Thursday, March 28, 2013

Putting the Poor First

"We believe that God puts the poor first because the world puts them last" writes John Hayes in Submerge.

We find evidence of how the world puts the poor last anywhere we go. Its unavoidability is so persistent, and yet it can easily evade us.

"We don't want to serve those people" the owner of the gas station I work once told me. "So don't give them the key to the bathroom".

I understood the business logic behind that statement, after all, he doesn't want panhandlers and drug addicts to come into the station and damage the ambiance of the store, but those words pierced me.

This is how the world works. It is easier to put the poor on the outskirts of the city. Let the police deal with them. This can affect us as Christians, where it is so easy to put them on the outskirts of our hearts.

But lets go back to the bathroom at the gas station!

When I worked at a gas station that was in the middle of an upscale neighborhood, I remember how clean the customer's bathroom was. It was cleaned at least twice during the shift, many times even more than that.

It was the bathroom employees and customers used.

In Oakland, we have an employees' bathroom and a customer bathroom. As you can probably imagine the employees' bathroom is clean while the customers' is seldom cleaned.

And so it is, that the gas station bathroom in the upscale neighborhood was impeccably clean, while the one in the poor neighborhood was disgustingly dirty.

The world puts the poor last.

"Perhaps" some might think "the people in the poor neighborhood are dirty and even though you try to keep the bathroom clean they always trash it, and so it is not worth the effort of keeping it clean"

I have found no evidence of this. While it is true that on some odd days someone comes in and leaves a catastrophe in the bathroom, on average days the rate at which the bathroom in the upscale neighborhood gets trashed is comparable to the one in the poor neighborhood, at least in my experience.

I don't think the bathroom in the poor neighborhood is dirty because poor people are dirty. I believe the cause of this is a psychological and even cultural one.

It reveals our collective mindset as people, where we think the rich deserve a clean bathroom while the poor don't.

After a couple of months of working in Oakland, I tried to change this. I went out of my way to constantly clean the bathroom.

At first the assistant manager was annoyed by this. "Where are you going Jose?! You don't need to do that!"

I simply said "the bathroom is dirty and needs cleaning" to which the assistant manager almost always relented.

The assistant manager has recently changed his tone. He told me not too long ago "I was telling [general managers' name] that you are the only one who has cleaned this bathroom in 3 days"

Doing something ordinary as keeping the bathroom clean fills me with joy, because I see it as an act of service to the poor. They deserve it as much as the rich.

And in serving the poor we serve Jesus. And how could we invite Jesus into a dirty bathroom?


  1. May God bless you and reward you for your kindness Jose.

    Happy and Peaceful Easter to you and your family.

    God bless.

  2. Thanks Victor.

    Blessings to you and your family as well.

    Jose D. Pinell.

  3. I like this post :-) It's the same message that's sent on the #14 bus here.

    1. Hey Nettie:
      Yes that is true!
      I remember the buses that took me to City College and SFSU, they were much better maintained.


      Jose D. Pinell.