When confronted by the terrible impact of poverty on people around us, how should we respond and what is the best way to help them?
Most of the clocks in Jadareous Davis’s high school don’t tell the time anymore. Nearly everyone qualifies for government-provided lunches; whether the food is any good is another matter.
About 55 percent of Davis’s classmates graduate on time. The odds are stacked against them all. Unlike so many of his classmates, Davis will be walking the stage to get his diploma. Only his aunt and grandma will be there to watch. His father isn’t in the picture; his mother and he don’t speak anymore. He’s spent most of his high school years sleeping on his grandmother’s love seat.
He runs to the school gymnasium in his cap and gown only to find that the police have locked the doors. “Fire code,” one explains to him.
Davis dashes around the back and finds a door that’s still open.
Later, he discovers that his grandmother and aunt are still outside, trying to peer through the gym doors’ small windows. After graduation, Davis applies to a tech school to become a diesel mechanic; he’ll take anything to get out of Mississippi.
His aunt helps him buy supplies—bedsheets, a comforter, steel-toed boots—before he heads off. She won’t be able to pay her phone bill next month as a result, but she’s willing to take that hit if it means Davis can get away from idle drug-dealers on the corner, this half-boarded-up town and the family dysfunction.
She just wants him to have the possibility of a better life.
How Do We Define This?
The debate of what qualifies as “poverty” and what responsibility we have (or not) to the poor has gone on for nearly as long as the state itself. “Poverty is not just a lack of money or a lack of food,” Dr. Art Lindsley, vice president of theological initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, emphatically stated.
“Poverty is often associated with a lack of hope. In the book For the Least of These, Peter Greer with Hope International tells about asking various poor people in Rwanda what poverty felt like or how they experienced it. Some of the things mentioned were: Poverty is an empty heart. Not knowing your abilities and strengths. Not being able to make progress. Isolation. No hope or belief in yourself. Broken relationships. Not knowing God.…
“Only one item on the list was about not having enough money or enough to eat.”
In her book Love Your Neighbor, Kathryn Feliciano writes, “To put it simply, poverty is a lack of options.”
The Bible certainly has a lot to say about it, going all the way back to God’s instructions to Moses concerning how the Israelites should treat those who fell into the lowest strata of society.
“He saves the needy from the sword in their mouth; he saves them from the clutches of the powerful. So the poor have hope, and injustice shuts its mouth” (Job 5:15-16 NIV).
“[Jesus] stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’” (Luke 4:17-19).
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9).
Director of the Oikonomia Network, Greg Forster, pointed out, “Christianity teaches the radical idea that rich and the poor have equal human dignity and should live in love, harmony, and equal citizenship.”
If this is our responsibility for those caught in poverty, how do we help?
When We Hurt Those We “Help”
Working in an organization that disciples church leaders in economic wisdom, Greg Forster has made an extensive study of where systems of religion, authority and finances can go awry, and he identifies one of the biggest potential issues. “As the 95 theses show, Luther’s movement did not begin as an argument about justification or the authority of Scripture, but as a fight to overthrow paternalism.”
The definition of paternalism merely states that this is when “an authority undertakes to supply needs or regulate conduct of those under its control in matters affecting them as individuals…”
That doesn’t immediately sound so bad, except when we consider who is in authority over the world’s poor.
Is it the wealthy, Western world? Is it individual countries’ governments? Is it social workers? The United Nations? The World Health Organization? The church? Whoever happens to be walking by?
All of these institutions (and individuals) have done terrible things to the world’s most vulnerable at one time or another. Are they really so superior in their resources and knowledge that they can provide what’s best for others? Clearly not, or else world poverty would be the issue of a primitive, bygone era.
That’s paternalism: the idea that we are morally and intellectually superior to the poor, so they must accept the solutions we appoint to their problems…and when the “answers” don’t seem to work, we blame them.
As Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert point out in their book When Helping Hurts, “…until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.”
If we sit down with those caught in poverty as equals and offer them the educational tools and resources they need to fully recognize their God-given gifts and abilities, this often proves to be the most effective and long-lasting solution to the issue of poverty.
When Believers Step Forward
Who is better situated to grasp our mutual brokenness, as Corbett and Fikkert pointed out, than God’s people?
Very few, it turns out.
Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, wrote, “Mark Galli argues that governments are the best institutions to raise the poor's standard of living. Yet over the past week I have visited the poor in Cambodia, and I can attest that while economic growth in Asia has been tremendous, government efforts are not enough to change the lives of the poor. The church and private nonprofits, on the other hand, can do exactly that.
“Galli says the church is insignificant compared to the resources of government. But he seems oblivious to the scale and significance of American Christianity. Its power to reduce global poverty is massive—and could be even greater.”
World Challenge and many other Christian organizations are turning toward development styles of work, thanks to the findings of individuals like Corbett and Fikkert and institutes like the Chalmers Center for Economic Development.
We are sitting down with people around the world and asking them what problems they see and how they would solve these issues.
Bit by bit, we hand the work over to new leaders who rise up from among the locals.
As they escape poverty and grow into leaders of their community, they begin to train others to follow the same path. Introducing people to God and his transformative work or reshaping their view of God’s desires for their lives helps them resist falling back into destructive habits, traditions or cultural mindsets.
The study Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015 shows incredibly encouraging progress. Researchers Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz found that in the early 1980s, "more than half of all people in developing countries lived in extreme poverty." By 2005, that number was cut in half. By 2010, "less than 16 percent remain in [extreme] poverty…”
According to the World Poverty Clock, that number now hovers around 8 percent at the start of 2020. In the last 10 years, the amount of people caught in extreme poverty has halved again.
Together in Christ, we can bring a little piece of heaven to earth.