Nothing is as powerful as seeing real poverty first-hand. The same experience that can help sensitize us to the devastation of poverty can help empower us with solutions for that very same problem. Encountering poverty first hand allowed me to realize how some of the solutions for the poverty crisis in America are within reach.
On a long weekend this winter, my wife and I decided to go snow tubing in Pennsylvania. As I was waiting for one of the lifts to the top of the mountain, I struck up a conversation with a young man working at the site — we’ll call him Nate for the sake of protecting his identity — helping to operate the ski lift. It turned out he was an 11th grade student from a small nearby town who was working part time at the site in order to make some money. As we were speaking I noticed that Nate was putting his hands in his pockets every few seconds. The temperature was around 20⁰ Fahrenheit and I suddenly noticed that Nate was not wearing gloves. For some reason I felt comfortable to ask him what happened to his gloves. He told me that his gloves were stolen two weeks ago and that he didn’t have any other gloves to replace those. My heart broke. Here was a young boy—a high schooler—who was working in his spare time to put bread in his mouth and doesn’t even have the money to buy himself gloves, as he works all these hours out in the cold. I remembered that I had an extra pair of new gloves in the car and rushed down the mountain to go get those for him. The young man was reluctant to accept any gifts, but then took the gloves with a sense of relief.
In addition to the obvious humanitarian concern for this young child, questions about society and systems came to my mind. Here was a young man working at a place where people were paying over $70 for simple leisure, surrounded by affluence and resources—and yet so distant from those. Why didn’t anyone else notice? Why didn’t anyone else offer? Or why wasn’t there anyone else this young man can turn to, were all questions that boggled my mind.
Making sure that children like Nate have a strong support network is key to helping secure a better future for everyone. How can this be done? Here are 5 ways religion could have helped Nate–and can help American society–build a better future:
Mentorship– J.D. Vance, author of bestselling Hillbilly Elegy in his famous TED Talk, speaks of the time he needed to buy a car. He was offered a loan with an interest of more than 25% and was going to take it. He then spoke to a superior of his from the military who told him what a bad idea that was and how to get a loan elsewhere. Millions of other Americans don’t have a military commander to help them. Religious groups have the powerful ability to foster intergenerational volunteering and to make sure that young Americans have experienced and responsible mentors—let’s use that resource. There should be no teen or young person, who feels like they have no one to turn to.
Cohort Groups– sometimes mentors aren’t all that we need. In many real life situations, we need a cohort, a friend, someone our age we can turn to for help. Religion and community building have the power to create comradery that will make sure young people who feel like they are falling through the cracks don’t end up falling; that those in crisis always feel like they have someone to turn to.
Task oriented groups– In rural areas where poverty, poor education, and misguided health choices are being made, groups of volunteers that specialize in a specific way of improving people’s lives can do wonders. I can’t help but to be reminded of a group meeting I attended, with members of the clergy in Harlem and North Manhattan, where I live. The shared knowledge and brainstorming on how to improve the lives of young people, and dedication to the cause of making a change for the better, allowed us to come up with new ideas, share our existing knowledge, and have an impact on the lives of others. America needs people coming together in focus groups dedicated to help others. This does not have to occur in the context of religious organizations, but religion is a powerful tool for organizing this.
Reinforcing a sense of collective responsibility– Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam, is most famous for writing about the breakdown of America’s collective consciousness. We think all to often as an “I” rather that a “we”. The cost of this shift in attitude and loss of what he calls “social capital” is and will continue to cost us trillions of dollars over the next few decades. Religion and religious institutions, have the ability—and responsibility—to fight for that collective consciousness to penetrate our minds and personality.
While religion does not have all the answers for all the world’s problems, it has powerful tools, which can help alleviate many problems. Let’s do our best to use those tools.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, writer, and TEDx speaker. He is the president of EITAN – The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.