Monday, October 8, 2012

From We Represent the 47 Percent.

Last Monday, I had a seven-hour train ride. For most of it, a nun was seated across the aisle. Probably in her eighties, she wore an all-white habit and was blind. She carried a heavy yellow cassette recorder on her lap, but still people walked up to her and told her their life stories.

In front of me for the first two hours, there was a man trying to start a wealth management company. He talked of one hundred million dollars of investments. He placed call after call on his cell phone. 

It just dawned on me -- what with this site being on my mind -- that all the Catholic clergy are part of the 47 percent. Anyone who's taken a vow of poverty has to be, by definition. I was seated between the extremes of the 47 percent and the 53 percent.

And I thought a minute about those words: A vow of poverty. And, for the first time in my life, I thought of them in light of Mitt Romney's private comments to wealthy donors and suddenly I saw how -- in this money-driven culture -- those words could seem unAmerican.

I've written before about how nuns have played a huge role in the survival of my mother's family. Here's one that I think of now. When my mother was in college, her father got very sick and could no longer pay her tuition. She was going to have to drop out. Except there was a nun -- Sister Rita Estelle -- who'd been raised in extreme wealth in Texas. Although she'd given it all up and taken a vow of poverty, she managed to get someone in her family to pay for my mother's education. Tough and smart, Sister Rita Estelle rarely spoke of God. Like the nun I sat across from on the train, people talked to her everywhere she went. "They think they know me," she told my mother.

I went to Catholic schools from 6th grade through college. Some of my most influential teachers were those who'd taken vows of poverty. At my middle school, I remember the nuns driving tractors in their full habits, black veils flipping in the wind.

In the religion that helped shape me, the people who are the most revered, who are the most faithful, who have dedicated themselves to Christ have taken vows of poverty. Although their food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare are covered by the Church, they don't make enough to trigger those federal income tax payments and therefore they are part of Mitt Romney's 47 percent -- those who he defines seeing themselves as victims; the people I was taught to most admire, he called "those people."

This realization was a relief. Not only was I taught that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven, not only was I taught to revere people like Mother Theresa who lived in service of the poor -- I was taught these things by those who had rejected not only wealth, but who had rejected even being middle class.

Now, I am painfully aware of the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church. I was with my mother when she made it to Rome -- only to be anguished by the incredible displays of wealth. I have written about how difficult it has been to leave the Catholic Church, for many tragic reasons, but I've also written that Catholicism has formed me as a writer, as a human being -- irrevocably -- and I'm thankful for it.

And I also know that it doesn't take a Catholic upbringing to find Mitt Romney's private comments about nearly half our nation deeply chilling and disturbing. His comments shook many of us -- from all walks of faith, including those of his own faith, as well as atheists -- indelibly, to our cores. 

Perhaps it was even worse when, after Mitt Romney's conversation with wealthy donors was released, he stood by his comments and therefore his depiction of the 47 percent as those who he "could never convince to take personal responsibility for their lives". When he came out on Fox News nearly three weeks later to reverse his comments, it felt like it was far too little and far too late. He also didn't say that his depiction of nearly half of the country was wrong. He did nothing to counter this horribly divided view of our nation.

I have had the honor of reading the stories collected here, this gathering of voices. I have had the privilege to read about the lives of "those people" -- 47 percenters who've worked three and four jobs to make ends meet, who served their country in times of war, who've lost the person they love and rely on, who've lost their jobs, who've paid into the system and now live on Social Security.

I've read about those who were new to this country and poured love into their children, those who were the first in their families to graduate from college, even high school. I've read about those who grew up in poverty and, with help, have become teachers, writers, parents themselves. I've read letters by those who have sacrificed financially to go back to school, to go into a lower-paying job where one serves others, to have one partner at home with the kids even though other options would raise their annual income -- letters from those who've made deep personal sacrifices.

I've read letters from a Purple Heart recipient, a paratrooper, and Pulitzer prize winners. I've read and read and read.

I love these voices. I admire these Americans. They remind me that money isn't what makes an American. These voices humanize a statistic, one voice at a time, proving that we aren't statistics at all. We are human beings, each with our own story. 

The American Dream is far more diverse, far more interesting, far more complex than the accumulation of wealth -- and sometimes it's far more gritty, determined, and inspiring; sometimes it's soulful and full of grace. Sometimes it's not a dream just for America, but the world -- and, for some, it's about this world and the next. 

For now, we have decided to let this collection of voices stand. We may add more occasionally and the site may take shape in new ways in the future. But, for now, We Represent the 47 Percent.

-- Julianna Baggott

Julianna Baggott along with her husband, David G.W. Scott started We Represent the 47 Percent. Baggott is the author of 18 books, under her own name and two pen names. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and on NPR's Talk of the Nation, Here & Now, and All Things Considered.