(A six minute read)
A typical view
A friend of mine expressed anger recently over the seeming heartlessness of billionaires. The rich are oppressors, she says, because they ‘exploit others for their own wealth and comfort.’ After some discussion about making a general case out of a specific, we agreed that this generality is no more apt than saying poor people are morally deficient.
But it’s true that some people who make seemingly unthinkable amounts of money employ thousands who, even with a full time job, can’t afford the basic stuff of life.
That’s just to say that vast inequities exist, as they have throughout history. Many of us think we have answers, but if the solutions were so obvious, wouldn’t they be in place by now? Jesus said there would always be some people who are poor. 1 Obviously He was right, but we work to feed them just the same.
The number of families who rely on food pantries is shocking. Recent studies in the US put the number reliably at one household in seven. This is especially true in urban areas where the better jobs are, because the cost of living is higher there.
Here in the UK the situation is the same.
It’s easy to say ‘there is no justice in this.’ And it’s difficult to make a dent. My church, located in the borough of Lambeth, has a food bank each week, serving perhaps 150 people. This is out of nearly 50,000 Lambeth residents thought to live in poverty.
It’s hard to ground myself when I dive into a sea of statistics. Big data is a big ocean with mighty currents. Not only is this sea of information hard to swim in, it’s also hard to grasp the fullness of it from the shore.
It’s far more meaningful to find a partner, ignore the sea, and take a walk on the beach. That leads me to people like Brian.
An atypical view
I met Brian one windy wet November day as he huddled in the grimy entrance of the Clapham Common Underground station. There’s a small landing at the top of the stair where an unhoused neighbor often hangs out with a cup to attract spare change, or asks for a bite to eat.
Something about Brian was compelling, so I asked if I could join him, dropping to the cold pavement to introduce myself. Many of these conversations jump right to ‘the story’ and the reason they are in need, and oh – do I have any money?
Not so with Brian. He was welcoming, not suspicious. His greeting was warm. He asked after my health, about my family. He was full of curiosity and joy. It was as though I had knocked on the door of his home and was invited in.
18 months prior, Brian was standing precariously on the Albert Bridge, steeling himself to give his life over to the cold swiftness of the Thames below. He’d lost his job, had a couple of other bad knocks after that, and found himself on the street. He was in despair.
At that moment, a small group of people happened along.
‘Hey mate! Y’all right?’ one of them cried.
Brian wavered, he told me, unhappy that they broke his concentration as he summoned the willpower to jump. But something about the young man’s voice drew him back.
‘It was like I knew that voice,’ he told me. ‘There was hope in it, something I needed.’
After he answered their questions about why he was there, they asked to pray for him. He said yes. As they did, a warmth came over him, he said.
He looked off in the distance, as though seeing the scene again in real time, and then continued his story. ‘I felt a love like I’d never known,’ he said. He felt truly seen by another person for the first time in a long time. Someone was listening. Someone cared. Someone stopped to love him.
What happened next astounded him. ‘It was like my eyes were opened for the first time. I knew God had a plan for me and that I should trust him.’ He chuckled and shook his head in wonder. ‘Those kids. They said, “Don’t blame God for your troubles. He’s the one who came to save you!”‘
He smiled so hard his eyes closed. ‘And to prove it, He sent those young people to save my life and give me true life.’
An answer that satisfied
Brian said the Jesus they talked about was a different Jesus than he’d known growing up in church. This Jesus, they said, will eventually come to judge the world, ‘but first He came to save the world. He came to save me,’ he said.
Brian walked off that bridge full of God’s love, and with a gift. One of the group gave him a Bible, which he pulled out of its waterproof wrapper to show me proudly.
‘I’m working through the book of John right now,’ he continued. We talked for a while about the Father as ‘the vinedresser’ in chapter 15, and how he prunes us so we will bear more fruit. Brian allowed as how he was being pruned by his life on the street. I shared about how I was currently receiving cancer treatment.
God didn’t cause those things, being a loving God. But He meets us there when we reach out for Him.
I sometimes pray for my neighbors whom I encounter like this. Brian and me? We prayed for one another. I felt a need for the grace that was on his life, and the peace he knew. Here was a man with no physical resources, and yet he refused to consider himself impoverished. ‘I have riches beyond count,’ he told me.
After we spent a half-hour together I was getting stiff, and the cold was seeping into my bones.
My privilege allowed me to get up and move on. As the rain came in earnest, I descended into the Underground. At the landing I looked back and saw him above me, now intent on the next person coming into his life.
Next time I saw him, a couple of weeks later, he was in conversation with a local mission worker. An appointment was being made to get him undercover – into a room of his own, away from the cold pavement and on some financial assistance. I have never seen him again, and hope he is well.
At least I know for certain that Brian’s poverty problem was solved. It was solved that night on the Albert Bridge.
Is yours? Do you think poverty is only about food and shelter? Or is there more to it?
Meanwhile, whatever we believe, we keep working for justice. Even if it’s just one belly at a time, or one soul at a time. Feeding each is a victory.
1. Matthew 26:11