CONGREGATIONAL STUDY GUIDE by Rev. Yvette J. Schock and Robert D. Francis
USING THIS STUDY GUIDE
Organization of the Guide
This congregational study guide is meant for small groups but can be adapted for use in a variety of settings. It is written within the Christian tradition, but the basic framework and approach can be adapted for other faith expressions.
The guide contains eight sessions: an introductory session followed by seven sessions that correspond with the book’s introduction, five chapters, and conclusion. Each session begins with a welcome, then an opening prayer and Scripture reading. (More on how to use these items below under “Leading Prayer and Scripture Reading.”) Next is one or more “Empathy Questions” meant to help the group form a rapport and to connect their own life experience with the experiences of those in the book. The guide then provides a number of content questions based upon the book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin & H. Luke Shaefer. Each session closes with a quote for reflection and then a closing prayer. The closing prayer time may be an opportunity for those in the group to share any prayer requests, especially as the group gets more comfortable with one another.
At the end of each lesson you will also find a brief section labeled “Community Connections”. These suggested activities are designed to deepen your group’s knowledge and understanding of poverty in your neighborhood or broader community, and to connect the stories you will be reading with the lives of the people who may ring up your purchases at your local big box store, or live in a basement apartment down the street, whose children may play with your children in your neighborhood park, or attend the same school.
The sessions are designed to be one hour, but there are enough content questions to extend the session if desired. The empathy question alone might be enough to fill the hour, and in fact, the introductory session centers primarily on the empathy question. Group leaders can also break up any of the sessions into more than one session if a course of more than eight weeks is desired. Additional discussion questions about the book’s content can be found at the book’s website.
Leading Prayer and Scripture Reading
There are hundreds and hundreds of passages in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament that speak of the poor, and many more that might guide how we respond to poverty as individuals, as citizens, and as a society. While it is beyond the scope of this guide to offer a comprehensive study of Biblical perspectives on poverty, we do encourage groups to begin each session with a reading of one or two Scripture passages. These readings hint at the full biblical witness and are intended to serve as a theological frame for participants’ reflections on their own lives and the group’s conversation about $2 A Day. We invite study group participants to consider and share additional biblical passages or theological readings that have shaped their understanding of poverty.
The Scripture readings can be approached in a number of different ways. One common approach to Scripture is lectio divina (Latin for “divine reading”), a Benedictine practice in which the passage is read several times, each time with a different focus or intent. (For detailed instructions, simply do an internet search for “lectio divina.”) The leader may also chose to use this time to allow for silent reflection. The questions that follow each Scripture passage invite participants to unpack and explore the passages, and may be used for group discussion, silent reflection, written response in a personal journal, or some combination of these.
We leave it to group leaders to choose appropriate prayers from their faith tradition to begin and end each session. You might consider inviting participants to take turns leading the opening and/or closing prayers.
A Word for Group Leaders
While no one is “for” poverty, discussion about poverty can quickly lead to very familiar and entrenched perspectives: personal responsibility OR structural forces; private charity OR government assistance; personal piety OR social justice. We hope that this guide will help study groups move beyond those well-worn positions, and to that end, we offer a few additional points for consideration:
- We encourage group leaders and all participants to center the discussion on the personal stories in the book. This particular book is well-suited for transcending tired arguments about poverty and the poor because it tells fully developed stories of real people. The experiences you will read - if encountered in their fullness and heard on their own terms - should challenge all of us, regardless of our preconceived ideas, because they do not neatly fit into a single paradigm about poverty. The stories of the people in the book show what we all know to be true from our own lives: real life is messy, complicated, and often does not go as planned.
- In a similar vein, we encourage leaders to ground discussion as much as possible in the lived experiences of those in the discussion group itself. Be sensitive to the fact that some in the discussion group might be poor or have experiences with poverty that might not be known to the group, even to close friends and family. Try to avoid speaking as if those who are poor are somehow “out there” and not part of the group. Even someone who has not personally experienced poverty is still formed by his or her personal experiences, and we believe it will be productive and meaningful for study participants to consider how they relate to those whose stories they have read. While there will be opportunities in this guide to discuss possible policy responses, we encourage leaders to avoid discussing poverty as an “issue” in the abstract. If conversation begins to turn too much toward abstract ideas, it may be helpful to ask participants, “What experiences have you had in your own life that make you think/feel this way?”
- Finally, we encourage group leaders to give ample time for those in the group to get to know one another personally during this experience. This is one of the main points of the Empathy Questions. Discussion of poverty might be difficult for some and might arouse deeply-held beliefs. Honesty and openness are only possible in a setting of trust. The goal is not for the group to arrive at a single, uniform perspective, but for each person to have a safe space to reflect on their own experiences and empathetically hear the experiences of others in the group and those in the book.
Everyone who brings their values to bear on the situations of life is a theologian and ethicist. This guide begins and ends with the vital acknowledgement that many of us are informed and inspired by values that flow from our faith: love, mercy, justice, charity, responsibility, empathy, and so on. Often the challenge is not a lack of values, but awareness and reflection about how our experiences have shaped our values and how our values, in turn, might shape our action in response to poverty and other forms of suffering in our world.