Robinopedia: Fourth World

This is not Quaker jargon. It describes people who are excluded from society because of their poverty. The term has roots in the French Revolution. It was taken up by a group of families in France in the late 1950's, along with their priest and some friends, who began to assert their right to exist and to be known.

It is associated with the International Fourth World Movement (ATD Quart Monde).

The Fourth World Movement was founded by Father Joseph Wresinski, (1917-1988) a French priest whose parents had been Spanish and Polish refugees after the first world war. His experience of returning to serve “his people” has inspired three generations already of people from all over the world to leave their people and join the movement in reaching into the world of poverty and accompanying people out of it. My favorite of his books is called Blessed Are You the Poor, an explanation of the Gospels from the point of view of the poor people in it and of the poor people who surrounded Father Joseph all of his life. Among his revolutionary ideas are
  • all human beings have a right to enjoy and to create their culture
  • families who live in extreme poverty are the real experts in how to fight poverty and that the rest of us must learn from them how to support them in their on-going efforts
  • we can and must all reach out to those who are less fortunate and more excluded than ourselves.
Father Joseph gathered together a growing number of people who came to see and then to help. The first volunteers were English, Dutch and French. They were Roman Catholic, Anglican and atheist. Part of their work was to model the possibility that different people could live and work together, and learn from each other. These volunteers eventually formed the basis of the Fourth World Movement permanent volunteer corps

I was a Fourth World volunteer from 1991-1994. I was drawn by the simplicity and commitment of their life together, by the opportunity to learn from people who had been Fourth World Volunteers for 5, 10, 20 years already, by their radical understanding of the life and spirit of the poor. I sometimes think of those three years as my graduate degree in working with the poor.

“Le volontaire, lui, ne monnaye pas son intelligence, ses richesses, son coeur; il ne fait pas payer ses forces physiques. Il les donne en echange de cette communion profonde. …

“Je ne crois pas que nous puissions faire quelque chose contre la misere, si nous n’avons pas le temps, si nous n’acceptons pas le facteur temps. …

“C’est bien d’ascetisme qu’il s’agit, d’une espece de purification de soi par l’abandon de bien des choses. Il s’agit d’une constraint spirituelle pour ceux qui ont la foi, d’une constrainte sentimentale, aussi, pour ceux qui acceptent l’ascetisme en lui donnant une dimension essentiellement humaine – je dirais : merveilleusement humaine. …

“Jesus Christ a ete l’homme de las misere et, a travers les siecles, des hommes ont cherche, eux aussi, a affirmer par une vie de pauvre que c’est seulement dans le depouillement et le don total de soi, dans le respect du temps et la gratuite authentique, que nous pouvons arracher la misere du coeur des hommes. …< “Sachez aussi que, face a la misere, personne n’est jamais temoin, seul. Nous sommes temoins dans une equipe, dans une communaute. Comme tous ceux qui ont cree des communautes pauvres comme un temoignage de pauvrete au milieu de leur monde, pour affirmer que la misere de leurs freres etait un mal inadmissible, vous aussi, vous faites partie d’une communaute, vous en etes, pour un temps, un chainon. …”

I could type in endlessly quotes from Father Joseph that have moved my heart, my feet, my hands, my pocketbook. And continue to entrance me.

Today, February 14, 2008, is the 20th anniversary of his death.

Inscribed in the Trocadero Plaza near the Eiffel Tower in 1987:
"Là où des hommes sont condamnés à vivre dans la misère, les droits de l'homme sont violés. S'unir pour les faire respecter c'est un devoir sacré."

(Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robin--I admire your commitment to the Fourth World.

I work with refugees, who are not only foced to live in poverty but also in exile. After about 10 years of what we would consider below the necessities of basic survival (yes, that's the average length of stay in a refugee camp or other displacement before a person is legally resettled) most refugees willingly accept low-paying jobs (think fast food, etc.) even if they once had credentials for something more professional.

It's very rewarding to be able to help the refugees I work with, but it comes with a price....

...or rather, without one, I suppose. I am living below the poverty line.

Now that sounds very self-sacrificing and in line with the Quaker Testimony of Simplicity, but the fact of the matter is that due to circumstances beyond my control, I was already living below the poverty line when I started working with refugees. So there was no discerned spiritual choice.

On a daily basis (and I cannot emphasize this enough) I am "out of my league" when it comes to participating in the culture around me. Eventually, the refugees I help become more able to be a part of American society than I am.

Sometimes I feel very isolated from my spiritual community, too. Things like pitch-in fellowship meals, holiday charity events, even "let's get together and see a movie" are things that I cannot do.

I might also add that not one Meeting in my area is readily accessible by bus.

The assumptions about me are great. "Oh, you must love the color green." No, I don't. I shop at Goodwill and it was the only thing that fit.

I'm sorry if this sounds cranky or self-serving, but as an insightful person once mentioned to me: "You have to live among affluent people without being affluent yourself. That must feel like a great disconnect." It does--and perhaps it is this disconnect that allowed me to connect with refugees.

I would love to tell the stories of the refugees, but I'm offering my own because I am a Friend and I do not always feel that Friends see those among them who are people unable to afford life as we know it.

And I'm actually lucky. There is a Fourth World here in the US, and for all my complaining and struggle, I am lucky compared to them. Someone actually gave me a gift of this internet connection. No hurricane blew away my apartment. I have shoes.

If anything, I wish that I could see as much emphasis about service and the poor among Friends as there is concerning Peace and the war. We are not a one-Testimony group, and it frustrates me that so many Friends are tied up with social action and missing the chance to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naken.

If I have not seen clearly, then I am open to hearing about Friends who do work with the Fourth World within our own country.

OK....painting with broad brush strokes, here. I apologize for that, especially to Friends who are working with the low-income. Obviously I have a pet peeve about service and it's coloring this response. So I will stop and allow others to responde to your message.


2/15/2008 8:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wanted to come back and add that on another blog I posted the idea that maybe some of us are being led to "be the unique one" in a situation of commonalities. And are being led this way for reasons the Spirit has not yet made known to us.

I feel I may be one of those people, and I am currently struggling with that sense. Part of me really wants to fit in, have more convenience in my life, and be able to do the things my friends and Meeting-mates do.

But another part of me wants to go where God is leading me. I think the refugees keep this part of me alive.

But I can't say it's easy.


2/15/2008 8:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, blush! Here I am, third response in a row.

Just wanted to mention that the UN has established World Refugee Day to be commemorated June 20th of each year.

Google "U.N. World Refugee Day" for more info.


2/15/2008 8:38 AM  
Blogger Sterghe said...

Thank you for this post, Robin--it's a wonderful read, full of thoughts worth pondering.

And Cath ... I wish I had an easy way to reach out to you with a hug and a "Hello, Sister!" As a Quaker, an AmeriCorps*VISTA alumna and former project supervisor, a GED instructor, and so forth, I'm deeply committed to the elimination of poverty where I can most easily reach it: right here in the US. And, I share so much of your experience that my heart went out to you reading your posts.

Do I want to join everyone after meeting for lunch? Of course! Do I go? No, I'm afraid restaurant lunches aren't really in my budget.

Do I want to host our meeting's movie night? You bet! But my home is tiny, my single television far too small for everyone to see, and I don't own enough chairs to offer.

Like you, as soon as I start to work through my sense of wanting the material things I see others around me enjoy, I run into a kind of survivor's guilt: who am I to want a restaurant meal when so many of my neighbors have nothing to eat at all? Who am I to worry about how far it is to the bus stop, when I've not a single worry that there's an unsuspected land mine between here and there?

I don't have answers. All I can say is that the feelings you express are shared by many of us working in the midst of plenty to eliminate poverty in its many forms. And, as I don't know you, I can't send much more than an electronically-voiced word and a bracket-encased {{hug}}. But for what those may be worth, they're yours.

Hang in there. It sounds like you're doing some really good work.

Ms. C.

2/15/2008 2:01 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hi, this post was mostly meant to become another entry in my list of "what I mean when I say..." words. I can't talk about poverty or family life without referencing what I learned from the Fourth World families and volunteers, right here in the US and from other industrialized and developing countries.

I welcome your comments and I encourage you to keep reading this blog because there will be more on related topics over the next few weeks, months, years. I agree that this is something that the Religious Society of Friends could deal with more directly.

Also, the UN-designated International Day for Overcoming Extreme Poverty is October 17th, the anniversary of the inscription in the Trocadero Plaza.

2/15/2008 3:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the hug, Ms. C.

And Allison--I would be very inetersted in your thoughts about how we can get Friends to focus as much time and effort on the Fourth World as on stopping the war.

Not that I think witnessing against war is mis-spent time, but it does seem to take a front seat and obscure other equally valid issues of our day.

I'm afraid that I've become so vocal about refugees that people are starting to think of it as "my" issue, not a communal one. I fear that if I stop witnessing about refugees, the issue will fade, but at the same time, I also fear that I reinforce the notion that it's "my" issue--even when what I'm doing is asking everyone to hold refugees in the Light.

And then, in the work, many people are quick to say that they are *not* doing refugee work for religious or spiritual reasons--apparently it's cooler to be a citizen of the world without ties to a spiritual tradition.

I can't judge them or their motives. I simply try to let my work speak for itself. However, if someone asks why I am there, I always say: I do this as an expression of my Quaker faith.


2/15/2008 3:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like this post Robin. I look forward to the others on this theme.


Wow, I've been caught red-handed. Someone knew I was going to comment on Robin's post before I even did! Am I really that opinionated!? (Yes).

I've been criticized for being too angry. So I will just say that these points are good ideas:

- all human beings have a right to enjoy and to create their culture
-families who live in extreme poverty are the real experts in how to fight poverty and that the rest of us must learn from them how to support them in their on-going efforts

I feel that Quakerism could benefit if it were more inclusive, embraced those communities which are marginalized and empowered them to bring their own issues to the table. That by including them in the spiritual community of Quakerism, the larger community would benefit.

For example, lots of women of color activist groups work on peace issues. Why? Because it directly affects their communities. Yet these women group together in communities of color because they often feel that the white world of activism does not respect them or their opinions as expertise.

I feel that Quakerism could become more inclusive if Quakers first understood their own culture and how it may be perceived by outsiders. Perceptions that may sound harsh, but are obvious to a lot of people. Sometimes the Truth hurts.

Many activists get so caught up in their activism that they tend to give the impression to marginalized communities that "if you didn't have us, you'd be screwed." Which may be true in terms of resources, but is not an empowering attitude ultimately to those groups, in a twisted way is just as oppressive, and eventually will incur backlash.

I agree with this statement by the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco:

"Extensive peer outreach is at the heart of everything we do: We do not bring our agendas to poor and homeless people; they bring their agendas to us, and our efforts on their behalf (on both personal and political fronts) are shaped by their input."

While Quakerism remains rather homogenous, it is only possible for Quakers to witness outside injustices instead of moving in solidarity with those most intimately affected by injustice.

2/15/2008 7:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...



Can the Fourth World ideals be applied into Quakerism itself?

2/15/2008 8:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Allison--I have no psychic powers, but I'm gradually beginning to feel a sense of community in the blog world and anticipate that we will all grow to know one another.

You say you are opinionated; ok, I'll take you at your word, but I don't see it. I see a seeker with passion. Big difference to me.

When you said: "-families who live in extreme poverty are the real experts in how to fight poverty and that the rest of us must learn from them how to support them in their on-going efforts" you reminded me of a falling out I had once with my supervisor when I was a social worker in a program for low-income teen mothers. Her reply was (and I had to pick my chin up from the floor): "Our work is too important to involve the clients.

Now that got me steamed!

My current efforts are with refugees, and unfortunately, the way the resettlement process works, they have very little to say about things. They were run out of their home countries without consent (and who would consent to that?). The UN and allied agencies assign refugee status. The governments of the 16 or so countries who allow legal immigration of refugees determine who gets in from which countries and then assigns a resettlement location (unless there is a relative already resettled).

So the focus is on practical matters. Paperwork, SS Numbers, employment cards, food, shelter, clothing, doctors' appointments--all mandated as part of the resettlement process.

Then comes cultural orientation--of a practical sort, not an assimilation program. As I's sure you know, keeping parts of one's original culture are important.

Only after these things are attended to can we work "with" and not "for."

And then you say (to which I agree): "While Quakerism remains rather homogenous, it is only possible for Quakers to witness outside injustices instead of moving in solidarity with those most intimately affected by injustice."

How do we do a two-for-one here? Help our faith tradition become more heterogeneous and also move into solidarity?

The biggest Meeting in my city (not bad people, really) is located in an affluent part of town and has a nice sign that everyone notices. So when people think "Quaker" they think of that Meeting. The smallest Meeting in town is in a falling-apart neighborhood and the Meethinghouse is also falling apart with a fallen down sign. I've been there on a Sunday. I see lots of people of various ethnicities walking by with bibles--I can only interpret that to mean that they are on their way to church. But then I go into the Meeting and greet the 6-7 people inside who don't seem to get the fact that no one passing outside seems to know they are there.

It feels very sad to me.

Robin--Allison's question about a Fourth World within the Quaker world is an interesting one, and I'm inclined to think there is a RSOF Fourth World. Do you agree?


2/15/2008 9:34 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

I became a Quaker and a Fourth World volunteer almost simultaneously.

I think that there is plenty of overlap between Quaker values and Fourth World Movement values - and there are wider societal pressures on both that lead these two communities in opposite directions.

I believe that there are Quakers-who-don't-know-it-yet in every social and economic group.

2/19/2008 1:13 PM  

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