, and this is only the 4th of May. I am praying for a miracle, but I fear that until we, the church, are willing to do with less and give more, stories such as yours and mine will will continue to condemn us. I read in this month’s Advocate that our conference’s delegates to Jurisdictional Conference were giving up their travel reimbursements (that come from our apportionments) to build a fund to support the candidacy of our nominee for the Epicopacy. That fund is now in excess of $9,000. What does this say about our priorities?

  2. Karin VanZant

    Jessica – It was a pleasure meeting and speaking with you yesterday. Thank you for sharing your insights about COPE and the transformation that you have experienced. Just want to let people know that they can still attend a COPE event tomorrow (FRIDAY) May 4 from 9:15-12 in Ballroom D at the Tampa Convention Center.

    K. VanZant

  3. Randy Neal

    I enjoyed my experience on Tuesday. It was enlightening to say the least. There were about 12 of us participating. I understand that there were 12 on Wednesday and it was cancelled on Thursday. What was the attendance on Friday? Or was it also cancelled? Ouch!

    I have no idea what this event cost the conference. But it is not the fault of the presenters. Shame on us, delegates and visitors, for not taking advantage of this opportunity.

  4. Lois Anderson

    I, too, participated in a poverty simulation here in Newton, KS. I had very similar circumstances as in
    this report. Everything kept getting worse and was truly frustrated, I was the wage earner, husband no
    job, looking for help everywhere, pregnant daughter, two sons in school. I had to “work” then go around paying bills, buying groceries, didn’t know I needed a receipt when paying cash, daughter’s boyfriend
    got put in jail for stealing money, his family lost their house and came to live with us. That was the last
    blow! I felt frustrated all day and came to realize that being with low resources is a very difficult life, and
    it often goes from bad to worse. We have a Circles Initiative, or, Circles of Hope, in our community,
    actually at our 1st United Methodist Church where we are helping one family at a time get from poverty
    to middle class. There are now almost 80 participating in this endeavor.

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