The Festivity of the Poor: Dickens, Hand-me-downs, and Mercy Ministry

dickens-photo.jpgThis entry also appears on The Call With Mike Milton website. I grew up poor. And when I say that I mean that I not only lived below the poverty level, but I mean to say that we were poor in spirit. That is, we knew that our condition was one that was dependent, in need, unable to be sustained except by the kindness of others. We were sustained by the state. As conservative, self reliant, republicans some of us might not be proud to admit it. But surely, as even the Roosevelt era Ronald Reagan knew, the state has its place with the poor.  Before food stamps there were commodities. And I remember greedily scraping the bottom of the peanut butter can with a spoon and tasting that wonderfully strong peanut fragrance of my favorite commodity that we received, gratis, from the US Department of Agriculture. Each Tuesday a social worker came out to check on the orphan that was given to the widowed childless woman in the woods, my Aunt Eva. Her name was Strauss. A funny name. But Strauss (later I learned she had a first name, Helen) would come out and eat lunch with us (Dinner as we called it). She loved Aunt Eva’s vegetables (loaded, as I recall with lots of pork) and she always, always concluded the meal with cornbread, hot from the skillet, crumbled in a bowl with ice-box chilled buttermilk poured all over it. Strauss was the best of government workers. She mixed the duty to the poor, from the state, with her own compassion for the poor. She did this in many ways, like always bringing me a candy bar when she came on Tuesdays (this was before I started going to school at age 7, almost 8, those wondrous days when I ran free like a calf through the sunlit uplands and played cowboy, by myself, in the hayloft of our old barn). And she also gave me hand-me-downs from her grandsons. Her grandsons attended St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Hammond, Louisiana. The boys were several years older than me and so when they grew out of their khaki pants and plaid shirts, I got them. When I started to school at Live Oak Elementary School in Watson, Louisiana, I often dressed as if I were going to St. Paul’s: The poor child attired in the cloths of the affluent. So I thank God for Strauss, for commodity food and for hand-me-downs, for the fellowship of cornbread and buttermilk, and for candy bars on Tuesday. We were poor. But we were not forgotten. And we were not inhuman. We were not statistics. We were also not destined for poverty. My Aunt Eva always told me, “Son, there is nothing for you here. Get a good education and get out. And one day, maybe you can take me with you.” All of this is to say that there is more to the poor than meets the eye. They are human. And though “the poor you will always have with you” Jesus also came to preach good news to the poor. He said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”I have been thinking about how we minister to the poor because I have been reading G.K. Chesterton’s Charles Dickens, the Last of the Great Men. In his chapter called, “The Alleged Optimism of Dickens,” Chesterton shows how Dickens understood the poor in a way that others did not. Most schoolboys know that great social reforms came about as a result of the literary activism of Charles Dickens. His characters and stories revealed a part of London, a poor part that many passed on the way to their stores and their factories, but few saw. Dickens saw them. And Dickens told us about them. But Chesterton deals with the fact that some criticized Dickens for making the poor seems, well, happy. We preferred them downcast, misused, forgotten and condemned to generation and generation of dirty, grimy misunderstanding and forsakenness. Chesterton showed in this chapter that Dickens lifted up the poor by recognizing that there is what Chesterton calls a “festivity of the poor.” I have never read that before this morning, and I really like that phrase. It admits poverty and all that poverty brings, but also admits the humanity of the poor, even the laughter and joy that lies in the hearth and hearts of the Cratchits, for instance. I think it is important that we remember that too. There will be many youth and adult mission trips this summer. We will go to the cramped and dangerous apartments of the inner city, to the junk yard reservations of the American Indian, to the engine-hanging-on-the-limb landscape of poor white Appalachia, and to the crumbling orphanages of an East European capital city. And we ought to remember that as we minister Jesus to the poor, the poor may have something to teach us too. For they are human. And they love and laugh and dream and live despite, and sometimes because of, their condition. And the sadness of their condition is not missed when we admit the humanity.And somehow when we begin to do this, we come to see life itself in a new way.I quote Chesterton on what Dickens saw when he walked though the lives of the poor:”He saw all his streets in fantastic perspectives, he saw all his cockney villas as top-heavy and wild, he saw every man’s nose twice as big as it was, and every man’s eyes like saucers. And this was the basis of his gaiety – the only real basis of any philosophical gaiety. This world is not to be justified as it is justified by the mechanical optimists; it is not that it is orderly and explicable; its merit is that it is wild and utterly unexplained. Its merit is precisely that none of us could have conceived such a thing, that we should have rejected the bare idea of it as miracle and unreason. It is the best of all impossible worlds.”And escaping the Utopia bred in unbelief, Dickens saw Creation, Fall and Redemption all at work in the lives of the poor he sought to help. His assistance, like Strauss’ in my life, was not an act of pitiful mercy, but of Christ-like humanity. He entered their lives and saw them as man to man, without atheistic condescension. He celebrated their lives and revealed injustice without removing humanity.


About Michael Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales, Trinity Saint David's College), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author. He is, also, an alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
This entry was posted in Charlotte, Chesterton, Dickens, Mercy ministry, Michael Milton, Mike Milton, minister, ministry, Pastor, PCA, Poor, Presbyterian, Reformed Theological Seminary, RTS-Charlotte, The Call with Mike Milton and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.