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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wealth and Poverty

I spent last weekend at my favourite place.  Thanks to a few volunteers and my usual caregiver, who held down Fort Michael for me, I was able to help out at the monthly sale of the Chelsea Nearly New Shop, housed in the basement of the local United Church, an old, slightly rundown but well-loved, well-used little church.

It so happens that this church, and therefore the shop itself, is right across the road from my house. It couldn't be closer, a mere minute from my doorstep.  If it were otherwise, I most likely wouldn't be as involved as I have been.  Our house is well-situated in our little village with a full grocery store and hardware store only a few steps farther than the church, or even closer if you dare cross the ditch over the now-rickety bridge that my son built many years ago.  The proximity of these amenities means that I can complete the week's grocery shopping in less than half an hour with no travel time and, better yet, on foot with no gas consumption required. The hardware store is my preferred location to pick up furnace filters, plumbing materials and gardening supplies. I find myself increasingly overwhelmed in the big box stores like Canadian Tire, which I reluctantly have to visit on rare occasions if my little stores next door cannot help me. The closeness of these places gives me comfort and a sense of security, requiring little reliance on the car despite our distance from the city.

I have been thinking a lot about poverty and consumption lately with all the "Occupy Wall Street (or insert your city's name)" demonstrations. I haven't learned much about them, I must confess, but something about them makes me squirm for reasons I couldn't really identify at first. As I thought about it I realized that my personal style is not that of an "activist" who protests, sits in, camps out and speaks loudly.  My preferred statement is made through direct action where words are not really necessary. I realized I don't want to focus on the perceived "evil" rich, most of them honourable citizens who contribute greatly to the economy and the advancement of our civilization through their accomplishments or their support of programmes outside their expertise.  I personally have no issues with the rich.  But I do have an issue with poverty. Whether the rich can be blamed for the existence of poverty is not for me to answer; I tend to think not. What does seem to be happening is a widening in the gap between rich and poor and that is where I would like to put my energies, trying to narrow that gap somehow. For the record, I do include myself and my husband in the category of the rich even though our annual income falls in the modest mid-range, not the soaring six-plus figures.

To that end of narrowing the gap, which I have no illusions that I can accomplish on my own, I belong to a faith that promotes the equality of all people, all races, all religions. It promotes the narrowing of that gap between rich and poor and embraces all humanity. Also I have recently thought a lot about broadening my charitable donations to include an organization that has international reach, another with a more national reach and finally my hands-on work at the Nearly New which is a decidedly local, grass-roots organization directly assisting those in need in our community both with financial aid and clothing. We too have a broad reach, giving to projects near and far, but our focus is mostly our community and the poor in our midst.

Our sales are wonderful monthly events spanning a Friday evening and four hours midday on Saturday. Our nearly-new merchandise is modestly priced, most things selling for under $4.00 with no tax. On a good weekend, like last weekend, we will make well over $1000.00 but we usually manage to raise at least a grand each sale. That's a lot of stuff when the average price for things is about $2.00. What strikes me at these sales is the diversity of our clientele.  Being a small town, we all know each other pretty well and have a good idea of each person's relative wealth or poverty. But this store is not just for the impoverished. It has become "The" place to hang out and find incredible bargains. It is also the place to see all your friends, almost like a local pub except you can walk away with an armload of great "new" clothes rather than just a hangover.

The week before this sale our little community was shaken by tragedy. A couple of local teenagers died in a horrific car accident and then a few days later a little girl lost her life, her mother charged with her murder.  We all know each other, at least peripherally. We were all stunned and saddened, especially those of us at the Nearly New who knew the mother and daughter. We are a poorer community for the loss of these young souls.

I was worried that our sale might be a sombre event, all of us grieving deeply for the senseless losses added to our own individual troubles. But I was amazed.  It was, of course, bittersweet, people quietly, tearfully and respectfully reminiscing, but it was also a nearly joyous event, our hearts so heavy but reaching out in appreciation of each other.

It is a place where we can put aside our sadness and our troubles and be a community, laughing and crying together. It is a place to feel wealthy in our relationships while we directly contribute to assisting those less fortunate; with our overhead costs at nearly zero, every dollar spent is a dollar to someone in need. It is a place where I can step away from my role and isolation as caregiver for a while and feel connected to the world.

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