Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Not By Bread Alone

The mother of a friend of mine is on the board of a food pantry in upstate New York.  She was approached by a local organization that offers grants to organizations--but with a catch: the grant had to go to a program specifically to support women.  Now, how do you do that with a food pantry?

My friend's mother had a brilliant idea: why not provide food pantry participants with nylons, skin care products, and the basic things women need to go to job interviews and present professionally?  And why not call it Not By Bread Alone?

I think that's simply fantastic!  One of the things I love about it is that it conveys (I hope it conveys) to the patrons of the food pantry that they are not seen as people just looking for a handout.  It says (I hope it says), "We don't think you're lazy."  When the food pantry provides for some of the things people need for work or for a job interview, it acknowledges some of the issues they might face beyond food.

But there's more to it than the pragmatic job-related issues.  There's also something about aesthetics that I find worth noting.  I vaguely remember a story Dorothy Day relates that, thanks to the wonder of Google and the Dorothy Day Library on the Web, I can quote accurately.

Another family moving in with us, on one of our Catholic Worker farms, felt that the beautifying which had made the farmhouse and its surroundings a charming spot was not consistent with a profession of poverty. They broke up the rustic benches and fence, built by one of the men from the Bowery who had stayed with us, and used them for firewood. The garden surrounding the statue of the Blessed Virgin, where we used to say the rosary, was trampled down and made into a woodyard filled with chips and scraps left from the axe which chopped the family wood. It was the same with the house: the curtains were taken down, the floor remained bare, there were no pictures--the place became a scene of stark poverty, and a visiting bishop was appalled at the "poverty." It had looked quite comfortable before, and one did not think of the crowded bedrooms or the outhouse down the hill, or the outdoor cistern and well where water had to be pumped and put on the wood stove in the kitchen to heat. Not all these hardships were evident.
Dorothy Day goes on to say in that same passage, "But the poor, it seems, have no right to beauty, to order. Poverty must be squalor, filth, ugliness, to be esteemed as poverty."

One thing I like about this project is that it does not insist that the poor must look properly poor in order to be worthy of aid.  That it is all right for people to want to look good and feel good, to dress well and impress people by how they present themselves.  That you can wear nylons and have beauty products, they are not things only for those who have "gotten their life together".  My pleasure in Not By Bread Alone is that it says, "Yes, you do have a right to beauty--your own first of all."

This is not about vanity; this is not about fashion.  This is about giving people the message, "You are a person of substance and worth in this world. We believe in you.  Go out and show them who you are."

I hope this project goes like gangbusters.

Update: I wrote a follow-up on the program here.

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