by Mark Kelley
Grinding recession drives the jobless and homeless numbers higher. Violence and disaster trap multitudes worldwide in suffocating poverty.
Your church office is getting more calls from people who need help with food or bills. Non-profits bombard you with more heart-wrenching appeals about needy people in faraway places.
Everywhere you look, the poor seem to be falling farther behind, and average families are finding it harder to make ends meet. Yet new high-end subdivisions keep springing up, and luxury car dealerships seem to be thriving.
With so much wealth in the world, why do so many people subsist in dire poverty? What can Christians and congregations do to make a difference?
Looking for insight, we sat down with two leaders who have extensive hands-on experience in combating poverty. Jeff Palmer is executive director of Baptist Global Response, and Jerry Daniel leads the LoveLoud team for the North American Mission Board.
Mark Kelly: Many Christians and congregations try to help people in poverty, and some say that because we misunderstand poverty we often wind up doing more harm than good. What is it that we misunderstand about poverty?
Jeff Palmer: We first need to understand our own cultural biases about poverty. Poverty is not fundamentally about economics. At its most basic level, poverty is a failure of relationships. When people love things more than people, poverty is the result.
If poverty is essentially a failure of relationships, we have to realize that those relationships are broken by sin. The relationship between man and God, man and man, man and creation, and man and his own self—all are broken because of sin. That reality is missing from most conversations about poverty.
Jerry Daniel: In his book, Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation and the End of Poverty, Aaron Armstrong says poverty will persist as long as the heart of man is ruled by sin. Any attack on the problem of poverty must begin with the power of Christ to reconcile and restore broken relationships. As Christians, our job is not to solve the problem of poverty, but to demonstrate God’s love in the midst of the brokenness.
What are some factors we have to consider when we try to help people find their way out of poverty?
Daniel: People are complex, and the reasons any particular person is trapped in poverty are many and varied. Failed educational systems, dysfunctional families, and generational patterns play significant roles, but so do a whole host of individual faults, poor choices, bad influences, and unjust social systems. People in poverty are wrestling with multiple layers of issues. That requires multilayered solutions designed with a particular individual in mind.
And the problem isn’t just the other person’s brokenness, is it?
Palmer: Before we can help anyone else, we must first deal with our own hearts. Our motives are not always pure. When it comes to working with people in deep poverty, we have a lot of fear and insecurities to overcome. We don’t help anyone if we are riding in on our white horses to “save” them.
It also is tempting to talk about “the poor” in abstract terms, when in reality they are individuals with problems, joys, struggles, and victories, just like us. When we stop seeing the poor through our labels and acknowledge them as people, we take a huge step toward working with them in healthier ways.
Daniel: One of those stereotypes is that people in poverty don’t have what they need to help themselves. Our first thought is to give them the things we think they need. We make the mistake of trying to serve them first with programs at a governmental or community level. The truth is, their first, best assets to improving the quality of their lives will come from within themselves.
People who live in poverty can be remarkably resourceful. Think about it: Could you survive on $12,000 a year? Many people do. They have an amazing capacity for solving their own problems, if you give them a chance and walk with them on that journey.
However, it’s not just about personal issues is it? Don’t we have to tackle social systems that keep people in poverty if we want to make a difference?
Daniel: When you get deeply involved with people in a poverty culture, you understand something important about their lives: They often live in chaos. All the social systems are broken—family, economy, etc. They don’t have the avenues out of poverty we take for granted. High school graduation and strong marriage remain the best paths out, but educational and marital failures are at the heart of the chaos in their communities. These failures are often intensified and perpetuated by unjust systems.
Palmer: If we understand what the Bible says about poverty, it will stand us on our heads about how we approach it. Hunger and substandard living certainly are not God’s desire for people. However, if poverty is measured by a person’s relationship with God, then true poverty is a total disregard for God. The truly poor are those still trusting in their own resources, instead of God.
Daniel: If we want to effectively help people trapped in poverty, we must address their relationship with God. Yes, we need to walk with them in finding solutions to hunger, illiteracy, unemployment, etc., but the most precious thing we have to share is reconciliation with God. That’s the foundation: moving beyond poverty into God’s family. Everything short of that is merely remedial, dealing with effects instead of causes.
Palmer: The primary relationship that needs restoring for all of us is our relationship with God. Both the poor and the rich—and the in-between—need this because we are all poor and deficient when it comes to salvation. There is only one way to be redeemed out of spiritual poverty, and that is Jesus. When we have that relationship established and we are made right by God’s grace, we are freed to find right relationships to other people, our world, and even ourselves.
When we help a person find his way to right relationships with God and others, how does that affect the advance of God’s kingdom in poverty-stricken communities?
Palmer: There is no more effective strategy for reaching a lost and dying world than the strategy of making Jesus known in word and in deed. When people are treated with dignity, and opportunity is presented in the name of Jesus, broad avenues are paved for the kingdom of God to come in the midst of the poor. The poor begin to come out of their poverty both physically and spiritually, and they also joyfully and willingly share their newfound abundant life. God raises them up to become a mighty force for His kingdom in the world.
Because poverty is essentially about relationships, our attacks on poverty must be, first and foremost, relational. We follow Jesus’ example of engaging in redemptive, personal relationships with individuals in need. Helping badly broken people out of poverty requires deep personal relationships, and that can be messy and complicated. But it’s the only way we learn enough about someone to design a multilayered solution that moves him toward the full, free, and forever life.
At the same time, a community is more than just the sum of its individual parts. Beating poverty requires us to work for social justice. Hard-hearted predators and impersonal social forces oppress the weak. People who care must look hard at the world around them and identify the ways people are suffering. Christians must speak up for those who have no voice and rally the community to find solutions for the problems that plague “the least of these.”
Poverty by the numbers
- In 2011, roughly 46 million Americans (15 percent) were living below the poverty line. That’s only 4 percent below the number in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson declared the “War on Poverty.”
- In 2012, an average of 46.6 million Americans received food stamps each month—the most ever.
- Homeless rates tripled in 182 American cities over one eight-year period.
- The incomes of average Americans remain 6.1 percent below where they stood when the 2007 recession began, and median income has declined 7.2 percent since 2000.
- 67 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are currently distributed, according to Gallup.
- Almost half the world—over 3 billion people—lives on less than $2.50 a day.
- The number of people living in extreme poverty—$1.25 a day in 2005 prices—was cut 50 percent between 1990 and 2010, but some 1 billion people will still live in extreme poverty in 2015.
- About 1.4 million children die each year from unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation.
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Weekly Standard, National Coalition for the Homeless,Washington Post, World Bank, UNICEF