“In the sprawling slum of Haiti’s Cité Soleil, Placide Simone, 29, offered one of her five offspring to a stranger. ‘Take one,’ she said, cradling a listless baby and motioning toward four rail-thin toddlers, none of whom had eaten that day. ‘You pick. Just feed them.’” (Richard Stearns, There’s a Hole in Our Gospel, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010, p. 133.)
It’s not hard to accept that poverty exists outside of the West. It’s more difficult to imagine that people in North America suffer from a lack of basic necessities.
One in six Americans live in poverty, and last year one in seven had limited or uncertain access to adequate food. These are often hard-working adults (some working more than one job), as well as children and seniors forced to go without food for several meals, or even days.
Then there are the homeless: The US Department of Veterans Affairs tells us that about a third of the homeless in our nation are veterans. Most are single, come from urban areas, and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or drug abuse. There are 107,000 homeless vets on any given night.
What has this to do with the Church? God has revealed his heart to us: “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 82:3-4). “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
So how do we become more knowledgeable and caring toward our hungry neighbors? How does one even define poverty? There are two basic categories: situational (caused by sudden crisis such as loss of job, divorce or severe illness, seen as a temporary setback) and generational (at least two generations lived in poverty, from whom they learned survival skills).
We differ in how we think and view the world depending upon whether one is from the lower, middle or wealthy class. For example, what do we value? Relationships (poverty); things (middle class); or things no one else has (wealthy). How do we think about time? Survive today (poverty); plan for the future (middle class); maintain the past for future generations (wealthy).
We can see in examples like these that the biggest difference between those in poverty, the middle class and the wealthy is not money (See www.urbanventures.org/facts-about-poverty/; also see Bill Ehlig and Ruby Payne, What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty, available at www.ahaprocess.com/store). Consequently, simply throwing money at the problems has little effect, and can do more harm than good. We need to see this issue in its larger and deeper context—we need to do our missionary groundwork in getting to know those we want to help.
There’s a saying, “You are middle class because you were raised middle class.” What does that mean? That means middle class people are taught middle class values, a middle class way of thinking and have access to middle class resources that help them support a middle class lifestyle. All classes, including the middle class, have unspoken social cues and habits or “hidden rules” (See Ehlig and Payne). Middle class “hidden rules” help the middle class person recover from times of situational poverty.
But now let’s look at an example of generational poverty. This person’s focus is on surviving today and she lives with the conviction that no matter how hard you work you cannot change your circumstances. It’s called “learned helplessness.”
A young mother on government assistance cared for her children in a decent apartment. Welfare reform led to her subsidies being reduced, but a counselor helped her find a job. After several weeks operating a book-binding machine, she began to wonder, “Will I have to stand at this machine eight hours a day for the rest of my life? I’ll go nuts!” She told this to her counselor, who responded, “Who says you have to do this the rest of your life?” Not understanding the counselor’s meaning, she said: “But if I quit, I’ll lose my apartment, and my kids won’t have a decent place to live. What can I do?” Her situation seemed hopeless, until the counselor explained, “Look, you don’t have to stand at a bookbinding machine the rest of your life, but only long enough to show that you showed up on time and did quality work. While you’re working this job, you and I can search for a better job. By then you’ll have a good reference to show your potential new employer.” This is a middle class “hidden rule” the young mother had never been taught. She returned to her bookbinding job with hope for her future.
Poverty is very complex and challenging. To minister to those in poverty we need to think biculturally: along with our own cultural values, we need to understand the cultures of those in poverty.
Churches will find much benefit in partnering with like-minded local organizations that have experience in these areas (for starters, see Ruby Payne’s materials at www.ahaprocess.com). Love INC is an excellent Christian organization that helps local congregations work together according to their strengths, and they provide training and resources for effective ministry to the poor (www.loveinc.org). Get in touch with local food banks, with adult education centers, pregnancy centers and others that have the expertise your church needs. God’s people on mission together as a faith community will have an impact, and as we do so we can point people beyond the deeds to the Christ who makes all things new.
But isn’t this just a lot of Social Gospel? We need not fear that working out the social implications of the gospel will cause us to forget about evangelism. The danger of a Social Gospel is not its expressions of love, but its bad theology, and as the evangelical theologian Samuel Escobar put it, “The sad thing is that those who have the right theology have not applied it to social issues” (Mission Trends No. 3, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1976, p. 110).
Jesus and his disciples did not restrict the implications of the gospel to the hereafter. Loving action is the fruit of the gospel and lends credibility to our witness in the eyes of those we reach out to (Matthew 5:16); we only weaken our witness when we pit words and works against each other. “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17).
But neither can our actions stand alone. As Lesslie Newbigin put it, “To a hungry man a good meal looks like heaven; when he has eaten it he knows that it is not” (Mission in Christ’s Way, Friendship Press, 1988, p. 11). As we work with those trapped in poverty and all that goes with it, we want to introduce them to the joys of knowing Christ and experiencing his kingdom community as well. Making disciples includes teaching, which takes time. Especially in today’s world, making disciples for Jesus includes their experiencing the agape fellowship of the believing community along with hearing the proclamation of the gospel.
Dr. Gaylan Mathiesen, Ph.D is the author of A Theology of Mission and is Professor of Missions at Lutheran Brethren Seminary, Fergus Falls, MN.