(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.
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.
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