Poverty in My Face

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Voices rising from the street outside my front gate grabbed my attention one morning.

“I don’t have the money.”

“I can’t let him come until you pay.”

“It’s $30. Just $30! Let him come—I’ll try to find the money today.”

“No. When you have the $30 in your hand he can come back.”

Just across the street from my house in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, there is a preschool and feeding program called “Gospel Practice Jubilee Center.” Because the young mother did not have the monthly fee, her little son could not attend the school.

Soon the mother’s pleading turned to anger, yelling, and hysteria. The director of the school stood his ground. It was not a pretty sight, but it was one that goes on in nearly every school all over Haiti.

My heart ached for the woman. She had to turn around and take her son, all decked out in his school uniform, back home. I was moved by her shame and powerlessness. I could almost understand her anger. I nearly bolted out the door to give her the $30 (about $4.20 in U.S. currency).

I’m glad that my emotions were stirred. After years of living with poverty “in my face,” I am glad that sometimes it still moves me. Too often I feel I’m becoming hardened to the plight of those outside my door.

Just the other day a young girl guided a blind man to my home. After I refused to listen to his latest story, he asked for “the Pastor.” That’s my husband. Every white male in Haiti finds himself addressed as “Pastor” at one time or another.

As the blind gentleman knows, my husband tends to be more gracious and giving than I. I told the man my husband wasn’t home, and I tried to go back to monitoring the kids’ homework. I kept one eye out the front gallery to see if the man would go away. Eventually he did. But the uncertainty, the guilt, the question of what I should have done, lingers.

What should we do when those who are destitute ask us for help? Over the years I have observed the coping mechanisms of other expatriates in Haiti. I have adopted and adapted a few as well.

Some people keep small change in their car. Whenever someone asks for money, they hand over some change. One friend carries crackers in her glove compartment. Rather than give money to those who may spend it unwisely, she gives crackers instead.

Once an old man approached me as I was entering my car. He held out his hand and rubbed his belly. I had just purchased some apples at the market and thought I’d share one of these rather expensive treats with him. I was feeling pretty good about myself until he handed it back. He motioned with his hands something I could not follow. I left, feeling disgusted and resentful. As I drove off, it dawned on me that the man was trying to tell me that he couldn’t eat the apple because he had no teeth. I came face to face with guilt and shame.

Others pick and choose whom they will help. Some help only people with whom they have a relationship. I wonder, though, Don’t we form a relationship with strangers as soon as we speak to them? Some decide they will give to the handicapped and elderly but will refuse to help the young children who seem to multiply on the streets.

I used to refuse to give to women who sat on the sidewalk with babies in their laps and hands outstretched. It angered me that they would use a child to beg for money. I thoughtlessly lumped all these women into the category of con artists. But after I became a mother I began to look at each woman more carefully and think, “Maybe this really is her child. Maybe she has no other way to provide for her hungry baby.”

I have also studied the way Haitian Christians respond to needs around them. Imitating them is a real stretch. For the most part, they give generously of their money and time to the destitute. Each Sunday, church members drop their coins into the benevolence box. They know full well that there may be a time when they’ll need financial assistance themselves.

Many families unofficially adopt one or more children whose parents can no longer care for them. In a few cases, these families abuse their “adopted” children. However, as I observe Christian families who are raising children not their own, I see a beautiful picture of the early church as illustrated in the book of Acts.

I do not like to help the unknown person at my gate. I don’t like to admit that, but it’s the truth. There are two main reasons for this. The first one is simply selfish. I don’t want to spend the time to hear their stories or to build a relationship. Second, I truly struggle with what is best for that individual. I have seen how money can poison both the giver and the receiver.

The struggle goes deep. If I refuse to help the stranger at my gate, am I hurting the testimony of Jesus who said in his mountainside sermon, “Give to the one who asks of you and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you”? If I do give, am I encouraging a life of dependency rather than dignity?

On a much larger scale, I see how institutions and governments keep the people of Haiti poor and powerless. Impossibly high interest rates, impassable roads, and lack of access to higher education are just a few ways that injustice plays itself out. Do I have some responsibility for these as well?

Many times I would like to get away from the poverty around me. I wish that everyone had what he or she needed—and that if they didn’t they wouldn’t bother me with their requests. Nevertheless, I am thankful that God forces me to go face to face with the harsh realities of the world and the consequences of sin. Each time a person comes to me for help, I am forced to look outside myself and stare into the eyes of someone Jesus loves.

The Bible says that in the face of the poor we see the face of Jesus. In Haiti, poverty is in my face every day. How I react to this is a reflection of my love for God. I pray that my heart never solidifies and that I will always be uncomfortable when I refuse to listen to a person’s story. I pray that it will never become too easy to say no. Sidebar

The Trouble with Handouts

Coming face to face with poverty poses tough problems. People who want to live out their Christian faith feel prompted to share their wealth in response to obvious needs. Surely that is within God’s will—isn’t it?

But there is also a dark side to this picture. When asking for and receiving handouts becomes established coping behavior for people in need, the long-term effects can be devastating. Self-esteem erodes, productive problem-solving skills disappear, and the cycle of poverty continues its downward spiral.

Development workers have too often witnessed the failure of well-intentioned gifts and projects: wells that no longer work because there was no provision for maintenance, clinics that stand empty due to lack of funds for staff, feelings of bitterness because some people received gifts while others were overlooked.

For these reasons, the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) advises visitors to its project sites NOT to bring presents or to go home and raise funds for short-term solutions.

Instead CRWRC encourages concerned individuals to support its community development programs. These programs help people maximize their own resources, engage in problem solving that reflects their own values and priorities, learn new skills, and build a sustainable future.

—Henrietta Hunse is church relations coordinator with CRWRC and a former missionary to Mali.

Sidebar

No Is a Hard Word to Say

A few weeks ago I had to say no to a pastor and his leaders. It was a hard word for them and also for me.

Let’s call my pastor friend “Juan.” He is typical of many pastors in Nicaragua. Juan lives in a house with a dirt floor. The church he pastors provides him with an income of less than $100 a month. With this he tries to feed and clothe his wife and four children.

A while back Juan took a weekday job as a cement finisher to make ends meet. His church began to suffer because Juan couldn’t make pastoral calls during the week. Juan’s health also suffered when he apparently had a minor stroke from working too hard in the hot tropical sun.

So Juan and the church leaders cornered me. They asked why Christian Reformed World Missions could not help with Juan’s salary. They pointed out that most of the members of the church live on less than a dollar a day per person.

I explained our position as best I could. We believe that a local church should be self-supporting. Our experience has taught us that supporting the salary of a pastor leads to a dependency that is difficult to break. We support evangelism, theological education, and new church buildings, but not pastors’ salaries.

But more questions came. What did I earn? Who supported me? Why could the churches in North America support me but not Pastor Juan? These were difficult questions with equally difficult answers.

The next day the conversation was still troubling me. So I discussed it with a Nicaraguan leader whom I highly respect. He urged me to hold my ground. He spoke of the culture of poverty that exists in a community such as Pastor Juan’s. He invited me to continue to walk alongside Juan and to encourage him and his leaders to take practical steps for a better future based on the promises in God’s Word.

But was there also a hard word for me in all of this? Why is it sometimes difficult for me to admit I do not have the answer? Is it OK when my only response is to listen and pray? And how do I deal with the issue of the vast difference of wealth between Juan and myself? Did my answer ring hollow when Juan and his leaders asked for help with Juan’s salary? Was I becoming callous to the needs around me?

Romans 6:5 tells us, “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” Maybe I, as well as Pastor Juan and his leaders, still have some dying to do.

Perhaps for Pastor Juan and his leaders the dying meant breaking with the culture of poverty and hopelessness in which they had been raised. For me perhaps it was the opposite. Maybe I had to die to my North American pride in having the instant remedy for every problem.

—Joel Huyser and his wife, Jeannie, are missionaries serving with the Nehemiah Center in Nicaragua. Christian Reformed World Missions has been in Nicaragua since 1972.

About the Author

Ruth Van Dam, her husband, Howard, and family have served in Haiti since 1993 with Christian Reformed World Missions. Their calling church is Orangewood CRC, Phoenix, Ariz.
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