I’ve been reading My Ántonia by Willa Cather, one of those books you’re forced to read in school then read again as an adult and realize it’s amazing. It tells the story of pioneer life on the rolling plains of Nebraska and how the pioneers faced hunger, fierce weather, and a totally unknown culture.
It brings me back to stories my mother told me about her mother’s childhood, growing up on the plains of Kansas and Nebraska.
My great-grandmother — perhaps I get my love of storytelling from her — tapped out her biography on an old typewriter, telling tales of what it was like in those early days scrabbling out a living from the hard prairie. Of dirt floors and bare feet and all too little to go around.
When my great-great-grandmother was just 4 years old, she was sent to live with neighbors. Her father had never come back from the Civil War, and her widowed mother couldn’t take care of all her children.
My 4-year-old great-great-grandmother was forced to do hard work to earn her keep. When her mom learned of how harshly she was treated, she immediately snatched her back home, determined to provide for her however she could.
Similar tales have been my heritage — stories of simple, hard-working folks who didn’t have much, but made much of what they did have.
One time, a co-worker from Guatemala told me that Americans had never known what it was like to be poor. I instantly thought of my great-great-grandmother, working at 4 as a domestic servant.
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Of the countless other pioneers who scraped and sacrificed and barely got by, in many ways living a similar lifestyle to what millions of subsistence farmers still lead around the world. My forebears certainly knew what it was like to be poor — even if it has been largely forgotten by my generation.
But what stands out to me in reflecting on my grandmothers and their mothers and their mothers is the enduring pioneer spirit. The no-nonsense, “can-do” of the prairie that believes in the future, knowing that through hard work and God’s blessing, they could transform the dirt into abundance.
They lived in poverty, but poverty never lived in their hearts. Belief and hope were their sticking points.
I don’t doubt that there are many living in poverty around the world with the same hope for the future that my family had.
But I know there are also those who haven’t just arrived in a new land where possibilities seem to stretch as wide as the prairie.
There are those whose shoulders have been bowed. Generations of corruption, war and scarcity have extinguished the pioneer spirit. People who live by scavenging in dumps, who are closeted in oppressive slums or battered by unjust regimes may not have anything or anyone to tell them a story of hope.
They live in poverty and poverty lives in their hearts, telling them there is no chance for change.
It can be dangerous to make comparisons when it comes to poverty. Every individual’s experience is unique and different. But I think that in this way, my family never has known poverty.
God protected them from the hopelessness that creeps in from years of strife and claims the hearts of people living in desperate situations around the world today — as it did the hearts of many early pioneers of the American plains as well.
This teaches me more than anything else that poverty truly is a spiritual issue. It’s something that clutches at the heart and not only the purse strings.
That’s why more than just aid is needed. That’s why Jesus is the center of what we do at Compassion.
When a child hears the message that God loves her, that He sees her, that He has every day of her life written down, it changes everything. It changes the horizon from one of scarcity to one as wide as the sky. It teaches her that change is possible. It convinces her that there is hope.
Perhaps she even gets a bit of the pioneer spirit — the belief the future is big and God is even bigger.