I Have a Spoon: A Meditation

By Abagail Nelson

(from Lifting Women’s Voices: Prayers to Change the World, edited by Margaret Rose, Jeanne Person, Abagail Nelson, and JennyTe Paa © Morehouse Publishing, 2009. Adapted with permission from the publisher.)

The sole grocery store within walking distance of Cayla’s apartment carries only hot dogs, bologna, baked beans, white bread, and cereal. Of course, there is also the counter with Twinkies, candy, chips, and other snacks. She has no car, and so she goes there often during the week. It is easier to just stop in on her way home from the bus stop. Cayla is tired, and drags her feet as the bell tinkles at the front door of the deli. Struggling with her weight, and diabetic, Cayla is poor and looking for dinner in urban America.

Lourdes wakes up to the sound of roosters at three in the morning, and walks two miles with a bucket on her head to the river where she just finished her wash last evening, beating the soap out of the clothes against the worn river rocks. This morning, she is gathering the family’s water for the day. She confidently springs back along the mud paths to her house, only to spend the rest of her early-morning hours collecting wood. She then squats beside the old mortar and pestle that was used by her mother and her mother’s mother before her, grinding down the corn for the morning’s tortillas. Lourdes already feels the twinges of pain run down her neck into her back, and stifles a cough exacerbated by the open cooking fire. Lourdes is a new mother, extremely poor, in rural Central America, surviving on less than a dollar a day.

Poverty is a terribly difficult concept to wrestle with in the abstract. It encompasses so many realities of deprivation. That is why economists, philosophers, theologians, and all of us in between so often start out by trying to define what we mean.

The World Bank has said, “Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.”

I asked a young woman there, “What in this house is yours, alone?” and she said to me, “I own my spoon.”

So how should we define poverty? As people of faith, we know true wealth consists of a generosity of spirit, an open hand, a limitless compassion for those in need. We are judged, the Bible tells us, by how we treat the Samaritan along our path, how we as a society embrace the weakest members in our midst. Widows and orphans in the Bible are refer- enced countless times not because they are more worthy of God’s grace than you or I, but because their survival teeters on a knife’s edge. Because they have been left bare before the elements, and this bothers the Lord. And because … there, but for His grace, go you or I. All of us together, all people of grace, are called to take very seriously the simple ugly affront of poverty that lies in our midst: here in your town, there at the edge of that city, or oceans and rivers and mountains away. Not merely to read about it, or keen over it, or wring our hands at the complexity of it, but in the small moments that God gives each of us each day – those times when we know we can be generous or we can turn away – to change things.

Poverty is like a whistling wind, a cry thrown at an unfeeling sky, a sound that pulls at the spirit of the listener.

When I was twenty-two, I was in a small village in Ecuador doing a study of a coastal village’s economics. I asked a young woman there, about twenty, a woman with three young children already, “What in this house is yours, alone?” and she said to me, “I own my spoon.”

Her dress was borrowed, on loan from her sister after she splattered oil all over her own. She lived in her husband’s house, and all that was there was his. But her spoon had come with her to this house and would stay with her, should he leave.

I felt a stone fall into my stomach and something deep within me went still …

This woman had a spoon to reach into a common bowl, a spoon to lift to the mouth of her little girl. She had a spoon, and if her husband left, he could not take that spoon with him.

Poverty is both relative and extreme. Poverty is like a whistling wind, a cry thrown at an unfeeling sky, a sound that pulls at the spirit of the listener, and calls each of us in our humanity to lean in with compassion toward the sound even if it breaks us with its power.

Abagail Nelson is senior vice president for programs at Episcopal Relief and Development, which works in more than 40 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. Based in New York, the organization is affiliated with the Episcopal Church.