My wife and I were first made aware of our son’s poor teeth when we took him to see the dentist over a complaint concerning what we naively thought was just one cavity. As Sam lay beneath the sterile glair of those fluorescent white lights, the dentist probed his open mouth, speaking to him in the soft and dulcet tones used by adults to sooth and placate nervous children. From time-to-time, however, she would— in a far more clinical voice— call out certain codes to her assistant, codes which I could only guess were in reference to the kinds of cavities her trained eye was identifying in my son’s mouth. “3MOD,” she would say coldly, interrupting her own stream of soothing chit-chat. Every time she did this, I felt a cold stab of anxiety. Indeed, my son had not one, not two but five or more cavities. By the time we left her office that day, Jasmine was nearly in tears and we both felt like the world’s most incompetent parents.
To make matters worse we eventually realized that, in order for all of our son’s cavities to be treated, he would have to go to the OR in either Saint John, or for less of a wait time, Sussex. There, he would be put to sleep by an anesthetist while a dentist tinkered away in his open mouth, all the while (as we imagined) cursing the incompetent and neglectful parents who had allowed their kids teeth to rot in this manner. Needless to say, the anxiety that my wife and I endured during that six-month long waiting period between diagnosis and the surgery was considerable. Would the procedure take place before Sam’s dental situation worsened and extractions were necessary? How would he cope with the pain of the tooth aches between now and then? Is it safe for a child that young (Sam was 4 at the time) to undergo general anesthesia? And, in addition to all of these questions there were the feelings of guilt and shame— feelings that were vocalized in the hardest question of all: How could we have allowed the situation to have become so bad?
Here’s what I’m getting at: There’s a lot of shame and guilt that comes with finding out that your kid has bad teeth. However, that sense of shame and guilt is not mitigated but, rather, intensified if you happen to be a single parent living in poverty (and, hence, at a statistically greater risk of having children with poor dentition). In fact, we have observed that, for many people living in poverty, the shame surrounding tooth decay is emblematic of a far greater shame that comes with being poor.
Indeed, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned about poverty in the course of my three years of ministry in inner-city Saint John it’s this: Poverty is one, great quagmire of shame. For example, I just recently met one man who was ashamed of the fact that he never finished high school and, despite being in his thirties, is barely able to read. Before then, I met a woman who was ashamed of the fact that she didn’t know how to cook a simple meal from scratch using basic ingredients. But the shame often runs deeper than these relatively superficial things. It can flow from sexual abuse experienced at an early age or a mental illness that has made the task of living nearly impossible. I even, at one time, befriended a young man who would punctuate nearly every other sentence with the phrase, “I’m so ashamed!” Whenever he said that, he seemed to be speaking, not only for himself, but for his entire family— indeed, for his entire neighbourhood
Intertwined with the economic issue of poverty and all of its accompanying ills there is the spiritual problem of shame— a collective and pervasive shame that holds whole neighbourhoods in its grip. Needless to say, any church community that lives in such a neighbourhood and is intent on serving it must bear this in mind. No doubt it is a fine thing to offer free meals, run literacy classes, offer addictions recovery programs and even provide free dental care services. However, as we do so, we must not treat our impoverished neighbours as mere objects of our charity— guinea pigs upon whom we inflict our good deeds. (Indeed, this only intensifies an already great shame). Instead, as we go about serving them, we must offer them the same dignity and respect as we would anyone else. This may, frighteningly enough, involve allowing them to serve us. In short, we must bestow upon them the honour that every other human being is due as beloved creations of a God for whom Christ died. This, perhaps, is the greatest service that any church can provide; namely, to exorcise the spirit of shame that holds so many of our neighbours in its grip.
I’ll end this post on a positive note. Thanks to both the fine dental coverage provided by our Diocese and some highly competent dentists, all of my son’s teeth were fixed (thankfully, without any need for an extraction). We were then able to maintain his new thousand-dollar smile with a strict dental care routine that we had instituted the day after that fateful first appointment. We greatly limited his sugar intake (which, to our surprise, was coming from a pre-bedtime glass of milk) and insisted on following a twice (sometimes thrice) daily routine of flossing, brushing and rinsing. Once those cavities were fixed, so was our sense of shame and guilt. It would be a joy to see the far greater shame experienced by our friends and neighbours now living in poverty lifted also.
By Terence Chandra