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The Paul Simon Essay: Burning question

How to help the poor? The answer might be found in the stories and the voices of Illinoisans who themselves live in the poorest communities in the state

essay and photographs by John Wesley Fountain

I stand with one foot in each of two worlds. One in poverty, the other planted firmly in the American Dream. One man, with one soul and one dream borne in two Americas.

I stand forever — at least in the scenes that play over in my mind like a grainy, black-and-white silent movie — on the impoverished block of 16th Street and Komensky Avenue in a community called North Lawndale, still among the nation's poorest, on Chicago's West Side, a place affectionately called K-Town. I also stand, in part, on an otherwise obscure plot of farmland in downstate Pulaski, where my great-great-grandfather — a thin, God-fearing man with chocolate skin, born a slave — reared his family as a free man in a rural town on the fringes of the Great Emancipation, through the misery of the Great Depression, in the depths of a great ocean of poverty.

I stand eternally with one foot on Poverty Street USA and the other on the American Dream, forever rooted in the fertile soil of this Land of Lincoln where the Bible Belt and the Midwest-bred, hard-work ethic intersect like a tapestry of purplish dawn sky over an emerald prairie.

Forever is my penchant for her flat, sun-drenched fields, golden or straw-brown or cornstalk green, to be spied across miles of highway. Forever is my affinity for the amber glow of the setting summer sun that stretches across fluttering tops of wheat and grain fields that tickle the horizon. Eternal is my love for this land, which runs so rich and yet so poor, with pockets of the most depraved poverty known to mankind still.

In Illinois, poverty is a seamless and never-ending tale.

It runs from the state's southern tip in emaciated Cairo and Pulaski, where my family's roots lie, north through Kankakee County's Pembroke Township — an impoverished rural community less than an hour's drive south of Chicago that I visited and wrote of in 2002 as a national correspondent for The New York Times. Farther north it runs to a hobbled hamlet called Ford Heights — once deemed the poorest suburb in America. And farther north still to Chicago and its confederation of impoverished inner-city communities, where high-rise public housing complexes were for decades symbols of acute isolationism, America's warehousing of the poor.

Poverty. It is the perennial question. American Poverty — rural, urban and suburban poverty. Stubborn poverty, the kind that rises like the stench of polluted well water. Poverty. Its assortment of interconnected questions lingers, none more pressing than these: What is society's moral obligation to the poor? How can we solve this problem called poverty?

Is it indeed solvable? What to do about the poor?

Across America, 37 million people lived in poverty in 2004, an increase of 1.1 million over a one-year period, according to a recent U.S. Census report. According to the 2006 Report on Illinois Poverty, published by the Illinois Poverty Summit, 1.56 million Illinoisans, or 12.4 percent, live in poverty. Of those, 723,753, or 5.7 percent of the state's total population, live in deep poverty.

Among the report's most alarming conclusions was that, while it found Illinois to be the wealthiest state in the Midwest, it had the highest poverty rate (12.5 percent) since 2002 among seven other Midwestern states, and also posted the highest child poverty rate (17.7 percent) in the Midwest since 2000. The report concludes that "one in four people in Illinois lives near poverty, enough Illinoisans to fill the states of Montana, Idaho, North Dakota and South Dakota combined."

Among Illinois' poorest communities are Cairo, Pembroke, Ford Heights and North Lawndale, where the poverty rate in each is nearly three times the national rate of 12.4 percent, U.S. Census figures show. In fact, the number of people living in poverty in Ford Heights and North Lawndale quadruples the national rate.

For me, no issue in the 21st century resonates more profoundly than the poor.

Perhaps the answer might be found in the stories and also in the voices of some Illinoisans who themselves live in the poorest communities in the state — among the poorest in America. Or perhaps poverty is too complex a question, and in the end, the answer too elusive, even after a journey that begins at the state's southern edge on Interstate 57 and ends hundreds of miles north.

Perhaps the portrait of poverty that emerges over the course of that journey is in itself vivid enough — human enough — to see the malignant state of the poverty of us all, given that so many — far too many — of us still dwell in that tenuous and wretched state that smells, according to Zora Neale Hurston, "an awful lot like death."

There is poverty of the pocket.
And poverty of the soul.
Poverty of the spirit.
And poverty easy to behold.
Poverty that runs and festers
Like Langston's Raisin in the
Sun.
And poverty that lingers —
A brand of which the sum is
Only more poverty.

John W. Fountain

Once, I was waxing on to my grandfather about some poverty expert whose book I had read when suddenly my grandfather, in his sometimes sobering dry wit, remarked:

"Hey, John, let me ask you something."

"Uh-huh," I said.

"This poverty expert … Tell me, uh, was he ever poor?"

"Uh-h-h," I responded, racking my brain for the answer. Finally, I gave up.

"I don't know," I answered, laughing out loud. "Probably not."

"Then how in the world can he be an expert on poverty if he was never poor?" Grandpa asked with a chuckle.

 We both laughed, his point well taken.

As I have reflected on Grandpa's point over the years, I still don't know that my having been poor makes me an expert on poverty. What I do know is that I am at least in some ways richer for the experience.

I hated poverty. I hated the explosion of gunshots that cracked the still quiet of night and that seemed as inevitable as the rumble and rickety-click of a train passing over steel tracks somewhere in the distance.

I hated the debilitating combination of poverty and hopelessness so evident in the winos that sipped spirits outside liquor stores down on 16th Street and in the people I knew who had long given up on life.

I hated the feeling of lack, never more intense than when I stared into the cold emptiness of a refrigerator, or when my younger sister and I had only sugared water and ketchup sandwiches as treats. Sometimes as a little boy, I filled my belly with water to quell my hunger pangs, so much that if I swirled, swiveled or shook,  could hear the water swish inside me.

As a boy, I vowed someday to escape poverty. I also vowed never to forget where I had come from and that I must somehow find some way to help those left behind.

That sense of obligation was a moral one that was as much a result of my own agony as a child, which nurtured in me a deep-seeded belief that no child, no person, ought to have to live in poverty. That those of us with means — those who dwell in the life-issuing waters of the American mainstream instead of America's drained streams — ought, as the Bible says, to bear the infirmities of the weak.

Even as a child, I got the sense that the measurement of our own wealth as a society, as human beings, ultimately must factor into the equation the health and wealth of those left to languish in the shadows of poverty.

That sense was also instilled in me by a God-fearing mother and grandparents who insisted that Sunday is the Lord's day, but more importantly, by the Gospel of Jesus Christ whose message of peace, good will and healing offers the greatest hope to the poor. The Son of God born in a lowly stable, come to redeem a world in which the masses of common men and women faced poverty, denigration, discrimination and degradation was a message that as a poor black boy I found appealing. It spoke to me of the possibilities that existed in a God, who my grandmother Florence Hagler taught me supersedes all the devices, the evils and the avarices of man.

My family's prescription to me for poverty was to hold fast to faith and to get a good education. My grandfather, George Hagler, a blue-collar, God-fearing pastor who worked for many years as a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier, put it more simply:

"Get your learning, but don't lose your burning."

My fire against poverty still burns. But at age 46, the solutions now seem more elusive than at age 9 when a few bags of groceries would have solved all the problems of my poverty-laden world.

Inside a plain, single-story, brick building that once housed St. Joseph Catholic School, a group of college students exchanged goodbyes and a last prayer after a week of working to make a difference in Cairo. Within the prayer circle inside this makeshift sanctuary on Cross Street, now the headquarters of Two Rivers Ministries, Kristy Tillman and her parents Sharon and Gary Tillman stood one recent afternoon, holding hands in this vineyard where they believe God has called them to minister to the poor.

Kristy, the program director, who grew up in Springfield, Mo., once dreamed of being a missionary in "some far-off land," but admits to finding her calling much closer to home. An outgrowth of a youth ministry, Two Rivers for the past five years has been Kristy's vehicle for trying to help heal the "darkness."

That darkness, she says, stems from the poverty crystallized here by the dilapidated shells of brick buildings that run along Commercial Avenue, which once flowed with businesses and shoppers — with life. By the absence of even a McDonald's. By the tangible sense of hopelessness that grips this once-thriving, but now decaying, mostly black riverfront town of about 3,000.

Even more stark is the poverty the Tillman family has witnessed staring back from the eyes of people who lack not only substance, but also hope.

For Kristy, poverty is, in a word —lack. "Poverty is connected to the darkness," she adds.

And yet, in a way, she also sees a certain degree of poverty as being a potential blessing. "There's a dual function of poverty in the spiritual realm," Kristy adds. "There's a lack that creates good need, and there's a lack that creates desperation."

For the staff at Two Rivers, a Christian faith-based ministry that runs a computer center as well as an after-school program for children and provides food, clothing and other services to people who live in Cairo and other surrounding communities, the abundance of poverty is God's opportunity to meet people's needs. And while they attempt to address this community's insufficiencies in substance, their primary focus is less material and more spiritual.

"Poverty has very little to do with that money thing," says Gary Tillman, Two Rivers' executive director. "It's more of the spirit and the attitude about your life and your future, your identity.

"The root problem is spiritual," he adds. "It's internal."

To that end, prayer is at the heart of Two Rivers' efforts. Prayer on the street as the Tillmans and volunteers engage in what they call prayer walking. Prayer outside the courthouse. Prayer in the homes of people in the community who invite them in when they come knocking. Prayer in the 24-hour prayer room at the center.

"Even by my good works, I can't transform people," Sharon Tillman explains. "It's only by His holy spirit that there's going to be true transformation, not by giving people more food or whatever. That's never going to do it."

And yet, not far away, Hannah House — a two-story, white frame bungalow in disrepair that not long ago was covered with trees and wild brush and weeds — now stands as a symbol of the power of prayer, faith, hope, work and a desire to heal the poor. The house, which the ministry is renovating as a shelter for children in Cairo, still needs a lot of work, including a new roof and driveway, a lawn mower, a weed eater, furniture and supplies, a kitchen sink and faucet, a bathroom sink and a wish list of other essentials.

But there is one thing absent from the Two Rivers wish list: Hope.

I hated the shame of poverty, of having to wear my cousins' hand-me-downs — the sinking feeling of pulling food stamps from my pocket to pay for groceries at the corner store, evidence that we were on welfare, and the subsequent teasing I faced later from friends who spotted me.

Early on, I was introduced to the harshness with which people treated the poor. I became familiar with that penetrable stare of disdain and the sense that it was standard course to blame the victim. I was so keenly aware of the tendency of those beyond the walls of poverty to be judge, jury and executioner when it came to poor folks. That we poor folks were lazy no-good-for-nothings who had no one to blame but ourselves for our lot in life.

My own childhood poverty was the product of a mix of factors, not the least of them being the desertion by a father who gave me his DNA, but little else, and the forces of life in a neighborhood that spiraled south, sucking away lives, vitality, hope. That is not to make excuses. It was just the way life was in my 'hood: simple, hard, plain. You lived. Or you died.

There existed in my neighborhood the living and the living dead — those for whom the official pronouncement of death had not yet come but whose inebriated existence of cheap wines and drugs left them hollow-eyed and stumbling in the light of day.

Brown cardboard boxes stacked neatly on a white tiled floor, in corners. Dozens upon dozens of brown rectangular boxes inside the Church of the Cross, situated just off the "blacktop," one of the few paved roads in Pembroke Township, where some live in crumbling houses with caked dirt floors and no running water.

The outsides of some boxes bear small flower decals. Others handwritten notes:  "Love." "Peace."

"I hope you like are gifts," reads another box, the note written in the dark blocky penmanship of a child.

In the top left-hand corner of many boxes in the spot reserved for sender is the typewritten insignia that reads:

"Family-to-Family. Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. 10706."

The boxes, from hundreds of miles away, also have in common their destination: One family or another in Pembroke. They have been arriving for nearly five years now, ever since Pam Koner, a mother in Westchester, N.Y., saw a New York Times story about Pembroke and started the organization that now links families in well-to-do suburban communities with families in impoverished rural communities. The program, which provides monthly food, clothing and other essentials, has grown to include 13 communities across the country, including Pembroke and Cairo.

Residents of Pembroke, like Jessie Mae Walker, a member of Church of the Cross who oversees this end of the Family-to-Family (F2F) connection, say that even a grass-roots effort goes a long way in a town where there is no police force, no natural gas pipeline, mostly sand and gravel roads and, for many here, no clear sign that life in Pembroke will be getting better anytime soon.

Despite Pembroke's persistent problems, Walker, who has been married 18 years and has five children, says, "It's beautiful." She relishes the common sight of white-tail deer, of red-tail foxes, rare species of birds, of grazing Black Angus cows and starry country nights.

"Sometimes I hate that people don't see what I see," Walker said recently at Church of the Cross, where she distributes the F2F boxes to Pembroke families who arrive to claim theirs on a frigid snowy day.

"People come out here and they want to portray us as lost or hopeless," she adds. "We were a thriving town at one time where we had grocery stores, a Dairy Queen, and a Chinese restaurant and a cleaner's and several gas stations."

What happened?

The evaporation of resources, the disappearance of jobs, unfulfilled and broken promises by government officials, the loss of hope and dreams, some around here say, the flicker of new possibilities that too soon fizzle after yet another news story has shed light on the plight of the people of Pembroke and the latest round of empathetic visitors has come and gone.

 "They came, but they didn't deposit," Walker says of many of those well-meaning people who visited Pembroke after the Times story. "I'm seeing the same thing with Katrina victims. For a minute, while the camera is here and the famous people are there, the notoriety is there and stuff, but after a while, they don't continue on."

For Theresa Hodge White, born and raised in Pembroke and a volunteer with F2F, as well as a recipient, the toughest thing about poverty is "being black and poor." What makes it worse is that "there are so many people out here on drugs," she says. "A lot of mothers are on it." Ecstasy, crack, alcohol.

"That's when you lose your faith, when you turn to drugs," White says. "That's the main problem — loss of hope, loss of faith."

She knows firsthand, as one in a family of 18 children who grew up poor in Pembroke, and who also as an adult was addicted to drugs for 20 years. At her worst, as a crack addict, she remembers shriveling to little more than 70 pounds on her six-foot-one-inch frame.

"I thought I was going to die with a pipe in my mouth," she says. "I was convinced."

Getting caught with a gun, and standing before a judge in a moment of clarity with her life and her children's fate hanging in the balance, was her turning point.

"I don't mess with no drugs, no alcohol," says White, sober four years. "Now since I've been clean, I'm steady getting blessings. I got all my kids, my oldest two are in the military."

Can we ever completely heal poverty?

"I don't know," White answers. "I just keep my faith."

That much was clear as she stared smiling and sober into the eyes of her youngest daughter, Theresa, 6.

The problem of transforming the ghetto is, therefore, a problem of power — a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to preserving the status quo. 

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As a child, I watched as more fortunate neighbors and members of my own extended family — aunts and cousins —managed to grab hold of the bootstraps to the American dream. I watched with mixed emotions each time someone pulled away from our block for the last time — loaded down with their belongings bound for the suburbs. I didn't know whether to cry or to rejoice. Mostly I cried.

Eventually, I grew wary of the idea that someone might someday return with a lifeboat for us, bitter over the reality that few men seemed to be their brother's keeper, embittered by the overwhelming evidence that the farther and longer folks were removed from the travails of life in the 'hood, the less likely they were to send back a search party, or even remember that there were those of us who also needed saving. In a sense, everyone was seeking in some way or another to escape. And everyone who escaped physically, even the churches that took suburban flight, also became, in a sense, de facto defenders of the status quo.

I increasingly got the sense that the world didn't care about the poor, that "we" were someone else's problem — the millstone to be cast aside, the eyesore to be hidden from public view, society's great drain that, after decades of drinking its resources, seemed no less intractable. That is what the Chicago Tribune concluded in its 1985 Millstone series on my neighborhood, adding that this so-called permanent underclass "devours every effort aimed at solving its problems." That it is "a class of misfits." That it "resists solutions both simple and complicated."

The understanding, even as a boy, that I must somehow "save" myself was my sobriety from self-indulgent self-destruction, though not entirely. At 17, I became a father, by 19, the married father of two boys, and by 22, I was on welfare with three children and short on hope and faith. Until I found faith on my knees at my grandfather's True Vine Church of God in Christ in teary morning sessions with Grandmother and the little old ladies who called themselves prayer warriors.

The church mothers also gave me all the tangibles for a faith-led exodus from poverty: love, support, community, a few dollars here and there to help tide my family over and their example of finding contentment in their circumstances, no matter how dire, and their mastery of walking and living with dignity, even when they didn't have a dime.

So when my moving day finally arrived one Sunday in August 1984, and my faith, hard work and education led me and my family finally up — away — from K-Town, I carried with me a vow to never forget, and also this one truth: That unless we all "make it," none of us ever truly makes it.

I was living in North Lawndale when the Tribune reported its series. Not one in its army of reporters ever talked to me. But a few years later, I walked into the Tribune newsroom a full-fledged reporter — proof that there is hope beyond the dismal reports of so-called poverty experts.

The hair clippers buzz like a swarm of hornets inside an airy barber- shop on Main Street in Ford Heights where sunlight spills by the bucketsful through clear glass windows.

Barber David Jackson is hard at work inside Positive Image barbershop. He is an optimistic 34-year-old entrepreneur in a town where there seems more despair and reasons to flee to greener pastures than to keep his business here on a block-long stretch of Lincoln Highway — Ford Heights' version of Main Street — which seems to be dying if not already dead, dotted with liquor stores and one auto shop. But stay he does in this South Chicago suburb notoriously impoverished and dubbed as the "poorest suburb in America" in the 1980s by the late Pierre deVise, formerly an urbanologist at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

Jackson and others here say not much has changed over the past two decades, unless you count the steady cycle of economic decline, even in the shadow of a Ford Motor plant just up the street. A thin, mustachioed man, Jackson grew up in Ford Heights and sees his decision to remain as being his contribution to his community.

"Ford Heights is in desperate need of businesses," he says while cutting a child's hair one afternoon. "And the least I can do is to stay here and service the community the best way I know how, which is to cut hair."

But for others, it has become clear that the way up in Ford Heights is an escape from Ford Heights, with its lingering state of despair, punctuated by the absence of jobs and the sense here that it has become a town forgotten, at least one left to languish.

Chicago attorney John Barnes knows well the escape route. Raised here in poverty in a housing project by a single mother, and the eldest of four, he used education to climb the socioeconomic ladder. His motivation: "The fear of coming back, and not having an alternative."

"My people grew up in poverty," he explains, standing in Jackson's barbershop one Sunday with his son Destin, 10. "I had to finish school. I had to."

Having worked as an attorney for the legendary Johnnie Cochran, Barnes now runs his own successful practice in downtown Chicago, though he often makes his way back to Ford Heights, where he has provided free legal advice to residents and where he still patronizes his friend at Positive Image. But Barnes' visits home are often filled with mixed emotions.

"It's kind of ambivalent," Barnes admits. "It's not necessarily a good feeling coming back and seeing things have gotten worse. But by the same token, the people here, the people I grew up with, my friends, I feel like it's home. I feel like it's family.

"I can always come here and be comfortable," he adds. "When you grew up in a situation, you're ingrained in it and that's always a part of you."

Standing on the corner of 16th Street and Komensky Avenue on a gray Sunday afternoon in April, with both feet planted firmly in this decaying world, I too am home again, though light years from my days of poverty and ketchup sandwiches and dreams of planning a great escape.

And yet, there is a sense of loss, a sense of sadness that pricks like the icy rain that soon begins to fall as I take in the scene — signs of decimation so inherent in the countless withering houses with their boarded windows or tattered rooftops, in the abundance of debris-strewn vacant lots where houses once stood, where people once lived, and in the lighted or color-splashed signs that advertise liquor, lottery and Link.

I climb back into my car and drive west on 18th Street and Keeler Avenue toward First Baptist Church where I used to attend Boy Scout meetings as a child, just a few yards from the playground of Roswell B. Mason, where I attended elementary school. I find some solace here in that these institutions still stand, appearing, at least on the outside, whole. But even here, the blue glare of a flashing Chicago police video camera mounted high on a light pole, just a few yards from a yellow school crossing sign, reminds me of how poor my old neighborhood remains in one sense and how much poorer it has become in another.

It also reminds me of the need to come around this way more and of the need to continue to make contributions in tangible ways. It reminds me that there is some boy or some girl here and in other places like this destined to drown in a sea of poverty unless I — unless we —  find the commitment, compassion and moral fortitude to ensure some basic essentials, if only for our own posterity, to all people, regardless of color, creed or race. Among these: universal health care, decent housing, food and water, equal access to education and equal opportunity to earn a decent wage. That we must ensure these as Illinois' promise, as America's promise, simply because it is decent, it is moral and it is humane.

And yet, as I drive this afternoon, spying a group of young men with fists filled with dollars as they encircle another young man kneeling on the ground, shaking and rolling the dice, I am reminded that the need here goes far beyond money. I am reminded of how Grandmother and the prayer warriors — long before the house in the suburbs and the BMW and my middle-class climb — taught me, no matter how great my poverty, to live in dignity, to stand proud, to live in the ghetto, but to not allow the ghetto to live in me. I am reminded that growing up I was never really poor, just broke.

Mostly, I am reminded of the pain of poverty, the lack I felt as a child and the feeling of that moment when I found hope — and how I know now that if I had not found hope, or had it not found me, I might not be here.

That is the reality that washes over me in waves of mixed emotion as I drive back to my other world through the cold and rain.

John Wesley Fountain

He is a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Previously, Fountain was a national correspondent for The New York Times, covering a 12-state region from Chicago. He also was a writer for The Washington Post and a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

As a Michigan Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he studied inner-city poverty and race.

He was an essayist on National Public Radio's This I Believe series and is the author of True Vine: A Young Black Man's Journey of Faith, Hope and Clarity.

Illinois Issues, May 2007

 

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