On helping the poor

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.’

Dueteron­o­my 15:11

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.

The first one is from the FAQ page on The Sim­ple Way’s web­site:

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.’


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