Last summer I sat with some other North American visitors on rickety chairs under a mango tree in Uganda, East Africa. Facing us sat a group of women with AIDS, most of them holding babies. They told us about their lives. They told us they needed blankets and medicine.
As we listened, one of the women in our group broke down and cried. She promised the Ugandan women, “When I get home, I will do everything I can to get you help.”
But when we are confronted with poverty closer to home, the results are often very different. Turning into the church parking lot one Sunday morning, I passed an old woman sitting on the curb. Her cardboard scrap had the words “Please, I need money” scrawled in black marker. I was angry that she would position herself there, as if to take advantage of our Christian compassion.
Why is it so much easier to care about poverty in countries other than North America? Why do our hearts break for African women, but we ignore or even resent the person in our church parking lot?
Working with the poor in my city, I wrestle with these questions. Our churches seem unconscionably disconnected from those in need. Is the problem that we don’t know who they are or how to help? Or is it that we really don’t care?
True, we North Americans don’t face starvation and disease in our countries on the scale that Third World countries do. But poverty is a daily reality for approximately 35 million Americans and 5 million Canadians. If we don’t recognize the poor at home, there is something wrong.
The Invisible Poor
Some would argue that we don’t see domestic poverty because we are segregated. The poor are concentrated in inner cities, in rural areas, and on reservations. Our neighborhoods, schools, and churches are largely separated by class.
But in reality, the poor are everywhere. In Glen Ellyn, a wealthy Chicago suburb, the “regulars” at the local Starbucks are the people who sit on the sidewalk, holding out Styrofoam cups for spare change.
If the homeless are on our doorsteps even in rich areas, why don’t we fight domestic poverty?
We don’t fight poverty because we blind ourselves to it. We trip over the man sleeping at our gate, our Lazarus of Luke 16, pretending not to see him.
We justify our inaction by blaming the poor for their poverty. Some of us believe that if a person works hard and “pulls himself up by his bootstraps,” he’ll succeed. I often hear, “Why don’t those people just get a job?”
I wish I could introduce everyone to “those people”—people who battle illness, lack of transportation, and abusive relationships to provide for their kids.
Many of us believe in the American Dream because we grew up advantaged and have no idea of the obstacles other people face. Or worse yet, we grew up disadvantaged and have now joined the middle and upper classes, so we feel justified in judging those who still struggle.
But there is a deeper reason why we blame the poor: we don’t want to acknowledge that poverty exists around us. Recognizing poverty injures our patriotism. If we got involved with the problem of poverty, we would have to admit that racism taints many of our systems. We would have to confess that some of our structures are unjust, and the result is that they keep people in poverty.
Made in God’s Image
Fighting domestic poverty is not as exciting or exotic as going on a mission trip to Africa. It’s also more draining, because we can’t escape from it after one or two weeks.
A local youth group recently returned from Tijuana with great passion for helping impoverished Mexicans. The growth of their compassion was beautiful. But, ironically, these teenagers’ backyards have always been full of Mexican migrant workers.
Are we missing the poor on our doorstep in our hurry to save the world? Let’s put down our binoculars and watch where we’re stepping.
We must allow our consciences to prick us instead of continually blunting them. After two months of walking past a blind beggar in the Chicago subway station, I had to stop. “Give to him who asks of you,” echoed with my footsteps each time I passed him.
When I finally stopped and sat down next to him, I made a new friend named Steve. He spoke of God’s faithfulness even in his hopeless situation. He never asked me for money; he was happy just to have someone treat him like a human being.
The prerequisite for serving the poor is recognizing God’s image in them and our need for their perspective and gifts.
Ever since the beginning of the social gospel movement and the emergence of liberation theology, evangelicals have shied away from justice issues. Yet Jesus’ mission statement was “to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed” (Luke 4). Jesus did not care only for people’s souls; he dealt with their physical illnesses and their emotional scars. He spoke love to the poor and to the sinners, and warnings to the complacent religious leaders.
Once I realized that I am a Pharisee and not a tax collector, my life completely changed—and it didn’t become any easier.
Looking at Lazarus
It’s uncomfortable to look at Lazarus. Once we look him in the face, we take responsibility for his oppression. We realize how much power we have, and how much accountability that entails.
Caring about the poor involves dangerous self-reflection on why we are so privileged and glutted with luxuries. Jean Vanier writes, “If I truly love, if I feel concerned, the life I have built for myself must be destroyed: the time I get up and go to bed; the friends I like to talk with, go out with, eat with in smart restaurants; the books I read; the money I have to spend. My whole way of life is in danger of falling apart.”
Caring about the poor involves sorting out the consequences of personal and structural evil. It involves learning to discern whose stories we can trust and knowing that we will occasionally get scammed. It involves loving a person in spite of her destructive habits, relapses, bad teeth, and nasty temper.
To overcome poverty, people need hope, encouragement, and practical help of many kinds. Imagine the impact we could have if every church member in North America committed to walking alongside one person or family in need.
It is not only about changing government policy, nor is it only about telling people about Jesus. It is about preaching, through our speech and our actions, the gospel of God’s kingdom arriving on earth—the good news that promises hope and healing to every person.
Admitting that domestic poverty exists is painful, and battling it is complicated. But this most difficult of tasks is also where God’s glory is most evident. “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. Your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard” (Isa. 58).
If we stop tripping over Lazarus but instead look him in the face, take his hand, and walk with him, we will see God.
Kristin Niehof has been an intern with CRWRC in Bellingham, Wash., for the past two years. She now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and is working on her master’s degree in theology at Regent College.
Why Are People Poor?
There is no easy answer. Poverty in North America is caused by a combination of factors that work against a person or family. Individual decisions do play a role, but they are almost always made worse by external factors.
The external factors can be grouped into three categories: situational, generational, and structural.
Sometimes people are thrown into poverty by circumstance. A provider is laid off, becomes disabled, or dies, leaving the family without support. Mental illness, especially when untreated, strips people of their abilities. A natural disaster destroys a family’s home, or a huge medical bill forces them into bankruptcy.
Poverty is a vicious cycle. A child raised in poverty is likely to remain poor. Since her parents have to concentrate on survival, they will not be able to share academic and life skills with her. She will receive inadequate food, school supplies, and medical care. Children who are hungry, sick, or in crisis cannot learn.
Many children grow up in homes destroyed by drug and alcohol addiction, sexual and physical abuse, and unhealthy relationships. Those who are victimized struggle for the rest of their lives to find hope and self-worth. Children in poverty also lack a safety net of connections to healthy, resourced people.
Since children learn from their parents, they are likely to repeat the cycles of addiction and abuse. Girls assume they will be single mothers. Boys follow the strongest men, who are often gang leaders. For too many families, dealing drugs and stealing puts food on the table.
There is a web of structures that makes it hard to overcome poverty. Racism on many levels still oppresses people of color. Elderly people in the United States have difficulty paying for medication and hospital visits. Students at inner-city schools have fewer resources and begin life with a disadvantage.
There are also structures, however well-intentioned, that make it hard to become self-sufficient. Low-income housing is built in large complexes, concentrating and magnifying the problems caused by poverty.
Welfare laws are so complex and change so often that just staying in the system is a full-time job. And there is a huge gap of unmet needs when one moves off welfare. For example, if a single mother gets a minimum-wage job (a success), she loses her assistance. Her income is not enough live on, and she is left with no medical insurance and the cost of childcare.
What Can I Do?
Before we can truly help those in poverty, we must understand their world. It takes some courage and creativity, but there are many ways to do this:
- Sit in the back row of church with a single mother. Help keep her baby happy and invite her to lunch afterward.
- Participate in a poverty simulation.
- Have your kids plant a row of vegetables in your garden and donate the harvest to the food bank. Volunteer there and get to know the regulars.
- Eat Thanksgiving dinner at a soup kitchen.
- Offer food to those who ask for money. Look people in the eye and ask how they’re doing.
- Volunteer with your teenager at Habitat for Humanity or a welfare-to-work agency.
- Instead of walking past the panhandler, take him to lunch. Once you know a person, discovering how to help her will become clearer. But building a relationship is the first step and often the most valuable. Many “helpers” are surprised to find they benefit just as much as the helped person does.
What the Church Is Doing
The Christian Reformed Church, through the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) and the Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action (OSJHA), works to address issues of poverty and injustice by exposing problems at their roots.
Digging out the root causes of poverty means we have to ask why it occurs. Here are some examples of churches and leaders who asked that question:
- Why are so many males incarcerated, throwing their families into poverty? Doug Tjapkes was visiting prisoners when he met Maurice Carter, jailed for 20 years for shooting a police officer in Benton Harbor, Mich. Doug listened to his story, checked out his trial record, and asked why he had been convicted on such scanty evidence. Maurice Carter was released in 2004 following 10 years of effort by Tjapkes. Carter died four months later.
- Undocumented immigrants work in the lowest jobs making the lowest salaries. Often they are exploited because they have no legal status to complain. Recently CRC pastors Denise Posie and Ken Baker from Kalamazoo, Mich., joined other Christians at a press conference calling on their congressional representative to enact comprehensive and fair immigration reform.
- Spurred by the rise in youth homicides in Toronto, CRC pastor Fred Witteveen of Friendship Community Church joined with other faith-based leaders to stop youth violence at its roots. The coalition received a $3 million grant to carry out its proposal targeting education programs, community, and family support. CRWRC works beside those in need, digging in deep and planting seeds that help whole communities flourish. Here are a few ways CRWRC is growing communities in North America:
- Disaster is devastating, but it’s even more catastrophic for the poor. CRWRC helps ease the crisis with food, clothing, housing, immediate aid, or a friendly visit. Volunteers Fred and Mary Visser love the work. “When our grandchildren tell us, ‘You guys are my heroes,’ you know you’re doing something right.”
- Adjusting to life after years in prison or a refugee camp can be overwhelming. CRWRC supports people in transition with counseling, friendship, resettlement, and skill training to help smooth the path to a new life.
- Most people don’t want help—they want to learn to help themselves. Education, language proficiency, money management, and some counseling or interviewing tips can be just the lift needed to jump-start life at a whole new level.
- Community building can put the brakes on pass-it-on poverty. CRWRC helps neighborhoods discover their gifts, set up associations, and hold events so everyone can take off in a different direction.
- CRWRC helps people build self-esteem and pride in their community. Workshops on legal rights, health-care options, and the election process boost confidence and community spirit.