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?