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…your poor are so very poor! This should not be. On the one hand you have wealth, and great luxury; on the other hand men and women are living in the extremities of hunger and want. This great contrast of life is one of the blots on the civilization of this enlightened age.

You must turn attention more earnestly to the betterment of the conditions of the poor. Do not be satisfied until each one with whom you are concerned is to you as a member of your family. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 91.

If you want an education about how your government works and what your country’s values truly are, just do some work with poor people.

My family first started doing that in Santa Monica, California when our children were small. In our privileged, often materialistic culture we wanted to give our kids a sense of what it was like to be poor, so my wife and I and our three sons began participating once a week in a feeding project for the homeless.

Soup-kitchenA friend who owned a high-end restaurant started the project. She saw homeless people with nothing to eat; and every night her restaurant threw food away. She couldn’t stand that contradiction, so she canvassed her fellow restaurateurs, and they all agreed to donate leftover food. It was a feast! Every Saturday we would serve dinners on the City Hall lawn. People were incredibly grateful, and not only for the food—the project made the people we fed feel cared for and loved, something they didn’t experience very often.

But the neighborhood around City Hall didn’t like it. A few of them complained bitterly, fearing that the presence of poor people might somehow diminish their property values or promote crime or lower their neighborhood’s status in some way. The pressure mounted for us to stop the feeding program.

But wait, we asked—doesn’t City Hall belong to everyone in the city?

Apparently not, because the City Council, under pressure from realtors and nearby homeowners, soon made our feeding project illegal. They threatened arrests and jail for anyone who attempted to commit the heinous crime of feeding poor people in a public space.

So we were forced to move. We found a building with a kitchen that could accommodate the feeding program, and even though people had to walk two miles to get there, we rented it and kept going.

And guess who made that possible? A small handful of Hollywood celebrities paid the rent. I won’t identify them here, because they made their contributions with no desire for recognition or publicity, but you would immediately recognize their names. It turned out, as I talked to each contributor, that every one of them had once been poor themselves. Their talents as actors and musicians had made them very wealthy, but they hadn’t forgotten what it felt like to go hungry. Their generosity, and even more their lack of any desire to publicize their contributions, made me realize that the fundamental force we need to eliminate our society’s gross inequities between the very wealthy and the very poor is love:

Strive, therefore, to create love in the hearts in order that they may become glowing and radiant. When that love is shining, it will permeate other hearts even as this electric light illumines its surroundings. When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics. Reflect upon it. Endeavor to become the cause of the attraction of souls rather than to enforce minds. Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 239.

This experience, along with many others like it that I encountered in a quarter-century of homeless advocacy and service projects, absolutely convinced me of the spiritual veracity of the Baha’i approach to the question of wealth and poverty:

…in the divine teachings equality is brought about through a ready willingness to share. It is commanded as regards wealth that the rich among the people, and the aristocrats should, by their own free will and for the sake of their own happiness, concern themselves with and care for the poor. This equality is the result of the lofty characteristics and noble attributes of mankind. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, pp. 43-44.

4 Comments

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  • Christine Wenger
    Jul 11, 2017
    Thanks for providing such a wonderful and thought provoking post.
  • Aug 16, 2015
    Thanks David foro this truly wonderful article regarding our humanity which can so effortlessly awakened in ourselves and open our eyes from our slumber of our own egos and comfort zones
  • Nov 15, 2014
    David said: "Every one of them [altruists helping the poor] had once been poor themselves."
    Empathy helps and anecdotal accounts of altruism are very moving but there's only one universal solution; a spiritual solution to the economic problem entails more than sharing. I mean, American Christians and others share a lot but you still see an awful lot of poverty too. First, though, let's understand the gravity of the situation. The gap between the rich and the poor keeps the world on the brink of war. We’re talking big issues!
    One unique providential remedy alone exists: a fundamental ...principle of the Bahá’í Faith, i.e. acknowledge in the first instance the prerequisites of a spiritual solution to the world economic problem entailing primarily (1) a voluntary sharing of one’s wealth and (2) profit-sharing with workers together with (3) an ABOLITION of the extremes of wealth and poverty. Achieving the third - in the same vein as Queen Victoria’s government “hast forbidden the trading in slaves” and as President Abraham Lincoln decreed the abolition of slavery - will cause a mighty initial advance whose fruition the first together with the second will catalyse into the solution for all time. (see The Promise of World Peace) and the Tablet To The Hague.
    Empathy is mine in abundance thanks to my 'Baha'i' business partners who dishonestly and secretly undermined our company, manipulated the shareholding and stole our data base to set up a successful competitor, all of which cost me my life's savings and put me on social security for decades. The midnight sighing of the poor is no stranger to me but I fear it no longer because he who fears God fears naught else save God. Actually, it's a bit grandiloquent and highfalutin' of me to put it that way in a blessed country like Australia whose social security system for those who can navigate its intricacies really is very good. Moreover, we have the open spaces and mild climate, where we live anyway, that are denied many peoples. I'm classified here by the impolite as a real loser but I drive around in a six cylinder gas guzzling air conditioned Ford, our kids go to a Montessori school, 3 kilograms of the best oranges in the world cost peanuts, our 3 bedroom modern house has two gardens and sea views, we have more gigs on line than we can use, our heating bill is $200 per annum, my four recent visits to a modern dental hospital amounted to a total fee of $9 and our kids visit hospital for zero dollars, In other words, had I avoided those encounters with those so called Baha'is I'm sure I'd still be suffering from the cancer of materialism in search of millions of dollars to store away like a squirrel, would never have raised a family or composed several books on Baha'i principles and would still be time poor in pursuit of making more money.
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  • Nov 14, 2014
    I know a few wealthy who should read this. The reason I want to be wealthy is so that I can fulfill `Abdu'l-Bahá's admonitions, and do so in a way that will astound other wealthy people, make them think, perhaps regain some of the lost humanity that materialism has diminished within them.