Do the poor have their own culture?

Volunteers’ meeting, April 1965 (the original French version is found in Écrits et paroles aux Volontaires, I, 1960-1967, pp. 316-321)

Do the poor have their own culture?

Some sociologists and anthropologists feel that poverty produces ways of thinking and living that are the basis for a culture. It would lock the poor from father to son into their condition. However, to be able to talk about a culture, it would be necessary for the poor to believe in their way of living. Yet, they do not believe in it; on the contrary, they suffer from it.

Poverty creates universal reactions which are the same in India as in France. The tragedy for the poor is that they are unable to make long-lasting commitments, and shape an organization of professional, social, family and spiritual life that matches the values to which they hold. The poor are ashamed to experience so little of everything in which they would have liked to believe.

Now we are going to continue to think about knowledge. This time, we are going to begin by reviewing what we know about poor people. We are not going to make a list of this, but begin by outlining it. And since we are fighters, we will be led to talk about some of these struggles that have drawn us into the field of knowledge. We have noticed that when someone is an activist alongside a poor population group, this person can neither take action nor discover and try to understand these people without feeling some determination to fight. Anyway, we are going to find ourselves involved in struggles sooner or later. So, forgive me if through the points we are going to attempt to make, we appear to be in contradiction with knowledge or guidelines for thinking proposed by others. You must excuse us and take us as we are. “Take people as they are,” said the priest who later became my bishop. This is how he translated the fundamental thinking of Bossuet (1) who considered as a major aberration of the mind to want people to be, not the way they are, but the way we’d like them to be. “As for you, Joseph, let the dogs bark,” said my priest. I was very young. I have never forgotten that and it’s my turn to share it with you.

You are going to find us in contradiction with others, first of all because very early on, we have had to confront those who think that poverty is hereditary, that it causes human beings to enter into a vicious cycle from which there’s no escaping. It is true that for a long time people refused to recognize poverty, claiming that it no longer existed in our country. Not so long ago, before the last colloquium in UNESCO, people even accused us of using the word poverty; we looked like rear-guarders or reactionaries. Since then, some are perhaps going a little too far in the opposite direction. Poverty not only exists, but is also is passed on from father to son and it ensnares its victims in a vicious cycle. In fact, some assert that living conditions produce in people ways of facing problems, and coming to terms with life, deep-seated attitudes, nearly automatic reactions, behaviors that become unavoidable and, so to speak, inevitable.

This is what we were perhaps tempted to believe when we went to India. What we saw first made us understand that poverty has universal characteristics. Francine (2) will be able to give you some examples of what made us think this way. Persistent poverty has a universal face and we recognized many of its features in India. We saw lots of examples that showed us that the dispossessed in India reacted exactly like the dispossessed in Noisy or in La Campa (3). I wrote about that in my first letters in which I was only beginning to see things a little more clearly. I was telling you that what I was seeing there was not basically different from what I knew in France and Europe. I found the same fundamental problems and the same reactions to these problems. I found the same behaviors on the part of the poor and the same accusations on the part of people surrounding them.

I’m thinking about conjugal instability, which, with families we know, is a frequent reaction to extreme poverty. I encountered it again in a country as religious and as family-oriented as India. There the very poor seem to live in cohabitation (4) as often as in the emergency housing shelter of Noisy and in the temporary housing projects. But is that enough to speak about a culture that would explain something hereditary? Because this is what people who talk about heredity tell us. Families would pass on from father to son ways of thinking and living that would perpetuate their extreme poverty from one generation to another. In a word, the poor would willingly perpetuate their poverty. To say something so serious, we must be sure of it.

Can we speak about a culture? I don’t know. It seems to me, however, that if there is to be a culture, the poor would have to value the condition they are in, they would, for example, have to regard conjugal instability highly. They themselves would have to recognize this status as the best, as the one which suits them. They should not be asking themselves questions about other statuses. I don’t know if I’m right to say that. What I do know is that people do not regard their situation highly at all. The families here do not recognize cohabitation as a good status. They think that the valid situation is that of marriage. I would like Francine to give you other examples, in a short while, of those situations experienced by the poor which they do not regard highly at all. They don’t value them; they live through them. And how do they live through them?

The real question with respect to conjugal status and culture is to know how human beings deal with the issue of the future. How do they raise the question of children, work, and financial stability? Do they raise the issue of an organization inside the family? That goes far beyond mere social organization. How do they see financial organization, of course, but also spiritual and moral organization? The condition of marriage includes thinking about all these aspects; it takes on a certain meaning of stability, of durability, of progression. Do families in the shantytown, families trapped in persistent poverty who so often live in cohabitation, have another way of thinking about the family?

What do we see in families we know? This may seem very disconcerting. A man may lead an apparently stable family life during many years. Then, suddenly, he will leave his family as if it had never existed. Maybe he will come back; maybe his family will never see him again. Often, we watch him trying for a while to lead some kind of single life, in which he is going “to turn into a bum” as people say. He will have exchanged one condition for another, almost with no transition. In fact, however, this is not altogether what happens. To begin with, it would seem that these men feel a deep-seated impossibility to live united with another human being in a permanent way. Their union can in no way be narrowed down to a merely sexual relationship; it includes a great deal of feeling and emotion. The commitment of all concerned, however, does not seem to go beyond a limited amount of time. As if the man himself had never become aware of what length of time is, as if he had never dreamed that this commitment , this union required so much of him after all, and that it should bring about an entire organization in the areas of work, salary, spiritual, moral, and family life.

Extreme poverty seems to create in human beings something like a deep-seated impossibility to think and to organize in terms of length of time. You’ll point out to me that in the shantytown there are people who have been united all their lives. This is true, but when we look closely we notice that this is not necessarily a life-long commitment. People stay together; they certainly love each other; they depend on each other, and still, there is in fact a kind of non-commitment with respect to the other. Not at all a valuable non-commitment, but a kind of impossibility of considering the length of time that gives meaning to every commitment.

We have often said this: society proposes models of commitment to which the poor adhere willingly, but it does not give them the ways and means to fulfill them. It does not even provide only the material means. A poor person, as we know, from then on is going to hide behind a kind of indifference. He is going to cut short all questions that a person can raise about values to which he holds. He’s going to avoid all questions that others could ask him. He’s going to surround himself with a shield of indifference. His tragedy will be that whenever he allows himself to think, he will feel guilty; he will feel ashamed to be living so little of everything he would have liked to believe in.

This is not the first time that we have been thinking about this question of so-called hereditary poverty, because its attitudes and its behaviors would be established inside a culture of poverty. However, it seems to us to be an idea of sociologists and anthropologists, which, in our experience, does not express the reality, the suffering, the shame that the poor whom we meet are forced to go through. I entrust this topic to you for a discussion that you could organize to sharpen our way of thinking, by finding other examples in the life of the families. Without ever forgetting that our priority is to make the poor known, if we want to put an end to the scorn that weighs down on them. We must put an end to misconceptions. People are not familiar with the real situations of the poor and, therefore, they also don’t know how a poor person lives inside these situations and how he feels about them.

(1)Bossuet, Jacques Bénigne, 1627-1704, French bishop, writer, and orator. (“Random House Collegiate Dictionary,” Random House, Inc. New York, 1992, p. 160)

(2) Francine de la Gorce (author’s note found on pp. 89-90 of the original French version). Throughout the pages of this book, we meet Francine. Journalist, her name was Francine Didisheim and she was Belgian and daughter of a lawyer when she met Father Joseph in 1957.In 1960, at the age of 27, she goes to live for good in the emergency housing shelter of Noisy-le-Grand. First, she becomes his secretary, but she will in fact act as his assistant until she marries Bernard de la Gorce, conscientious objector and volunteer, in 1967. More than any other volunteer, she stands by the families of the shantytown who show unfailing respect for her. Whenever Father Joseph has to leave, she assumes the awesome responsibility of looking after, not so much the various services created for children and adults, but the entirety of community life in this world of extreme poverty constantly shaken by tragic events (fires, deaths, police raids, placing children in foster care…) Today mother of four children, Francine de la Gorce is still a volunteer. She has held responsibilities in all the key sections of the Movement (grass-roots action, research, publications, public relations…).Concerning her experience in the emergency housing shelter of Noisy, she has written a book, “La gaffe de Dieu,” (Editions Science et Service, 1978), and later “Famille, terre de liberté,” (Editions Science et Service Quart Monde, 1986), “L’espoir gronde”, “Un peuple se lève”, and recently, “Debout face au malheur” (Editions Quart Monde, 2006).

(3)Noisy or La Campa (excerpt from the author’s note found on pp.4 88-489 of the original French version).The places where the Volunteer Corps lives and works then are the emergency housing shelter of Noisy and the shantytown La Campa in the Courneuve… (…) The emergency housing shelter of Noisy was a unique creation of traditional charity that was supposed to be merely temporary but whose originators were unable to fulfill their initial ambition; (La Campa), the most dispossessed of shantytowns of migrant workers and their families where there are also sedentary French families or ones from nomadic backgrounds in total destitution…

(4) Translator’s note: from “concubinage” in the original French version.

(Draft copy, revised and translated by Maxine and Gene Broemmelsiek and Charles F. Sleeth 11/15/06)

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