Wineskins Archive

February 5, 2014

Speaking My Mind (Jan-Feb 2005)

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by Dr. Tony Campolo
January – February, 2005

Poverty: Were the “Good Old Days” Really Good?
There has been more hope for the poor during the last twenty-five years than ever before in the history of our country. We too easily forget the incredibly immoral neglect of the needy that was so evident in the early part of the twentieth century. As a case in point, nothing in the history books that our children read in school describes the tens of thousands of homeless, orphaned children on city streets during the first three decades of the 1900s.

So severe was the problem of homeless children that at one point, the Society of Friends (Quakers) chartered trains to take them out to the farm belt for adoption. The trains stopped at rural railroad stations where the children disembarked and lined up for inspection. Then farmers picked out and adopted any of the children they thought would be good farm workers. In retrospect, this sounds like a shocking practice, but given the conditions of the time, it was probably one of the more humane options available. We forget what America was like during the Gilded Age. It was an immoral time characterized by the story of some millionaires who mocked the poor by literally lighting their cigars with dollar bills. Less than a mile away from where they did this, people were on the verge of starving to death.

When we claim we were more moral in the “good old days,” we ignore what it was like when none of the poor had any medical coverage. I saw a dentist only once during my growing-up years, and in the first sixteen years of my life, I visited a doctor’s office only when my head was split open after an ugly fall in a schoolyard. Our family had no medical coverage and lacked the means for regular medical care during those early years of my life. Nevertheless, some people look back on those years in which society largely ignored the needs of the poor as a time when America was highly moral. It wasn’t. Neglecting the poor is sin, and the poor were neglected more in the past than they are right now.

My mother’s story
Allow me to tell you my mother’s story, because it will give you some idea of how sinfully neglectful of the poor America was in the early years of the twentieth century. Then, you judge whether or not, in terms of morals, those really were the “good old days.” Listen to the story of my mother’s childhood, and then determine whether or not America was a kinder, gentler nation back there and then.

My grandmother came from Italy and married shortly after arriving here in America. She had three children and did her best to raise them in spite of her family’s very limited income. When her oldest child, my mother, was only nine years old, my grandfather was killed in a trolley car accident. With no money for basic sustenance, my grandmother sought help, but none was available. There was no government welfare system back then. There was no safety net for decent people who fell on hard times. My grandmother feared that her children would starve. She begged from every charity she could, but to no avail. The only possibility for saving her children was to put them into an orphanage, and for this to be possible, the children had to be without both parents. My grandmother made a fateful decision. She decided that she would leave her children, either by committing suicide or pretending to do so. Then, she figured, the orphanage would have to take them. She wrote out a suicide note, gave it to my mother, and instructed her to wait awhile, then take the note to the nearby police station. My grandmother hugged my mother and her brother and sister good-bye, sure that was the last time she would ever see them. Then she left her frightened children in the small basement room where they lived and started down Federal Street in Philadelphia toward the Delaware River, crying hysterically.

Whether she was really going to commit suicide, or simply disappear from the neighborhood forever, was something my grandmother would never tell me. What I do know is that, crying and mumbling, she caught the attention of W. Everett Griffiths, a student at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. It was this young man, serving in a Baptist mission among the Italians in South Philadelphia, who saved my grandmother’s family. He found out what the trouble was, took my grandmother home, gave her some money for food, and figured out how they could survive. He got my mother, nine years old at the time, a job polishing jewelry for the owners of some stores on that block in Philadelphia known as Jewelers’ Row. With what my mother earned each week, the family eked out a bare-subsistence lifestyle.

Because of the kindness and efforts of that young seminary student, my family became Baptist. The whole family joined the little Baptist settlement house where W. Everett Griffiths served as pastor.

Throughout her life, my mother suffered from ailments that could be traced back to the malnutrition that marked her life during her childhood years. Those who would glamorize the past as a golden age of morality seem to forget that America did little to fulfill any moral obligations to poor and oppressed people, such as my mother’s family, during those years.

Defining terms
When we address the question as to whether or not America was better then and is now experiencing a moral decline, we have to determine exactly what we are talking about. If we make superficial judgments from our casual observations of what is on television and what we hear in the music that pervades the youth culture, we could easily conclude that America is going the way of Sodom and Gomorrah. On the other hand, if we focus on what has happened with regard to the treatment of African-Americans, Hispanic and Asian people, women, and especially the poor, we would have to say that things have gotten better. It might be an oversimplification, but it seems to me that when it comes to personal morality, America may have suffered a significant decline, but when it comes to matters of social justice, much has improved.

Political conservatives tend to see personal morality as what is most important, while political liberals tend to give primary attention to whether or not equality and justice are evident in society.

Consequently, it is easy to figure out why conservatives regarded Bill Clinton as a decadent man, while liberals view George W. Bush as an evil influence in America. The sexual dalliances of Clinton appalled conservatives, while liberals looked askance at Bush’s record on the environment, affirmative-action policies for minority racial groups, the rights of women, benefits for the poor, and his use of the military. Given those differences, it is easy to understand why, when answering the question as to whether or not America is in a moral decline, liberals are more likely to say that America is a better society than it was fifty years ago, while conservatives will probably conclude that America is on a slippery slope, sliding to perdition.

Evangelicals: Personal and Public Morality
I am convinced that most evangelicals today believe that the Bible requires righteousness on both the societal level and the personal level. Most of us see the need to join together to work for justice in the political and economic sectors of our society. We regard saving the environment from the degradation of polluters as a moral imperative. We are convinced that establishing fair trade policies with Third World countries is an ethical responsibility.

We evangelicals, regardless of whether or not we believe that the poor will be with us always, have a strong desire for America to live out the biblical requisites to care for the poor. We are willing to work hard to provide the poor with medi-cal care, decent housing, and adequate diets. When we read the Bible and learn of a God who will judge our nation according to how well we have provided for the needs of those whom Jesus called “the least of these” (Matt. 25:45), we realize that caring for the poor is an obligation we cannot ignore.

At the same time, we recognize that if America is to live up to its call to greatness, we must, as individuals, live in such a way that purity and righteousness mark our private lives. We must call upon our churches to encourage people to be faithful in marriage and to avoid any kind of lascivious living. We agree that we must resist the materialism that marks America’s increasingly consumeristic way of life. In short, we accept a biblically prescribed morality that applies to both our social policies and our personal relationships. Therefore, we evangelicals want to couple our commitment to social justice with a high level of personal morality in the lives of all our citizens, Christian and non-Christian alike. There is a hunger among us for “both/and.” We will not settle for “either/or.” Even as our country shows signs of realizing the virtues embodied in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream for equality and well-being for all of our citizens, we will not say that we are improving as a nation until we see individuals repenting of the sins that mark their hearts and minds. Our goal is a holistic righteousness that will crown our personal good with a just and equitable brotherhood and sisterhood, from sea to shining sea.New Wineskins


Speaking My Mind by Tony CampoloTony Campolo
Speaking My Mind (Word, 2004)


Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? (Baker, 2005).

Tony Campolo

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