How many ways can someone be in poverty?
A few years ago, God gifted my church with the opportunity of ministry to some sex workers. One in particular spent a lot of time with me. I heard about her childhood, her life experiences and her work.
She was a bright woman with a sharp sense of humour who, from photographs, had once been quite beautiful. Abused as a child, she ran away from home as a teenager and was taken in by a couple who gave her a bed, food and heroin. And then they ran her as a prostitute to fund the addiction they’d planted.
One day I was driving her back from a contact visit to her children. We were chatting about her love of reading, Jane Austen in particular, before she moved on to art and the Impressionists’ use of colour. She easily outstripped me in her knowledge and understanding. She was articulate and animated, delighting in discussing each new insight she could share.
And then her phone rang.
She went silent as she recognised the caller ID. She waited for several seconds looking down at the phone ringing in her hand before taking a deep inward breath and raising it to her ear. In that moment the bright engaging sensitive woman I had been speaking to disappeared.
‘Yeah, ok, ok…I’ll sort it. I’ll sort it! I always f**king sort it, don’t I? I’ll get the f**king money. Leave it with me’, and she ended the call to the latest woman who had befriended her and given her a roof in exchange for becoming her pimp. She’d been told she had to go back with enough money to top up the electricity key otherwise she lost her place to stay and with it her latest friends.
She asked me to drop her off at the side of the road. In that few seconds all about her had changed. She was now speaking loudly and quickly, swearing, wiping her nose on her hand, clearly uncomfortable in her own skin. And the mask she had to wear to block out her feelings as she worked was applied. The sensitive woman, who discerned the beauty in words, images and the world around her, no longer visible.
As she got out of the car, I told her she didn’t need to do what she was about to do. She didn’t need to live that way. That I and others would help her. I asked her where the woman I had just been speaking to about literature and art was now.
But it was too late, she’d gone. Consumed by a poverty that extended far beyond any pure economic measure; this was a poverty of love, of opportunity, of support, a poverty of understanding and compassion. Above all a poverty of hope.
In all the time I knew her I never saw that woman again, but I saw the addict. The addict who begged, who stole, who sold herself and who, deep down inside where it now hurt too badly to allow herself to feel much at all, loved Austen and Monet.