Last Friday, our team of villagers (Noah, Haviylah, Joy, Amy and Noah) who have been in Nakuru, Kenya for the past 6 weeks finally came back home. They’ve been out there visiting and ministering to the Lakeview Village Church, which you can read more about on their blogs.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to minister to the poor, and what true help looks like.
It seems like philanthropy is the new fad lately. Everywhere you look someone’s raising money for the poor, visiting third world countries, etc. Famous people use their social clout to help support charities.
I’m not necessarily knocking all of that; I think it’s great when people take care of others. Even more than that, it’s commanded of us, and it’s something God talks a lot about in the Bible. For example:
For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’
One of the problems I’ve observed with some of these efforts, though, is that they tend to be very money-based. That is understandable, as we view things from the framework of our culture, and the American culture is incredibly wealthy. The word “poverty” here is so unrealistic. For example, the US federal poverty line estimates for 2009 say that a family of four living on under $1807 per month is impoverished, whereas in India, the poverty line is reserved for people who live on less than $12.50 per month in the city, and $7.50 per month in rural areas. We truly live in a Disneyland.
So we can tend to throw money at problems. I mean, makes sense, right? Poverty = no money, so money’s the cure, right? Well, the issues at stake are usually much more enormous than simply the lack of money.
I’m not going to turn this into a long post on charity politics. But I do want to share some quotes which talk about the true thing which all people need–love, in particular the love of Christ.
“Jesus said give to everyone who asks. That’s a tough command. Sometimes we wonder what Jesus would do in the Calcutta slums or in these heroine-haunted streets where folks ask for change on every corner. What we can say with confidence is that we are to give something to everyone who asks – dignity, attention, time, a listening ear. Sometimes we may give money, sometimes not. But we can always give love. And there are times when giving money can even be a way to insulate ourselves from friendship or the messiness a real relationship might demand. So you can toss a few coins to a beggar or write a check to charity precisely as a way of insulating ourselves from relationships (and still appease our consciences)… but at the end of the day Christ’s call is to relationship and compassion. When Jesus speaks in Matthew 25 about caring for “the least of these”, the action he speaks of is not about distant acts of charity but personal actions of compassion – visiting the prisoners, caring for the sick, welcoming the strangers, sharing food with the hungry. Better than sharing money is sharing life, a meal, a home. Having said that, most Christians need to get taken advantage of more. And we can usually spare some change…”
The next is a section from Robert Falconer by George MacDonald, of which you can find the complete e-text (along with just about every other work he wrote) at Project Gutenberg. The last chapters in this book I think hold some really incredible wisdom and truth about living among, and helping, the poor. This is a somewhat long excerpt, and good ol’ George does tend to be wordy (he was a Victorian-era author), but I believe you’ll find it worth it:
[I’ll post it as normal text, instead of as a quote, for ease of reading:]
From Part 3, Chapter 8 of Robert Falconer
…‘What can be done for them?’ I said, and at the moment, my eye fell upon a row of little children, from two to five years of age, seated upon the curb-stone.
They were chattering fast, and apparently carrying on some game, as happy as if they had been in the fields.
‘Wouldn’t you like to take all those little grubby things, and put them in a great tub and wash them clean?’ I said.
‘They’d fight like spiders,’ rejoined Falconer.
‘They’re not fighting now.’
‘Then don’t make them. It would be all useless. The probability is that you would only change the forms of the various evils, and possibly for worse. You would buy all that man’s glue-lizards, and that man’s three-foot rules, and that man’s dog-collars and chains, at three times their value, that they might get more drink than usual, and do nothing at all for their living to-morrow.—What a happy London you would make if you were Sultan Haroun!’ he added, laughing. ‘You would put an end to poverty altogether, would you not?’
I did not reply at once.
‘But I beg your pardon,’ he resumed; ‘I am very rude.’
‘Not at all,’ I returned. ‘I was only thinking how to answer you. They would be no worse after all than those who inherit property and lead idle lives.’
‘True; but they would be no better. Would you be content that your quondam poor should be no better off than the rich? What would be gained thereby? Is there no truth in the words “Blessed are the poor”? A deeper truth than most Christians dare to see.—Did you ever observe that there is not one word about the vices of the poor in the Bible—from beginning to end?’
‘But they have their vices.’
‘Indubitably. I am only stating a fact. The Bible is full enough of the vices of the rich. I make no comment.’
‘But don’t you care for their sufferings?’
‘They are of secondary importance quite. But if you had been as much amongst them as I, perhaps you would be of my opinion, that the poor are not, cannot possibly feel so wretched as they seem to us. They live in a climate, as it were, which is their own, by natural law comply with it, and find it not altogether unfriendly. The Laplander will prefer his wastes to the rich fields of England, not merely from ignorance, but for the sake of certain blessings amongst which he has been born and brought up. The blessedness of life depends far more on its interest than upon its comfort. The need of exertion and the doubt of success, renders life much more interesting to the poor than it is to those who, unblessed with anxiety for the bread that perisheth, waste their poor hearts about rank and reputation.’
‘I thought such anxiety was represented as an evil in the New Testament.’
‘Yes. But it is a still greater evil to lose it in any other way than by faith in God. You would remove the anxiety by destroying its cause: God would remove it by lifting them above it, by teaching them to trust in him, and thus making them partakers of the divine nature. Poverty is a blessing when it makes a man look up.’
‘But you cannot say it does so always.’
‘I cannot determine when, where, and how much; but I am sure it does. And I am confident that to free those hearts from it by any deed of yours would be to do them the greatest injury you could. Probably their want of foresight would prove the natural remedy, speedily reducing them to their former condition—not however without serious loss.’
‘But will not this theory prove at last an anæsthetic rather than an anodyne? I mean that, although you may adopt it at first for refuge from the misery the sight of their condition occasions you, there is surely a danger of its rendering you at last indifferent to it.’
‘Am I indifferent? But you do not know me yet. Pardon my egotism. There may be such danger. Every truth has its own danger or shadow. Assuredly I would have no less labour spent upon them. But there can be no true labour done, save in as far as we are fellow-labourers with God. We must work with him, not against him. Every one who works without believing that God is doing the best, the absolute good for them, is, must be, more or less, thwarting God. He would take the poor out of God’s hands. For others, as for ourselves, we must trust him. If we could thoroughly understand anything, that would be enough to prove it undivine; and that which is but one step beyond our understanding must be in some of its relations as mysterious as if it were a hundred. But through all this darkness about the poor, at least I can see wonderful veins and fields of light, and with the help of this partial vision, I trust for the rest. The only and the greatest thing man is capable of is Trust in God.’
‘What then is a man to do for the poor? How is he to work with God?’ I asked.
‘He must be a man amongst them—a man breathing the air of a higher life, and therefore in all natural ways fulfilling his endless human relations to them. Whatever you do for them, let your own being, that is you in relation to them, be the background, that so you may be a link between them and God, or rather I should say, between them and the knowledge of God.’
While Falconer spoke, his face grew grander and grander, till at last it absolutely shone. I felt that I walked with a man whose faith was his genius.
‘Of one thing I am pretty sure,’ he resumed, ‘that the same recipe Goethe gave for the enjoyment of life, applies equally to all work: “Do the thing that lies next you.” That is all our business. Hurried results are worse than none. We must force nothing, but be partakers of the divine patience. How long it took to make the cradle! and we fret that the baby Humanity is not reading Euclid and Plato, even that it is not understanding the Gospel of St. John! If there is one thing evident in the world’s history, it is that God hasteneth not. All haste implies weakness. Time is as cheap as space and matter. What they call the church militant is only at drill yet, and a good many of the officers too not out of the awkward squad. I am sure I, for a private, am not. In the drill a man has to conquer himself, and move with the rest by individual attention to his own duty: to what mighty battlefields the recruit may yet be led, he does not know. Meantime he has nearly enough to do with his goose-step, while there is plenty of single combat, skirmish, and light cavalry work generally, to get him ready for whatever is to follow. I beg your pardon: I am preaching.’