Around this time last week, the southend of Saint John where I live and work began to feel small, noisy and stifling. I wanted out. So, rather than taking my four-year-old son to our standard neighbourhood haunts, we hopped in the car and drove twenty-minutes away to the town of Quispamsis where we went to the grocery store, visited the local library and swam at an outdoor water park. Later that evening, we even drove to the west side of town where we went cosmic bowling with the nine-year-old son of our downstairs neighbour. All in all, my son had a busy and exciting day and I came back home that evening feeling quite refreshed- no longer a prisoner of my little southend neighbourhood.
At one point that day, I realized what a privilege it was for me to be able to escape my surroundings and go zipping around the city unhindered. Indeed, the car is a marvellous piece of technology, able to teleport the traveler from one geographic point to the next in minutes, all with the comforts of FM radio and air conditioning. It’s also a marvellous piece of technology that many of my neighbours in the inner city simply do not have.
If a single mom from my neighbourhood living below the poverty line ever felt stifled by life in the inner-city and wanted to go on a day trip to the suburbs, she would probably have to take the bus. The journey wouldn’t exactly be like Frodo’s trip to Mordor, but it would still be far more complicated than what I had to endure. It would involve looking at bus schedules, waiting at stops with one or more crying children in tow and sitting on public transport for an hour or more. (Of course, the bus would take a more circuitous route and would make many stops). Plus, there’s the prohibitive cost of the leisure activities my son and I engaged in that day- that is, admission to the waterpark and bowling alley. Given the cost in time and money, our hypothetical single mom would probably opt for staying in the inner city and simply bearing with her feelings of cabin fever.
As you could imagine, for those living in poverty, travel is a luxury. A friend of mine who works at a local non-profit recently told me about a trip she took with several inner city women to a retreat centre in the country. For 3 of these eleven women, it was the first time they had left the city since they were children! For those of you who aren’t aware of my setting, Saint John is not a big place. It is a little industrial port city situated in one of the least populated provinces in all of Canada- an extremely far cry from New York or Toronto. Imagine how stifling it must be to live ones whole life within the limiting confines of Saint John’s urban core, with few opportunities to get outside and experience a larger world.
All of this has given me an important insight; namely, that poverty shrinks the size of ones world. It limits the scope of one’s life to a few city blocks. Perhaps, with the shrinking of geography, comes a shrinking of psychology- the failure to imagine new possibilities; the failure to dream of new realities. It was only when, three years ago, I went on a two week family vacation to the beaches of South Carolina that I was able view my parish ministry at the time in a more clear and objective light. Finally, with the kind of lucidity only distance can provide, I realized that I needed to make a dramatic adjustment in my career- an adjustment that ultimately resulted in Jasmine and I taking on our present ministry in Uptown Saint John. If my hunch is correct, our friends living below the poverty line rarely have this experience. It is difficult for them to even temporarily place physical distance between themselves and their problems. They are stuck in neighbourhoods where their drug pushers are active; they are trapped in the homes where their abusers are able to control them. Their whole life is lived in this confined and highly stifling space. What follows is a poverty of imagination- the failure to conceive of the possibility that life can be different.
I’m by no means suggesting that all our poverty issues would be solved if we just improved our public transportation system, making it cheaper and easier for all to travel, with or without a car (although that’s not a bad idea). I’m simply saying that I’ve notice a correlation between poverty and geographical confinement. Have you any similar or contrary observations? Please share your thoughts.
By Terence Chandra