Monday, October 13, 2008

“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

When I was growing up back in the late 1960s I remember older folks commenting about the “Great Depression.” Both of my parents were teenagers during the Depression and recounted experiences of struggle, want and family togetherness. Maybe you remember your parents or grandparents (great-grandparents?!) telling the stories?

Strikers protest for just pay and form unions

And every so often I would hear survivors of the Great Depression remark that they thought such a harrowing experience in the present time might bring people together again in a fractured society like it was back then. That, and it might get them back to church!

To be honest, I don’t know what it was like back in the 1930s. The Great Depression, begun when the stock market crashed in 1929, was not my experience. I only know what I read and what people recounted as they remembered. Problem is, nostalgia can also omit facts. And it probably could resurfac songs of the period that depicted the plight of the poor and unemployed in shantytowns such as the title of this article.

Dust Bowl in the 1930s in Oklahoma

What people frequently recount, though, is the sense of community they remember. People helping people; people, if you will, in solidarity with one another.

Of course, it was also a time of great political turmoil – the Ku Klux Klan had reached its zenith of racial, ethnic and religious intimidation in the 1920s and continued in the 1930s (in the North as well as the South), Jim Crow laws were enforced in the segregated South since after the Civil War and mills and mines in the North were the sites of some rather violent strikes.

Economic refugees from the Great Dust Bowl in Oklahoma were not particularly welcomed to sunny California, as well recounted in John Steinbeck’s famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath. So, not all was “togetherness” or “community”.

To be sure, houses of worship were probably more frequented than in the Roaring Twenties. When disaster strikes, off to God we go!

Train station in South Carolina in the 1930s shows effects of "Jim Crow" segregation laws

In the midst of the current financial downturn, and reality for many of job loses or the threat of job less, we can be faced with the temptation to despair. Many did in the Great Depression. Just as preachers warned their flocks in the past so we are being warned today to not put our faith in the “almighty” dollar, but in God Almighty!

Scripture warns us that the love of money is the root of evil (by the way, not money itself) – see 1 Timothy 6:10, and it follows, “. . . and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.” (NAB Rev).

St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi each renounced fortune and the comforts that their respective parents’ afforded. Not because money in itself was evil, but because they wanted to live for Jesus Christ and him alone. And to love money and seek after it would have defied the Word of God and separated them from the Lord. They each renounced greed, and probably had to renounce it daily in their lives, for there are many forms of greed! They found their hope and their source of strength in the Lord, not in their families’ wealth or social status. And in this they found great freedom.

St. Francis of Assisi as a youth encountering the leper outside of Assisi.
In this meeting Francis found Jesus Christ, which helped lead him to radically change his life.

While the economic forecasters and experts are struggling with what to do next for hope of an economic upturn, all seem to agree that we are not headed for something similar to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Let’s hope so!

At the same time, this may be a graced opportunity to get our focus right and our proverbial “store in order” as we consider our lives and our futures. Yes, we want what is good for us and for those whom we love – affordable health care, just and living wage, honest work for honest pay. These are important. But our faith in what is eternal is even MORE important.

Like St. Francis and St. Clare, it would seem to behoove us to guard against the temptation to greed. As Franciscan Friars it is our sincere hope that we can offer this insecure world the hope of God’s security!

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