Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Les Miserables" Revisited

Since reading Les Misérables in a read-along with my friends, I have been looking forward to seeing the movie and so yesterday, my friend Linda and I went to see it. After studying the book, it was difficult to avoid noticing all the parts that were left out of the movie. It’s not unusual to have that reaction after reading the book first, but this time, I decided to focus instead on some of the less important characters. Surprisingly, I found my attention drawn to the Thénardiers, a family with few redeeming qualities. The inn keepers are ruthless and exploitative and besides that, have makeup designed to make them appear physically ugly. Eponine their daughter is unsurprisingly needy. As I asked myself what makes this family so repulsive, I realized almost immediately that it was desperation. Then as now, desperate people are driven to do desperate things. The poverty that caused Jean Valjean to steal a loaf of bread and then spend 19 years in prison and that caused Javert to become a super-cop also informed the behavior of the Thénardiers.

When I volunteered at the Hospitality Center, a place that provides welcoming faces, hot coffee, job counseling, and computer help to the homeless in Evanston, Illinois, I realized that while we’ve certainly come a long way since 1815, conditions of poverty are still here. We have some structures to help the people who become poverty stricken, but not nearly enough. Homeless Shelters close in the early morning and send the people out into the cold most of them with no place to go. The Hospitality Center is run by Interfaith Action of Evanston which has many programs to serve the homeless, low income, and food insecure in Evanston. Volunteers are always needed. If you live in the area and would like to lend a hand, check out their website at I’m sure you can find something to do to fill as many hours as you’re willing to contribute. I like to hope that we have made some progress since the France of 1815 in our attitudes toward and treatment of poverty. The programs of Interfaith Action give me some hope that that is true.

As I watched the people checking in at the Hospitality Center, I observed that had I met them elsewhere, for the most part, I would not have identified them as homeless. The homeless are our neighbors and do not look different from us. Although most people came and went with a graciousness I can’t imagine having in that circumstance, one woman left angry, cursing, and yelling. I don’t know why, but I can imagine. How many of us would share her anger as we returned to the cold. I can only hope that their situations don’t worsen and actually get better as America decides in the coming year what kind of society we want to be.

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