Are You Indigent?

Merriam-Webster.  Indigent:  from Latin indigere “to need.”  archaic–deficient, or totally lacking in something specified.

Tree planted for "Indigents"
Tree planted for “Indigents”
Memorial stone
Memorial stone*

I live in one of the wealthiest counties in America.  Oddly enough, I’ve worked for over 30 years here among some of the poorest people.  Since I’ve told many stories about this significant portion of my life (My Address is a River) I don’t need to say much more I suppose.  Except, I’m needy, in need, needful.  I learned this troubling truth (which most truth is) from those who stand, sit or lie before us labeled “those in need.”

I read this morning in our local paper that the county has contracted with a funeral home to provide cremation services for “the indigent.”  This took me right back to numerous times when I was a Street Chaplain arranging burials and memorials for women and men who died on the streets.  They had nothing. . .yet, strangely enough, they had more than I.  Perhaps in the tragic wisdom of their lives they had everything, at least everything I, we, may need.  Contradictory?  Of course.

“Celebrating” a person’s life in a grieving circle of indigents, I discovered over and over (because I needed to be reminded over and over) that we, all of us, have some needs when it comes to making decisions that powerfully affect the lives, and the deaths, of our neighbors in need.  I think we are deficient in some things, in this community we call “community.”  I think we’re almost totally lacking in something specified.  What is that?  Maybe basic compassion, the practice of justice, common sense?  Maybe simply our humanity.  I’m not always sure, but I more acutely sense the neediness in myself and those around me.

Now, when I see someone I know (or don’t know) who lives outside, or who lives with severe disability, or who is barely making it in this sea of cash and credit. . .I can’t see them as “them” or as “other.”  I relate; I have some understanding; I know some of what they know and have experienced close-up some of what their lives speak to me.  Because, in my need, I got educated, I learned that it’s not about me anyway.  It’s about a culture of indigents in a culture of indulgence.

I guess I need to say it (catch the irony?), truth be told, to be honest, to confess:  I am indigent.  Always have been; always will be.

Are you?

{*Since at least 1997 when we began the tradition, people with and without houses, people with and without faith, have joined in a silent procession each July along busy city streets to a site in front of the old mission church to remember all those who lost their lives while poor.  Led by the Street Chaplaincy, we planted a tree from the Zen Center in 1999.  The Catholic church allowed us to place it in a prominent location.  I had a plaque made for a stone we placed under the tree with the words from an “indigent” friend.  Though I left that chaplaincy almost nine years ago, I continue to join the procession whenever I can, and when we read the names, I remember so many. . .I need to}

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