Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Looking for the Poor

As I mentioned in the previous post on this topic, Aaron and I began doing some research.  How poor are America's poor?  Where do the poor live in our country?  How poor are the rest of the world's poor?  Who are the oppressed?  Who are the helpless?  How do we live out these newly-found convictions we have about loving the poor, the orphan, the helpless, and the oppressed?

So many questions.  We were like a three year old on steroids.

Before I attempt and then fail to answer those questions, is it okay to pause and remind myself and anyone reading the posts in this series that this is our story?  In recounting the tension we live in while desperately seeking wisdom from God about these hard questions, I don't want anyone to feel defensive, as if I'm also trying to write your story or trying to say that your story should read like ours.  We serve a magnificent God.  He's big.  He loves this world.  We're one couple.  One family.  He is leading us, and I trust He is leading you.  I'm also completely comfortable with the fact that He might be leading you in a completely different direction regarding these convictions than He is leading us.

Just this morning I read where Jesus said, "There were many widows, but Elijah only visited one.  There were many lepers, but God only healed Naaman." (Luke 4:25-27, paraphrased)  I'm not saying I'm comfortable with how God rolls, but I think it's clear in the Bible and just by simply looking around for five minutes that there is a lot of need in our world, and yet God only chooses to intervene in some places and in some situations.  We are going to trust that this work in our hearts was inspired by God, and the way He is leading us in regards to living out His Word are God's plan as well.  God eventually broke our hearts for the poor outside of the United States, but perhaps He is breaking your heart for the poor right here in our own country.  Just like God led Elijah to that specific widow, we're trying to trust that God is leading our hearts as we seek out our own "widows" to bring good news and hope.

After reading through several studies (from secular, religious, right-winged, and left winged sources), the census, and lots of news reports, we finally walked away with some sweeping "big picture" ideas.  Here is where we personally landed:

While there is a lot of suffering in the United States, a lot of broken hearted, down-trodden people who need to experience God's love, mercy, and kindness, if we were to rate everyone in the world from wealthiest to poorest (in the desperate, don't have anything, no hope, no way out on their own, do not even have the basics like Jesus is describing when he commands us to care for the poor sort of way) there would be a grand-canyon sized discrepancy between most of the people we consider poor in America and the poor in most places around the world.

That's the difficult conclusion we came to as a couple.

What I just said is not a popular thing to say, and it tends to make people angry.  It would have made me angry a few years ago, but only because I really, really wanted to feel like I was doing what Jesus said and caring for the poor because I was friends with a single mom whose money was tight and so I'd give her hand-me-down baby clothes every once in awhile.  I desperately needed that "single mom" to be the poor, when in fact, she was simply a single mom who I should have loved and befriended because she's made in the image of God.  But if we're talking about what Jesus said about the poor, compared to the rest of the world's poor...this single mom was wealthy.  She was someone who needed love, a listening ear, a friend to cry with, but she was not "the poor."  Since everyone may already be angry, I'll sheepishly go ahead and squeak out one more thing.

There is a reason why you will never be able to convince the people you know who have lived in a third world country that there is just as much need in the United States as there is everywhere else. That reason is this:  to say something like that sounds ridiculous.  A lot of America's poor would be considered well off by the poor living in developing countries.  The conclusion we came to as a couple after reading reports and educating ourselves is that compared to the rest of the world, most Americans are loaded when we consider their access to the gospel.  They are rich in resources, and rolling in the dough when it comes to their human rights.  I'm not trying to discount anyone's suffering in the United States.  There is so much suffering here.  I didn't say no one suffers in America.  This world is broken and is groaning...all creation is groaning, crying out for redemption.  There is pain in America.  The destitute are among us.  There are people who are in bad shape, in terrible places, and are yearning for friendship, love, and connection. There are even people who are hungry and sick.   But when it comes to the idea of poverty we think Jesus was referring to in the Bible...the leper...the lame...the sick...the hungry...the orphan...the oppressed...for the most part, compared to other countries we are unquestionably fortunate in the United States.

We will never go so far as to say that there is not intense poverty and suffering right here within our borders.  The poor do live here.  There are people with sad, horrible stories walking America's streets.  There is need.  There are places to serve, and people doing incredible things to truly love and care for the most down and out in the US.  What we personally had to admit was that we were naive.  We had never really done our homework and looked into the plight of the poor in our own nation and in other nations.  We had no idea how people were living (or maybe dying is a better word) in countries not that far from us.  We were oblivious to the suffering and hopelessness in other countries.

Yes, we found that there are poor people, just like Jesus describes living in the United States.  We simply had to admit that if we stayed in America and "poured our life out" for the poor like Jesus asks for us to do that we would have to be a lot more intentional about finding the poor (as defined by Jesus) than we previously thought.  The poor are among us, but the truly destitute (like the majority of people living in the rest of the world) are a little harder to locate in the United States.

Instead, for the very first time in our lives, our eyes were opened and the plight of other people living in far away countries became our new passion.  We were shocked by the enormous amounts of orphans who will sit in cribs or in crowded, institutionalized care for their entire lives.  Our hearts were broken for the masses and masses of women who have no rights, who are raped, beaten, sold into sexual slavery, and die.  One woman a minute will die today due to preventable complications in pregnancy or delivery.  Why?  Because in many, many countries, women do not matter enough to save their lives.  We were appalled at how many children will never set foot in a school.   Our hearts were torn wide open when we read about child slavery, illiteracy, genocide, and babies dying every day of things like diarrhea.  The injustice of it all kept us up late at night, caused us to get a little sick, but ultimately caused us to agree...This should not be.

Our conversations were a big, soupy mixture of trying to figure out how to live in America, but also care for the poor who lived so far away from us.  Is it possible to live here and advocate for people over there?  Is it possible to live here and live in such a way that cares for the poor instead of oppressing them?

We read about sweat shops.  We read about how our constant need for more cheap junk in the United States creates a huge demand for inexpensive products.  How is Wal-Mart able to sell $5 dresses and plastic plates in every color?  8 plates for a dollar?  We get a bargain, but someone...someone around the world suffers as the market keeps up with this never ceasing American demand for more, more, more.  For the first time, as we'd fill our bright-red basket up with stuff, we started wondering where our stuff was coming from.  Who made this?  Are they treated fairly?  Are they free or are they slaves?  Did a child in a cramped, oppressive work environment make this spiral notebook I picked up "just because" it caught my eye?  Nothing is free.  We save $12.99 at the cash register, and someone, somewhere pays for it.

Those questions lead to more questions.  Isn't it disturbing how few answers we have in comparison to this mountain of questions that sits in our laps?

How can we give more money to ministries who were already on the ground in countries around the world physically living out all the things Jesus spoke so often and passionately about?

How can we advocate, use our voice, use our power to speak up for those without any power?

How can we live out Jesus' commands to care for the poor right here in the comfort of our own country?  How do we live in such a way that we begin pushing back the darkness and bringing hope, God's love, and care to people suffering across the ocean? 

All very hard questions.  We had no idea where to start.  Little did we know that where God always likes to start is in our hearts.  We had no idea that our own greed and our built-in entitlement to have what we wanted when we wanted it would be the first thing God would have to point out while He patiently taught us and is still teaching us to trust Him.  This same battle rages daily inside of us even after living in Haiti and seeing intense poverty with our own eyes.  This battle is fierce and rages while living IN Haiti.

While not easy, seeking out truth, and responding in love towards our neighbors who are destitute will always come down to a question of whether or not our faith is in this earthly kingdom or in God's Kingdom. Decisions we make every day as we live out His commands to care for the poor (here or in Haiti) cause our faith to be boiled down to a few simple questions:  Do we believe Jesus?  Do we believe that this life is temporary, but heaven is forever?  Do we believe that heaven has its own currency and its own economy, and the US dollar, as wonderful as it is, is worth nothing in heaven?

As we all walk through this series together about caring for the poor, no matter how we fail, or how difficult it is to discern exactly what God is wanting us to "do" I think we can all agree that it's exciting to know that this one particular topic will always cause us to come face to face with what we truly believe about Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

Other posts in this series:

Caring for the Poor While Living in the Good ol' U-S of A?

Who Are the Poor?


Flower Patch Farmgirl said...

You are ringing my bell.


Singing Pilgrim said...

Very cool post, I think you made a lot of great points. And while I commented last time, I hope you didn't feel upset by anything I said. I just felt compelled to share. But I do absolutely agree with you, especially about America's poor being hard to find. Like I'll have clothes or something to give away and I'll think "how can I find a poor person to give this to? The best I can think of is to give to a thrift store... but what will they do with the money? And is that really want Jesus wants? He says to give to them, not to give to a middle man who gives to them. Is that fulfilling it?" etc.

I think what your family decided to do in Haiti is amazing and wonderful.

mimi said...

When Alan and I worked in Tanzania in Africa, the Tanzanians preferred "Developing Country" over the term "Third World" country. At the time I googled Third World and Wikipedia has a great explanation and history of the term. The last statement "Recently the term Majority World has started to be used since most people of the world live in poorer and less developed countries" seems like the best label to call "poor" countries, or where the "poor" live. These are only my thoughts when referring to meeting and helping poor people. It's very humbling to help a poor family get on their feet and then see them helping an even poorer family.Mimi

Hendrick Family said...

I loved your comment, Singing Pilgrim. It was wonderful to read. It's all so hard, and I'm thankful other people have so much to offer and share. These ideas are difficult to think through. Suffering is suffering and all of it should hurt us and cause us to long for heaven and ways to live out redemption here on earth.

I loved what you said about the thrift store. Good thoughts.

Mimi...you are so right. Developing world, majority world...those are all the PC terms. However, when I first started reading books about this, I remember being confused by those terms. I needed to learn the new grammar and would stumble over those foreign terms when reading books that were already too hard to read! I should get more familiar with them though and use them more.


T & T Livesay said...

hold up. so like ... you are saying capitalism isn't to be my god? cheap jeans are not more important than human beings?

crazy talk girl, crazy talk.

:) love you.

Diana said...

Thanks for this post! My DH was a missionary's kid in Bolivia and he calls America the Disneyland of the world. I find it shocking how comfortably we live as being considered as low-income and 'below the poverty level' in America. But we don't suffer, don't hunger, have our medical needs met, and much more. It's more inconvenient to be poor. I know there are many more worse off than us here, but the bottom line is, I started asking the same question: where are the poor? So I really appreciate this blog series and I'll be following along and sharing on facebook.

krispindanielle said...

So encouraging to know that other people are having similar thoughts and convictions.
I think it is the Holy Spirit putting this fire under you, and I encourage not to listen to any well-meaning people who might want you to "tone it down". I like your volume.

Lara said...

I really admire your willingness to make people mad and say the hard things here. As we've become involved in orphan care over the past year, I grow so weary of people acting like we should somehow care more for the poor here than "there."

Because after visiting Africa, there really is no comparison. Not that this is a poverty contest or anything, but what we are looking at is two completely different scales of need.

I think you are right, and it is so much easier for we Christian Americans to consider our meager, half-hearted service to others as serving the poor.

Anonymous said...

Heather, this is one of the websites I use with my high school kids: WWW.whoarethejoneses.org Pretty eye opening for me and them. Thanks for your post.

Sarah said...

I've been thinking about a lot of these things (but haven't really done the research like you), especially as I've been reading the book "Generous Justice" by Tim Keller with a group of women. Still trying to figure out how to live/how to change with all of this knowledge.

Beth said...

True, true, true. Keep speaking this truth. These are the words I try to come up with when people ask why we should send money to Haiti when there are "poor" people here in the states. They just don't get it.

One thing that has really opened my eyes is the book (which Platt recommends in ). The info about each country really puts our situation in America in better perspective. Today I read that in Afghanistan, the average life expectancy for a woman is 44, and that 78% of people in Afghanistan have no regular access to clean water. That's poor. That's need.

Sorry for the rant. Just an encouragement to keep stepping on our toes. Thanks!

Becky said...

Thank you!!! I completely agree with all of it! While I've been trying to help a few friends in Haiti, I keep getting comments about 'we have poor here, why don't you help them'. I've tried to explain that comparing the 'poor' here and the poor Haiti is like comparing a Hummer to a donkey. Most people aren't even able to comprehend what it's like in places like Haiti and Africa unless they've been there. It's one of those things you have to see with your own eyes and feel with your own heart to understand.

And while I know there are poor and hurting here in the states, there is also an overwhelming amount of help available here. There are so many government programs, churches with food pantries and clothing rooms, shelters, school programs for the kids, etc. There's a HUGE difference in the help to hurting ratio. Here there are only a handful of really 'poor' people, but they have LOTS of options of places to go for help. Whereas in Haiti, there are millions of really poor with very few options for help. If your entire community is starving, has no clean water, no real shelter, no doctor, etc. it kind of limits your options.

Maggie said...

I love your post. I love your heart. I love that you say things that are hard and that people don't want to hear.

It's also important to keep in mind that the poor in the USA would be much worse off if there weren't people serving them already. For instance, homeless people here may be better off than those in other countries, but that is because there is already someone who opened a homeless shelter that keeps them fed, clothed, and sheltered.

So, I COMPLETELY agree that those in other countries are far worse off, and that we NEED to serve them in any and all ways we are able, we also have to remember that without some serving here, the poor would be just as bad off (albeit fewer in proportion to our population.).

Katherine Long said...

As a college student at A&M, "loving the poor" is a phrase quite common among many of peers. It's really great how justice is part of our daily thought process. I am thankful for it.

I challenge I am finding is hostility or anger towards people deemed "rich" or not caring for the poor. I realize that it is a mandate of Jesus to do so, but should our response be that way? How do you engage people who don't "get it" yet about how Jesus' way is radical and upsidown compared to our logic and natural tendencies?

I know at one point I would have wnated to slap myself at how I thought about and engaged with the the poor. It took the Holy Spirit and grace-filled people to shift my thinking. How do we engage with those who do not value the poor and broken as Jesus does...with the same grace and love that we engage with the poor and broken?

Living in tension in these things is so good as it doesn't allow me any room to try to figure things out on my own. Awesome, awesome post!

Rachel said...

I get so much from reading your blog. Thank you for talking about the hard stuff even if it might not be popular.

I wonder, though, do other people feel as overwhelmed by all of this as I do? With the way that the US is flooded with items made by the oppressed, how on earth do you know what to buy? With such a common food as chocolate being harvested primarily by child slaves does that mean you never eat it again? How do you even start to do the right things? Please teach me! I really do want to learn.

My husband and I felt a definite calling to adopt special needs kids (and God has blessed us beyond measure with our children!) but the result of their needs is that we won't ever be able to serve long-term in a poor country. Our girls could never live that far away from reliable electricity (for feeding pumps and nebulizers) or medical care (for the multiple specialists who keep them healthy). But, I want to do what I can here in the US and have no idea where to start. We give as much as we can and we do primarily give to the world's poor but what else can we do while still living here?

Hendrick Family said...

Yes, Maggie. That's true, and definitely one of the things that helped turn our eyes towards other countries. There are people here already serving the poor in the US (and yet, if we're honest, I think most of us would say that it's not the norm in most churches to run programs, or teach their congregations about serving the poor). So it's incredible that so many resources exist for the poor, when so few believers even see serving the poor as important. I'm not pointing the finger, because it was not long ago that the poor were not even on our radars either. Just making an observation and saying, "Imagine what could happen if we all cared about this."


Hendrick Family said...


I think those are really great questions. Hopefully we can work together through this series to offer some ideas. Not everyone can "go". So surely there are ways to love the poor and advocate for the least of these while living right here in America.


Here are my thoughts: I would just get busy doing good. We're tempted to take the word's of Jesus and turn them into things to fight about instead of things to take on and "do" or "live." Arguing about the words of Jesus wastes time. I would find myself arguing about the "ideals" while never actually doing anything myself with these convictions I was so passionate about. How silly. So, I'd just encourage others to stop arguing and judging the rich, and admit we're all rich...so get busy.

Does that make sense?

I just think we're quick to take on new convictions and then not actually DO anything...just sit and talk about them.


Katherine Long said...

Yes it does. "sitting and talking about them" occurs too much in my own life. Thank you!!

kayder1996 said...

Continue to love this series of posts. I think one of the things that separates the poor in America from the poor in places like Haiti is that the consequences are so much greater in Haiti. In the U.S., while not always sufficient, there are organizations and government agencies which work to catch the poor and to keep the consequences from being as great as they could be. Homelessness is met with vouchers for public housing and homeless shelters. Medical needs are met with Medicare. Nutritional needs are met with programs like WIC and food stamps So yes, you may be poor in America and be homeless but you most likely will not live in a tent unless you choose to. And you may not be able to afford to see a doctor but you will not die from treatable diseases like cholera or malaria. And you may not be able to afford food, but you will never see your child suffer from kwashiorkor and see the lack of protein literally cause your child's skin to break down. Again, I am not saying that everything in the U.S. is great because I know people fall through the cracks. I'm just saying that being poor in a country like Haiti has much more grave consequences. I also think it would be interesting to compare how much of the poverty is situational (based on loss of a job/inability to find work/an illness) vs. how much of poverty is generational (the cyclic type where there seems to be no escaping). I'd like to know what type is most prevalent here and in Haiti.

Grace said...

Thank you for transparency! I wrestle with all of this myself, and I'm praying my husband and I (along with our four girls) will have the hearts Jesus wants us to have...loving others - serving others - DOing for others. Thank you for sharing your journey with us!!

Courtney said...

I am loving/hating this series at the same time. I'm screaming Amen! but realizing that this totally "messes up" how I live.

I really agree with the part where you were talking about people in other countries being spiritually poor as well. There are accessable churches in nearly every city in America. Can we say that about the rest of the world? No way. I'm not sure why people continue to say that their is a need for pastors/churches/etc. "here" when they compare the two. Jesus longs for us to run to those that have NO access to the Gospel!

Debi Stoll said...


Tru Dat to everything you are saying!

America is wealthy even the "poor". I like the disney world analogy.

OH if more folks would have the veil lifted to what Jesus said, but we are so comfortable in our luxuries, we have put Jesus in the box to make us feel good.

Love YA!

Lisa L said...

As to what we can do (or not do) ... I'd say the first step is to examine our motivations, and the consequences of our choices. Are we doing X to make ourselves feel better, or to truly help? If you're donating to a clothing/formula/whatever drive, to send X to "those poor people over there" ask yourself - is this truly helping, or am I actually making things worse by putting someone out of a job (the former shoe salesperson/small store operator/families who raised llamas, made wool, wove clothes in Kenya/Bolivia/etc)? This ties in with the discussion on STM a few weeks back (either here or on the Livesay's blog ... sorry, you blend together a bit in my brain), and ties in with what I see Heartline doing in Haiti - giving women training/jobs/marketable skills to earn their own living with dignity. If people feel they want to give something, consider a loan via a microfinance group - I've used Kiva (online, you get to choose the projects/people, and if it's important to you, can choose lenders that are Christian organizations), again, supporting the dignity and improving the conditions of men and women in the long-term.

As for things we can do here (if we aren't at present called to be 'over there'), a few things I've decided to do (and I am by no means perfect, but this whole topic is obviously a passion of mine): whenever possible, buy only ethically-sourced products. For the Big Bad items (especially chocolate and coffee, but also when possible sugar/tea/some fruits), I will only buy Fair Trade products, generally from smaller companies who buy from co-ops where there's sufficient accountability to know the conditions for families on-the-ground are improving. I don't know if they sell in the States, but I buy chocolate/cocoa products from the Cocoa Camino brand (available at many places in Canada), and coffee from Ethical Bean (which now has an app to find out exactly while co-op the beans in your bag of coffee came from, who roasted it at their facility here, etc). As for clothes, I have started buying most things at MEC (a Canadian store, a bit like REI, that is a co-op) which actually investigates/enforces their policy on labour practices (i.e. not sweatshops).

Sorry if I'm rambling, these are topics close to my heart, so I tend to get on a roll!

Pamela Nees said...

Monday, on Desiring God's blogsite, John Piper has a little clip about missions...and serving the poor. He said there are 3 kinds of people in this world..."the goers, the senders, and the disobedient." How's that for a clincher for world missions? Sure pulled me in!

Alyssa said...

I follow your blog as well as Tara's religiously, though I've never previously commented. (And actually I've met you before at Living Hope - I was a bridesmaid in Whitney Lopas's wedding!) Anyway... I thought maybe I could encourage you by saying your blog and your sharing is absolutely an answer to prayer and has been a means of God truly transforming my heart. Through your posts and Tara's the Lord has broken my heart for poor foreign peoples and nations... which in itself is an answer to my husband's prayers who has been praying for this heart of mine for a long time now. It's so beautiful to me to see how God weaves all of our stories together and uses each of us for each other. My husband and I have felt a definite calling on our lives to move internationally. We're not sure where or when exactly He is leading us, but we know we're going.

All of this to say - I am so grateful for your thoughts and questions. The Lord is teaching me through you, so thank you.

Anonymous said...

http://www.geekosystem.com/first-world-problems/ Have you seen this, Heather? Smart boy!