By Grace Hulseman
Walk from my office along North Front Street towards the sea on most days of the week, and you’ll come across George. He is a tall, lean, man with long dreads and no shirt. If tourists who come in on the cruise ships want an ice-cold a coconut, then George is the salesman for them!
We met after I frequently walked by his stand during my lunch break. In time, his persistent sales pitches wore me down. One day, I finally told him that I did love coconut water, but that I am a volunteer. I explained I didn’t have any money to pay for one. Then, and a few times since, he has given me a coconut free of charge.
I am grateful for his generosity and the refreshing drink on a 105 degree day. But, each time I accept a free coconut, I experience a wave of guilt. Why? Because I am playing poor.
The reality is that yes, I could spare the $2 to buy the coconut. But I’d rather spend that money on something else. I do get $60 each month to spend on whatever I want. In fact, the structure of JVC covers my housing, food, and healthcare costs. Unlike many of the people I encounter in Belize City, I could afford an overpriced coconut on a hot day.
As a JV, I have committed to two years of service rooted in the four values. Simple living is the value I struggle with the most. By setting aside material and financial goods for my two years here, I am trying to understand what it is like to live with less. By doing this, my hope is to be more educated and impactful in my work towards social justice.
However, there is a line between living simply and playing poor. In my experience, this line is blurred. For our retreats, we travel to a resort for a few days of relaxation and reflection. We can only afford this by asking for discounts. I am as grateful to the owners as I am to George for their gracious hospitality. Nevertheless, I have wondered if seeking a discounted rate is true to the spirit of simple living.
We get discounts for the same reason I am able to get free coconuts: being a volunteer and choosing to be “poor.” This grants us a status that is not available to those who are legitimately struggling. My privilege enables me to be a volunteer in the first place. It keeps me from actually experiencing the harsh realities of true poverty. There are some people who look up to me for choosing to forfeit an income. However, those same people may cast their eyes downward on individuals who have had their economic need forced upon them.
As I transition into my second year, I am trying to invest myself in authentic simple living. To live simply is to set aside material possessions. Furthermore, it is to walk with those oppressed by the same social structures that enable my success. On the other hand, “playing poor” is to pretend like those structures don’t exist. For example, leveraging my privilege for discounts and gifts.
The question I must sit with is this: are opportunities I take advantage of available to the people I am trying to be in solidarity with? If the answer is no – if my neighbors, coworkers, and clients aren’t able to go to the same places and access the same materials – then I am playing poor.