The Lonely Islands

A think piece cultivated from the upcoming book Radical Alliances by John White.

“Of all the places you have traveled in the world, which is the most impoverished?”

The little nun from Albania considered the question which had been posed by the reporter in front of her.

She’d sacrificed everything and moved to Calcutta, devoting her life to caring for the poor and needy. After decades of living in obscurity, this sister of mercy had gained international fame, largely because of the books and articles that had been written about her. Though small in stature, she would go on to become one of the most powerful figures in the Christian world. 

So, when Mother Teresa answered the question, she spoke softly:

“I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering, but of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America. America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.”

These words at the time may have been shocking to some, but were they unfounded? Perhaps Mother Teresa was referring to the weakening of community life in America. Neighborly friendships are slowly fading, as is the notion of mutual accountability and “it takes a village” stuff. The civic culture of years past has been replaced by individualism and personal isolation.

Martin Luther King Jr. echoed the sentiments of Mother Teresa in 1964, while making the acceptance speech for his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. He commented on the desperation of America’s poverty. Dr. King said:

“In a sense, the poverty of the poor in America is more frustrating than the poverty of Africa and Asia. The misery of the poor in Africa and Asia is shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment. In sad contrast, the poor in America know that they live in the richest nation in the world, and that even though they are perishing on a lonely island of poverty they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

In recent years, there has been increasing debate surrounding an apparent trend in our country: a divided America. Some would call our current state a “two class” or “two caste” America. In fact, a former Presidential candidate John Edwards built his entire campaign around the notion of ‘Two Americas.’ Regardless of the debate and variety of viewpoints, it is inescapable. We can see and sense the different castes around us. We can recognize the separation and segregation woven into our society. The temptation, upon seeing these divisions, is to ignore it or assign blame rather than taking the time to step back and examine the reasons for these divisions.

People find a way to live in their own little pockets of reality. Whether in poverty, middle class or wealth, many of us have become increasingly isolated. Whether living in a wealthy community or an impoverished neighborhood, people sometimes come to accept isolation as the norm. Is the norm in your community marked by drugs, crime, despair, and family brokenness? Get used to it, says this isolation mentality. Or, is your neighborhood marked by stay-at-home moms, soccer camps, tennis lessons, and yearly family vacations to the beach? For many living in poverty, this chasm of separation is too vast to bridge.

Many cities are seeing this geographical and cultural separation between the impoverished and the middle & upper classes as a threat to the very relational glue and fabric that holds neighborhoods and communities together. Not only do these divisions foster a distorted view of reality, but they also rob our communities of the cultural richness and spirit of collaboration needed for growth and human flourishing. The beauty of blending socioeconomic classes was a strength in America for decades. This blending compelled people towards a civic duty to look out for one another, to get involved in community initiatives, and solve neighborhood problems together. That unraveling of civic culture is a threat.

I am reminded daily of the need for my heart and mind to be penetrated to reflect on my own defaults that seek comfort and ease. My tendency is to run away from pain or sorrow, which can prevent me from fully seeing and understanding the very pain and and sorrow of my own communities that face poverty, loneliness and oppression.

If I — no, if we have any conscience about loving our neighbors and being accountable to our neighbors, we must cross the rivers of false superiority, with a deep recognition and understanding of our common brokenness. No matter what we have in our pocket, or not have in our pocket we need each other to thrive and live a life of meaning, purpose and the ultimate richness as God’s image bearers.

We should challenge ourselves to make the voyages across the ocean of material prosperity.We must persevere through the oceanic ripples and tides of spiritual absenteeism and vacantness that might take us off-course to engage our communities..

We must intentionally break out of our lonely islands.

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by John White — to learn more about John’s work, please visit thinktank-inc.org

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