The Spirit of the Poor: Icons of God in the World

I don’t like going to the pediatrician’s office. Ours is in a seedy part of the city, but close to where I work and fairly close to my kids’ school, and there’s not a branch near our house in the suburbs. My aunt works as a PA for the company, and has told me that most of their patients are on TennCare, the government insurance program, so I know that the other patients in the waiting room are mostly lower income families. Every time we go, I sense the eyes on my children’s private school uniforms. I always want to give an excuse for my perceived wealth. “My husband works at their school, so we get a tuition discount!” I want to explain. But even that wouldn’t be enough. Because it would still tell them that we are educated, and that we have enough extra money to send two kids to private school, even at 50% off. Because the other parents can see my white, middle class working mom clothes, my slacks and heels and blouse. They can see my monogrammed bag and my highlighted hair.

I observe the other people in the waiting room sometimes. I listen to one mother talk on the phone about what bills she has to pay while her toddler explores the room. I see a middle grades Latino boy translate some items on the forms for his mother. I watch a young, heavily tattooed mom actually smack her son on the face when he squirms in his seat. I turn my head away and hope that they’ll call us back soon.

I am aware of my own judgmental spirit, even though I know that poverty is often generational and difficult to break out of, even though as a teacher I’ve read research on kids who come from poverty and how their brains are affected by their environment, even though I’ve taught dozens of kids from poverty. America has its own unspoken caste system, and I’m a part of it. I forget how privileged I am sometimes.

Still, part of me wants to say, But being middle class is hard, too! I want to admit that my son only has one pair of shoes that fits right now. That I carry my calculator through the grocery with me, and since we do a cash budget, I sometimes have to put items back when I know I’ll go over my limit. That some of my clothes came from Goodwill. That last year we had to replace both the water heater and the air conditioner, and it depleted our savings and then some.

But it’s not really enough, because I am still different. I still was raised by parents who never treated college as a choice: I was going. I have degrees, I have a career, I have a nice house. I get upset if my internet is down or if my garbage disposal breaks. My children have three good meals a day, and snacks in between, and a warm house in the winter, and a cool house in the summer, and more than one electronic device. That’s more than a lot of kids in this city have.

I tend to feel guilty, I do. Why should I have so much when other people have less? What is the answer? Is it charity? Is it giving to the needy? While a good thing to do, I wonder if it can sometimes feel demeaning to the recipients. I think there are a lot of people in the world who want to be seen. Not just seen for what they need, but seen for who they are. So what, then? Do I downsize, simplify, and purposely live among the poor? How do I navigate this unspoken caste system in ways that will affirm the humanity of others?

maria.skobtsova.parisMother Maria of Paris is an Eastern Orthodox nun and saint who rejected monastery monasticism and developed a “monasticism in the world.” Though an educated writer and speaker, Mother Maria lived a life among the poor and needy, running several homes, dining rooms, and schools for Russian expats in Paris. She physically and spiritually nurtured everyone who showed up at her door. When the Nazis invaded Paris, Mother Maria helped Jews by giving them baptismal certificates or helping them escape the city. She was martyred in a concentration camp in 1945. Mother Maria once said this: “Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.” It did not matter whether someone was Christian or Jew, male or female, rich or poor; she saw the image of God in everyone. 

That is what affirming the humanity in people means. That is what I strive for. To look at other people and not see how different they are from me, but how similar they are to me. We are all humans, humans with fears and joys and hurts and desires. We are all people of value, created by God, by a God who is far bigger than and far beyond our measly economic and social systems.

I write words that are read by middle class people who have time to read blogs and care about such discussions, but I realize that my words may not change anything. Except for me. Maybe these words, and the words of others, can begin to chip away at me. While I may not be able to tear down the walls of the unspoken caste system, by the grace of God, I can try to tear down one wall: mine. With his help, and with the help of Mother Maria, I can begin to truly value each person as an icon of God incarnate in the world. Maybe next time I sit in that pediatrician waiting room, I can smile at someone instead of wallowing in my own discomfort. Maybe I can strike up a conversation with another mother. Maybe I can find a way to show her that I see her for who she is, and in my heart, I can truly believe that we are the same. Maybe I can look for opportunities to embody the message that no matter how much the world tries to separate us, we are all beloved creations of God.


Today I am linking up with the Spirit of the Poor synchroblog at Caris Adel’s site. This is a monthly roving synchroblog that explores the intersections of economic justice, lifestyle change and spiritual wholeness. This month’s topic is “affirming the humanity.” Read more and/or link up with us here.


  1. Esther Emery says:

    Karissa, I am so with you on this. And I need to hear it. When none of the choices that I am making really make sense. There is this truth: I am working on one thing, and that’s myself. Thanks for joining and sharing all this!

  2. “Maybe I can look for opportunities to embody the message that no matter how much the world tries to separate us, we are all beloved creations of God.” I love that last line. What would it look like to embody the message. Our words help give us direction, and your words are honest and true for many of us. But embodying the message is more than words. I’m so glad you joined us. We all have this task to embody the message and maybe share a little of what that looks like for us.

  3. Wow, Karissa, this is good stuff. I completely hear you and am with you on the constant tension I live in.

    Your words are right on:
    “I think there are a lot of people in the world who want to be seen. Not just seen for what they need, but seen for who they are.” Yes, yes, Yes!

    And that is often the problem. We all struggle to see people for who they truly are because we immediately see the label that we and our society puts on them. And we are too scared to get out of our comfort zones or to find out the truth about how we – ourselves – contribute to the unjust system that often alienates the “other.” To see others for who they truly are requires us to ask questions and to listen to stories, and I think we often fear taking on this kind of burden.

    I LOVE your story about Mother Maria of Paris. “‘Each person is the very icon of God incarnate in the world.’ It did not matter whether someone was Christian or Jew, male or female, rich or poor; she saw the image of God in everyone.” Beautiful. I will hold onto this as a constant reminder. Thank you!

  4. Yes, so much guilt. Downplaying wealth, privilege, as if ignoring it mitigates the discrepancy. You ask some questions here that I have been afraid to in the past. How do we navigate the system to affirm the humanity? Let me know when you figure it out.

  5. Caiobhe says:

    So honest as always. Lots of wrestling here! I have felt many of those same conflicts. You are so right that by writing and thinking the wall that gets knocked down may be our own. Let it be so!

    • Darla says:

      Thanks for sharing. When I read about Mother Maria who “rejected monastery monasticism and developed a ‘monasticism in the world'” I thought of John Wesley who, with other reformers, opened the doors to piety lived out in the world. His acts of piety and acts of mercy were to be done outside of the cloistered, secluded life. And open to all, not just those who join RC orders or EO monasticism. We, you and me, can be transformed to Christ-likeness – and be wives, mothers, disciples – social holiness!

      A decade ago, our family moved from Orlando to about an hour NE of Nashville in a poor county along the KY border. My oldest daughter and husband (both COTN Rev’s) and their 5 children joined us 2.5 years ago. I sit in the pediatrician’s waiting room (seems frequently) next to a teenage mom holding a baby swaddled in a dirty blanket, frazzled grannies overwhelmed with kids they are raising. We have been able to establish relationships with many folks, illiterate senior citizens to the Masonic bank president, as we progress in a compassionate and evangelistic work of God here in this insular yet fractured community. An area of Campbellites, Old Landmarkism and folk theology. We know Jesus understands this – it is like Galilee!

      • Darla says:

        Found the quote I was looking for…
        Wesley in the preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems 1739, “Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.”

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