Three weeks ago my entry Not quite ready for subversion was full of questions. For most of my life I have long been drawn to the vision of rich and poor living together. But now I was questioning whether “the poor” actually benefited from all this mixing, and whether they’d be better off if we rich people just sent cash.
The last two weeks have been filled with answers.
The first answers came, as they often do, from faithful readers. Barbara and Kathy nailed the challenges of these cross-cultural exchanges, and John D. reminded us why it’s all worthwhile.
The Suppers speak
The next answers came from members of Danforth Church’s Wednesday Night Suppers. After stewing whether my fellow diners would rather “eat their dinners and leave, rather than suffer conversation with the likes of me,” I realized I didn’t need to keep wondering – I could just ask them.
So last Wednesday, when a new guest asked me why I came to the Suppers. I said, “it’s social – a chance to meet people.” He said he had passed up his Meals on Wheels dinner that night for the same reason. He’d been told there are always interesting people out on Wednesday night, and that’s why he’d come out.
This week we are mourning the death of Lynn, one of those interesting people. Lynn and her partner Jack were a wild-looking pair. But Lynn was also a great dinner companion – sensible and good humoured, cautious about her health after a diabetes diagnosis, filled with love for Jack. Without the Suppers, I would never have known her.
My favourite “Lynn moment” was two summers ago. I had planned to drive Lynn, Jack and a couple of other Suppers regulars to a volunteer recognition barbecue. Initially Jack was too shy to come, but Lynn coaxed him into it. As we walked along the Danforth she called out to every street friend she passed, “We’re going to a barbecue in Don Mills.” It was a giddy cross-cultural occasion, for her, and for me.
Friends, if you see Jack, tell him everyone at the Suppers misses him, and would love to see him back.
Pat Capponi says it
The third answer came at the Zero Dollar Linda event, sponsored by the Metcalf Foundation. “Zero Dollar Linda” is Linda Chamberlain, who spoke at Danforth Church many years ago. The irrepressible Linda went from wandering around the streets in plastic bags to a stable home in supportive housing and a part-time job at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the deductions to her social assistance and rent subsidies made it impossible to keep her job – she just couldn’t afford it.
At that event, someone asked why it took so long for government to change the rules that have long held back people like Linda. The answer came from Pat Capponi , a mental health advocate and tough-talker. I was sure someone like Pat would scorn efforts such as the Suppers as “those church people doing their nicey-nicey thing,” – making themselves feel better, but doing nothing to promote social justice.
Instead, she talked about the importance of bridging the class divide. She saw conversations between rich and poor as key to turning “poor people’s” issues into mainstream ones. Incidentally, that same week the Globe reported on a new rule from Revenue Canada that hurt low-income retirees. Within one day that rule had been changed. This is the power of the mainstream. Contrast that to the years of task forces and reports that still haven’t convinced the government to fix dumb social assistance rules.
The Spirit Levels
Finally, on Friday I attended a lecture by UK epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, the author of The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. He shows that unequal societies like the US and, increasingly , Canada – where the gap between rich and poor is the greatest – have more homicides, violence, mental illness, addictions, teen pregnancies, obesity and lower life expectancy, literacy scores, social mobility and trust than more egalitarian societies.
Why do unequal societies score so badly? Wilkinson suggests one reason is the chronic stress brought on by the shame and competition that comes with big status differentials. Another is the weakness of family and friendship ties in unequal societies. (Some studies even show people with close friends avoid colds and heal faster from cuts.)
The whole point of initiatives such as the Suppers is to build friendships, and reduce the gap between rich and poor. They’re just one tiny step, of course. But I’m now convinced they’re a step in the right direction.
So now I’m ready. Let the subversion begin!
Friends: I invite you to check out the ideas that have invigorated me over the past couple of weeks, and send in your own views.