General William Booth Enters Into Heaven – Vachel Lindsay
On Thursday one of my students sat on the floor of one of the main entrances to the school in a bundle of clothes, on a bundle of blankets holding a sign that said: “I don’t want coins; I want change”. When I came in that morning four of her friends were sitting facing her, and it looked very much like she was some kind of sage or Buddha with disciples at her feet. It was all part of her social action assessment for Year 12 Social Studies. In the first part of that assessment she had researched the homeless in Wellington. The second part of the assignment asks students to plan a social action to address the issue they had researched.
I had to walk past her quite a few times during the day to go to classes, or photocopy, or get a coffee. Often she was by herself, but she was also often talking to people who were intrigued by what she was doing. As social actions go it was pretty powerful, and almost – in a way – pushing into being art: a sight that provokes thought, and that takes time to unfold in the mind. As time wore on I found myself guiltily wondering if I could take another route and avoid the student. Just as I do with real beggars, I feel my conscience begin to pull on me and I respond in the coward’s way by crossing the road, or looking the other way, or suddenly appearing to be interested in something in my pocket. I imagine they’ve seen it all. Every strategy of avoidance.
Confronting poverty is hard. Last year I had some students who did the Live Below the Line challenge. Actually going through the process of spending about $15 on food for one week was pretty intense. Mostly what they noticed, aside from being hungry, was how boring food became. Always rice, or bread or beans. Anything extra was too expensive. They also noticed their energy levels plummeting as the week wore on. Which told us everything we needed to know, in one week, about why telling the impoverished to “harden up” and show some initiative is particularly cruel.
I haven’t talked in detail to my “homeless” student yet, but initially she summed up the whole experience as incredibly boring. Just sitting all day in one spot, with a sign, watching people streaming past was – in the end – overwhelmingly dull. Life without money in a world defined by money is enervating, and being drained of life over weeks, months or years must be a grinding away at the stuff of the soul.
The question is: what do you do about it?
My last post was about the book launch of Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, and the building where that launch was held which was a former training college for the Salvation Army. While I was poking around on Papers Past writing this post I came across a quite extraordinary coincidence in the article about the opening of the old training college,
The proceedings were begun by the singing of a hymn and the offering of a prayer. Colonel Powley, Chief Secretary, said it was thirty-one years since the Salvation Army flag was first unfurled at Dunedin.
My last name is Powley. It’s not a very common name although I am fairly confident that we are not related. I spent a few hours digging around on the internet for Colonel Powley. Usually when I do this I find things that are a bit silly, or a bit offensive, or just flat-out odd. Colonel Powley was none of those things.
For my tastes the mustache is a little too broad and full, and the hair parting a little too neat, but otherwise he looks a fairly straightforward man, pince-nez and all.
The New Zealand Free Lance (Saturday, 11 October, 1913) reported that Powley was “neither untoward or blatant. A keen, kind man, strong in his faith and his opinions, but still by his nature tolerant and gentle.” Colonel Powley said that he had been in the Salvation Army for 28 years, his wife for longer, and that they had five children. Together they had eighteen years of continuous service in London:
“The great city has its sins and sorrows enough, and for hundreds of thousands of people life in London is bitter hard. But there are great things in London… that hearten and sustain a man who has to fight against the misery and the squalor.”
Finally, it was left to Colonel Powley to be polite about New Zealand,
“Strange and good” seemed to be his assessment of his new home. Fair enough. And then we have a final coincidence:
I wonder if there have been any other students at Berhampore School called Powley between his children in 1913, and mine in 2013.
After this fruitful start, it is a lot harder to follow Colonel Powley in the pages of the New Zealand newspapers. He goes to Dunedin and talks to the congregation there about his past: about his conversion in 1885, and work in the Marylebone division which was a “storm centre” for the early hostility and persecution the Army faced (ODT 3 November, 1913).
On 29 August, 1916 the Evening Post reported that Colonel Powley and his family were off to Melbourne, Australia after a public farewell at the Vivian Street Citadel, and a private one back at the training centre he helped to open on Aro Street in 1913.
In Australia he is still harder to follow in the papers, at least until he leaves in 1923:
In Toronto, for me, he disappears behind the pay walls the Canadians have put up around their online archives. By 1923 he was approaching his fortieth year in the Salvation Army, and I suppose his children were mostly all grown up. Whatever happened to Colonel and Mrs. Powley in the end I think it’s safe to say of both of them that they led good lives; that they served for year upon year in the business of helping others.
But this is not a path I would follow. Don’t get me wrong. Salvation doesn’t sit comfortably with me. I have no interest in this kind of thing from the founder of the Salvation Army:
We believe that our first parents were created in a state of innocency, but by their disobedience they lost their purity and happiness; and that in consequence of their fall all men have become sinners, totally depraved, and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God.
Articles of War – William Booth
Sometimes though it doesn’t matter what inspires you. I have seen many times in the past that words and actions I admire have been inspired by a collection of ideas and motives that do not move me at all. The idea of the depraved justly exposed to the wrath of God? No. I don’t think so. Then again, I admire Colonel Powley and his wife.
Just as I admire that student sitting at the foot of the stair, holding her sign. One of the depraved, no doubt, just like me. Thank goodness for them.