Photo Credit: Andrew Reimer
Guest Post By Jeremy Zehr
Earlier this week, I had the responsibility of supervising the sleigh rides at a Community Christmas Party in our Neighbourhood. My wife, Teresa laughed with me afterward because we both know that I get quite anxious and stressed when I have to organize and manage large groups or events. Needless to say, I was very tired after the event was over. As I reflected on the experience the next day, some observations surfaced for me:
- Inner-city Kids are tough: Several kids waited in line for nearly an hour without a jacket in -10 Celsius temperatures in order to have their turn on the horse-drawn wagon ride.
- People who follow the rules get left out. There were 5 kids that had been waiting in line for an hour who didn’t get on the final ride. These children were the ones who didn’t jump the line. They were the ones who were soft-spoken and patient as they waited in line while others snuck in front when no one was looking. A kind and gentle grandmother I know from the block had been waiting in line with her grandson. After watching others sneak their way onto the rides, she decided that following the rules wasn’t going to get her grandson on the wagon and she was going to jump the line too. I can’t blame her. She knew, probably from experience, that the rule followers often lose out and she wanted her grandson to get that sleigh ride he had been waiting in line for.
- People who feel powerless adapt get what they need and want. Many people in our community have learned that they have little power or control over their lives. It may be Child and Family Services looking over their shoulders with the threat of having their children taken away because of their “inability to parent”. It may be a Landlord threatening to (illegally) evict them from their home because they want to raise the rent more than what is allowed. It may be a young teenage girl looking forward to having a baby in hopes that this baby will give her more status with her peers and some power in world where she has been powerless. It may be waiting in line for an hour for a sleigh ride wondering if it will close by the time it is your turn. This is one of the problems of Charity or Welfare, as a recipient, you have little to no power. You receive what is given or offered, and jump through the hoops required or else you get stuck with nothing. You might get nothing in the end anyways. I often hear people talk about entitlement. The poor feel “entitled” to welfare or to a hamper at Christmas. I would counter that by saying most people feel entitled to what they have. The middle-class and upper class folks of our society often feel entitled to their vacations each year, or their pay raises, or their safe neighbourhoods in the suburbs. This sense of entitlement is usually somewhat motivated by the sense that one has earned these things. Although there is some truth to this, most middle and upper class citizens have been given the building blocks to be in positions to have power and choice over their own lives and the lives of their family. Whether it is education, social capital, stable and nurturing homes, these building blocks are essential for success and empowerment.
- We need kindness in our community. The sleigh ride drivers were not willing to go 10 minutes past the 2 hours we had rented them for. I asked them if they could do one more quick ride for the 5 kids who had been waiting for an hour and didn’t make it on the last ride. They refused to do even one extra ride. A couple of the little girls were crying because they had been looking forward with excitement for this great opportunity to ride a wagon pulled by horses. I was left kneeling by these girls saying I was sorry they didn’t get a ride. The children in our community often grow up experiencing much disappointment especially at Christmas. I felt so bad for allowing one more disappointment to happen to them at our Community Christmas party. As Murray Sinclair says, the key to Reconciliation is “Kindness”.
- We have strong, resilient folks in our community. The mother of one of the girls left crying as the last ride took off said to her daughter, “Well, we got to enjoy a ride last year and that will have to be good enough”. Maybe this isn’t the most empathetic response, but it is a response of resilience and an acceptance that this s*** happens sometimes and we are not going to dwell on it.
I had trouble sleeping that night. I kept thinking about how I could have prevented these girls from that disappointment. I was representing a power holder in the community. I was part of the organization providing the Christmas Party. We decided what we were giving and how it was distributed. It was our job to serve the community with this event. But how we serve is very important. We need to honor the people we serve by doing our best to uphold their dignity and worth. We are no more important than they are, even though we are the ones with the decision making power and material capital in this situation. I am more and more aware of complicated and even dangerous power dynamics of charity. And though I will never be able to prevent little girls from being disappointed at our Community Gatherings, I hope I can grow in my understanding of how to share and honor the power we have as we seek to live in community with one another.