I was struck in yesterday’s morning conference session by the quotation Elder Renlund gave, “The greater the distance between the giver and the receiver, the more the receiver develops a sense of entitlement.” What gave me pause at this, since I agree with the statement, is a simple question: What do we do about the distance?
This seems like a crucial question. Elder Renlund points out that this is the reason why the Church’s welfare system is designed for those in needs to seek help from family first, and then from their local leaders–i.e., from their ward and branch. But it doesn’t seem to me like this solves enough of the distance between givers and recievers; I see lots of distance within wards and branches, and sometimes even within families. Too often givers and receivers simply have completely different viewpoints and even different cultures.
I have wrestled with understanding the issues and principles surrounding welfare and giving support to those in need recently. As a result I started reading a book on the subject recommended to me, Bridges out of Poverty, a manual for those working with the needy, including community and religions leaders like bishops and stake presidents. This book suggests, among other things, a very simple idea: those in different economic classes live in different cultures. Simply put, the way that those in poverty think and act, even when they think and act logically, is different than the way that those in the middle class think and act. And those in the wealthy class think and act is different from the other classes.
Now, lest I am misunderstood, let me make clear that the authors of this book are not talking about those who are temporarily in poverty or in a class, or those who grew up in one class and recently switched to another class. Changing thought and action from one class to another takes time, and if you are temporarily in poverty you likely haven’t changed your culture. Instead, these authors are claiming that the culture of those who are more or less permanently in one class is different from those in another economic class.
These cultural differences, or hidden rules (as the authors of Bridges out of Poverty call them), aren’t obvious to those in other classes. Just like the differences between national cultures often lead to confusion or misunderstanding, the differences between economic classes often lead to similar difficulties. In this book the authors point out how this happens:
…if you fall mostly in the middle class the assumption is that everyone knows these [rules]. … many of the hidden rules are taken for granted by a particular class, which assumes they are a given for everyone.
The book gives an example that explains how these cultural differences can cause problems:
…in one school district, the faculty had gone together to buy a refrigerator for a family who did not have one. About three weeks later, the children in the family were gone for a week. When the students returned, the teachers asked where they had been. The answer was that the family had gone camping because they were so stressed. What had they used for money to go camping? Proceeds from the sale of the refrigerator, of course.
For those of us in the middle class this makes no sense whatsoever. Why would you make your long-term life worse for a temporary pleasure? But Bridges out of Poverty suggests that the classes simply have different cultural understandings: “The bottom line in [long-lasting] poverty is entertainment and relationships. In middle class, the criteria against which most decisions are made relate to work and achievement. In wealth, it is the ramifications of the financial, social, and political connections that have the weight.”
It doesn’t matter whether you think that the decision of the family that sold the refrigerator is wrong or not. The point is that the culture this family lives in influences them toward that decision. Yes it is wrong to misuse a gift like this family did–but clearly they didn’t see this as misuse! Is the problem their lack of knowledge? Or was it the misunderstanding of the givers, who clearly didn’t understand the family’s culture? I think the problem really lies in the distance between the givers and the receivers.
Any actions taken to help someone in need must include an understanding of culture and the influence it has. In the Church our goal is the family’s temporal and spiritual well-being; therefore understanding the family’s culture is crucial to successfully achieving temporal and spiritual well-being.
Of course, the cultural differences that I’m describing here are often a large part of the distance between the giver and the receiver. Bishops and other local leaders are often in the middle class (if not in the wealthy class), while those who most frequently need help are in poverty. This means that local leaders don’t always understand why those in need act the way they do. This cultural distance makes solving problems of poverty difficult. So again, the question needs to be asked: what should we do about this distance?
As I listened to Sister Oscarson this morning mention Lehi’s dream and the great and spacious building, the thought occurred to me that this symbol also includes distance: its rare to see anyone who would dare mock and sneer at others without the safety of some distance. Those in the building weren’t near the tree, they were safely across a river and elevated above the targets of their mocking. They didn’t have to face those they were making fun of. Distance aided them in their mocking and criticism.
I think the same thing often happens when it comes to the needy and poor (and the wealthy as well, this works for all cultural differences): we criticize from a distance, across the cultural gulf that separates us. We work from different assumptions and environments and the distance keeps us from seeing how and why they do what they do.
Again, I ask. What should we do about this distance?
I hope that given all this the answer is clear. We can’t remain like those in the great and spacious building, criticizing those of a different culture from safety, across a river of misunderstanding. It is our responsibility to reach across the gulf to understand.
In my view, the Church Handbook of Instructions suggests that this is the case. It tells Bishops that it is their responsibility to seek out the poor–instead of waiting for them to ask for help. Can our responsibility be that much different? Shouldn’t we be vigilant, looking for opportunities to help personally AND understand personally those we are helping?
As I’ve studied this subject, I keep coming to the conclusion that the only way that we can really help those in need is by going the distance to them. We need to know them. We need to understand their situation, the ways they understand life, their views, and their needs.
There is, I think, an inseparable connection between knowledge and love. We can only truly love what we know. So our efforts to serve others can only be as successful as our efforts to know others.
Instead of stereotyping others based on our cultural assumptions we must seek to know them. Instead of criticizing from across the filthy river of misunderstanding, we must love.