Many years ago now, I had the opportunity to hear Congressman John Lewis speak. The Congressman was a heroic leader in the civil rights movement, and one of those who led the march across the bridge in Selma, Alabama that resulted in “Bloody Sunday” – the images you see of police dogs attacking protestors, he was there. During his talk, he acknowledged that the main part of the civil rights battle was over: Jim Crow had been abolished, mixed-race marriages are accepted, and the law (at least overtly) no longer discriminates by race. So I raised my hand and asked him: What’s the next frontier?
Income inequality, he said. The poor, and a society with structures set in place that prevent them from shaking off those shackles of poverty and moving up.
On Wednesday morning, I’d just dropped CJ off at school and was returning home on 16th Street when traffic slowed to a crawl. Before long, I saw what was slowing things down: a man on an old mountain bike pulling a trailer, beard caked in ice, struggling to share this road with a big line of cars. He had pulled over to the side and was waiting for traffic to clear when I passed him. It looked to be a deeply miserable experience.
It popped into my head immediately: “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The Message paraphrase puts it a little bit differently, and refers to “the least of these” as people who are “overlooked or ignored.” In Holland, the only people who bike in inclement weather are people without options – the overlooked and ignored. Too late, I wondered if I should do something for him, or even if I could.
Going out and helping the poor sounds noble, but it doesn’t always feel noble. The man I passed yesterday could’ve been struggling up the hill to get home home from his third-shift job, or he could have been headed to the liquor store. That we don’t know. There’s no necessary nobility in poverty. It can be gritty, and people whose families are part of a generational cycle of poverty can be pretty gritty, too.
What we do know is that when people don’t have a way to get to a job – any job – they’re far more likely to end up in a liquor store down the line. No value judgment here – it’s not unreasonable for people without hope to ACT like people without hope.
When we make our transportation systems all about cars, we shut the door on the most vulnerable members of our community. We decrease the resiliency of the poor, making it more difficult for them to overcome what for many of us would be small challenges. It’s not good for our city, it’s not good for us, and it’s not the right thing to do.
I see Holland taking small steps in the right direction – space created on the sides of new roads for bicycles, added sidewalks. What would it look like if we asked ourselves what effect each of our decisions made on the least of these, and made it our goal to refurbish a community into a community where everyone can thrive – without artificial and unnecessary barriers?
There are ways to make it easier to cycle in snow (see here). There are things we can do to make our community livable for everyone. We can’t do this if we see these things as luxuries, and we need to choose to change them. But if we decide that it’s worth it, it’s entirely within our reach.