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photo of man laying on sidewalk

Another View of Poverty

(An eight minute read)

Billions of us live in physical poverty: hungry, thirsty, exposed to the elements. And billions of us live in spiritual poverty, searching only for those things around us to make us comfortable.

Grasping a billion challenges is impossible, but when I boil it down to just one person’s, perhaps I can see a way through.

Smurfy

I was ministering to the poor on California streets some years ago when I ran across a man called Smurfy. He was disheveled and stank. The stale crumbs in his beard were mixed with other things, probably from sleeping rough on the pavement. He had been so drunk for so long his ability to communicate was reduced to a series of grunts.

The one thing he could still say intelligibly was, ‘Fifty cent? Got fifty cent?’

I offered him a dollar but he turned it down. He knew what he wanted. He wanted fifty cents. Continually being knocked about by life and his own bad choices, he’d set his own bar lower and lower. Smurfy’s view of the world was so overwhelmed by poverty his idea of treasure was four bits.

Here in front of me in London, I speak with men and women every day sitting on the pavement asking for money. Some of them are in it for the next fix: the strung out ones covered with scabs and scars; the shaky alcoholics who need comfort from their friend Stella Artois; those few whose hope still remains as long as they can get £18 per day for a shelter instead of sleeping rough. Not surprisingly, almost all of them welcome prayer. Deep down they know what they need more than money, more than a worldly fix.

For those sleeping rough or hoping to avoid it, food isn’t the issue. It’s opportunity. Plenty of passers-by assuage their consciences by buying these floor-dwellers packaged sandwiches or coffee. After all, they aren’t to be trusted with money, are they? I mean, they might spend it on something we disapprove of. Like Stella, or tobacco, or weed, or heroin.

Rory and Frankie

I had an enlightening conversation a few weeks ago with a young man named Rory. We were on the street outside one of London’s larger railway stations. Rory left home at 15. It was that or be beaten one time too many. That was eight years ago. He’s now living on those sandwiches and coffee and saving his money for needle drugs.

If I’d had cash that day I’d have given it to him. I know what it is like to really, really need a fix. Sure – you can condemn me for that if you like. But I also know what it’s like to hit rock bottom and need radical change. Do you?

In my own neighborhood a few days ago a fellow named Frankie was freshly released from prison. He’s one of those who still has hope – his sign told me he needed £18 a day for shelter. I gave him 20 quid. When he left prison in May he was given back his possessions, handed £46 and told to have a nice day. This is government-induced poverty. And we wonder why our prisons have a revolving door?

Frankie wants more than a kip. He also wants a job. He wants a chance, an opportunity. He’s willing. He still sees a future for himself, and wants to leave his past behind. But how long will we ask him to live in hope?

Giving him my money helped him get through one day. What if I had given him half my life savings? Would he spend it responsibly? Is he ready for that?

If we can meet Frankie where he is – and give him an opportunity (read: dignity) – his life can change for the better, probably faster than we’d expect.

Meanwhile, Rory doesn’t yet know what he wants. He knows he’s trapped but believes he’s powerless to find a way out. What if I’d given him half my life savings? Would he have ultimately used it to OD? Or would he have marched right up to a private drug rehabilitation facility? Rory too needs an opportunity, but needs to be shown first that there is a better way.

Unseen But Not Forgotten

Then there are those I’ll never meet, who are the victims of geopolitical forces that leave them chronically hungry. Imagine a child in Timor-Leste, a small island nation between Indonesia and Australia. Like half her village she’s grown up stunted due to malnutrition. Her younger brother suffers from wasting, which will likely emaciate him until his dies. What if I gave her (or her village) half my life savings? In the long run would it help them build a new life? Or would it run through their fingers like water?

Food alone and money alone, or both together, don’t solve the problem.

Do we want to help these unfortunates? Of course! We are moved to act. But so often we only see outward action as the way to make a change. Adopt an orphan, support Charity Water, pay for schools in rural Africa, support your local homeless shelter, donate to your church’s mission work. This outward action feels good, but doesn’t seem to change the playing field for those trapped there.

I believe it’s our inward action that helps us all make more real and lasting change. At the bottom of it all is the need for reconciliation. And it begins with me.

In affluent countries, mostly in the global north and west, it’s on me and you to begin the conversation and take action. We are the ones who ask our governments to send aid elsewhere. We are the ones who send NGOs to help and missionaries to teach.

Making It Personal

We do these things administratively and impersonally. We send aid elsewhere in an abstract fashion, for example, pushing to share Covid-19 vaccines with other countries. It’s a generous thing to do. It’s the ‘right thing to do’. It’s ‘moral and ethical’. It’s ‘good policy.’ It’s proper use of our ‘privilege’. And yet, it’s not personal. These things cost me nothing. Even before my tax dollars leave my hand I stop thinking about them.

And my charity? That probably costs me nothing either. I’m not motivated to give until it hurts, are you? I don’t want to reduce my comfort, after all. Oh, I’ll vote for those who will spend tax dollars the way I want. Or perhaps I’ll volunteer or even work for an organization that fights poverty. But I won’t choose to go without.

At the end of all my charitable doing and heartfelt giving, I’ll go home to my comfortable flat for a dinner containing as much protein as my young friend in Timor-Leste eats in three days. Then I’ll park myself in front of the telly because I had such a hard day.

See? There are many types of poverty, and many ways in which our growth can be stunted. Billions of us live in physical poverty while billions of the affluent live in spiritual poverty, searching only for those things that make us comfortable. That is, those things that insulate us from the realities those other billions suffer constantly and without cease.

I think each group has something to learn from the other. Both have a mindset that screams ‘poverty’. I can be saved from my poverty mindset, but it takes a long time, or supernatural intervention.

(More coming in a couple of weeks)

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money

Poverty’s End

(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.

Death, interrupted

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.

Poverty’s end

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

Alan from behind looking into the distance

Absence Makes the Heart Grow

This is based on material written for my recent memoir, The Lie Called Cancer but left out of the book.

(A three-minute read)

When the UK restricted everyone in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I was considered a vulnerable person because of receiving cancer treatment in 2019. I was told to stay a home for twelve weeks and not go out, under any circumstances.

After a week of it, I was still saying Humph! Humph! about the idea of being medically vulnerable, but I’d get over it. It turned out it wasn’t a problem, it was an opportunity to build my faith. It was not only an opportunity for me, but also for the church.

Now, in October, 2020, we are back into another round of restrictions. For many of us it continues to be hard, especially for those who have lost loved ones, are separated from family and friends, feel financial stress, or in a myriad of other ways have had their lives disrupted. At the very least, it’s continually annoying.

When everything in life is going bonkers, when what we count on crumbles, when it’s unclear what the next steps are, we can always count on the one unmoveable: Jesus Christ. I have faith that the long-term effects of these lock-downs will be good.

Lukewarm Christians, in it for religion not relationship, will either be winnowed out or lit on fire. Those of us already on fire will see our flames rise higher. The gospel will be preached. Christ’s kingdom will advance.

By being physically apart from one another, we’ll come to know deeply how much we need one another. Ironically, through separation, we’ll grow in intimacy. The church that emerges from this will be on fire for evangelism; we’ll have a fresh desire for prayer and intercession.

We’ll be eager to share the message of Jesus.

People will ask us, ‘What happened?’ and we will simply answer, ‘God was faithful.’

I’m in the book of Jeremiah in my annual cycle of reading. It’s such an excellent pairing – better than the right wine with a gourmet meal. It’s made for this lock-down season.

‘The Lord says, “Now I will show them my power; now I will show them my might. At last they will know and understand that I am the Lord.’ *

Let me be quick to say that I’m not suggesting that God is responsible for the outbreak of a new virus against which people apparently have no natural immunity. All such things are the work of the devil.

However, I believe God may permit these things to provide an opportunity for growth. He certainly steps into the middle of all such situations to continue His work.

As the aftermath of this crisis falls out, if we look at it through the lens of opportunity, instead of relegating it to problem status, His glory will be revealed. There will be events through this season that will demonstrate His power. At least for those who have eyes to see it.

Finally, let’s not think of it as ‘lock-down.’ Think of it as exile, like Israel’s exile in Babylon. Because good things always come out of exile.

* Jeremiah 16:21 (NLT)

Photo: Rachel Richards