On Poverty (Hunger, Thirst, Nakedness)
Some personal snapshots of poverty from the last few decades.
A trailer up in the hills of New York State. No running water or even a well. No operating bathroom. A leaky roof and rotting floor to shelter a family of four.
A woman in her sixties, starving. A visit home to check on her mother had turned into a multi-year nightmare leaving her destitute. With help she gets a job, an apartment, stability only to have her hours slashed, undoing everything.
Port-au-prince Haiti. Streets strewn with trash. No water in the mains. Billions invested in foreign aid. Only doctors can afford houses built by Habitat for Humanity. Everyone wants to leave, yet Haiti’s neighbors refuse to let Haitians in.
A member of the church family sleeping in the church lounge because she feels unsafe sleeping in her car on a stormy night. Church dinner leftovers quietly disappearing from the fridge. A sleeping nest in the clothing donation shed.
If you follow the laws I have set before you, Moses tells the Israelites, “there will be no one in need among you.” But if you don’t, “there will never cease to be some in need upon the earth.” According to preacher and social advocate Jim Wallis., the suffering of the poor is the Old Testament’s second most prominent theme. The Psalms praise God’s concern for the poor, the prophets chastise Israel’s leaders for their lack of concern and ancient laws ensure a culture of care. Poverty results from both individual sin and societal failure. By sloppily harvesting your field you provide grace to your neighbor who has no harvest. By returning land and forgiving debts you keep one generation’s poverty from affecting the next.
In the gospels, one of every ten verses address poverty. “I have come,” Jesus says, “to bring good news to the poor” – who, by the way, are blessed. “I was hungry and you fed me,” he tells the sheep at their moment of judgement; “thirsty and you gave me a drink; naked and you clothed me.” Jesus tells the story of Lazarus – not his friend who rose from the dead, the destitute Lazarus who dies of hunger at the gate of a rich man known for his lavish parties. Lazarus dies and is carried up into heaven and seated in the place of highest honor. The rich man goes to hell. As the Psalmist says, “God hears the cry of the poor.” To stop our ears to the poor may be one of scripture’s greatest sins.
Poverty is absolute: I am starving; and relative: I can’t eat as well as my neighbor.
Poverty is temporary: missing a few pay checks hurt; and generational: I don’t know anyone who works and I don’t know how to.
Poverty is individual: I’m lazy; and systemic: I’m striving but can’t get ahead.
Poverty is complicated: multiple personal and societal factors combine to make and keep people poor; and poverty is simple: it really is all about the money.
Regardless, for the Christian, the presence of the poor among us indicates the brokenness of our society, the brokenness of individuals, our inability collectively and individually to live into God’s vision.
Louise Best came into my office the other day with exciting news. “You need any pumpkins?” she asked. “McMasters is done harvesting and they left lots of pumpkins behind.” As Christians we don’t harvest our fields completely so the poor can also celebrate the harvest. We simplify our lives so there is money left from our pay checks to support our neighbor who has less. We open soup kitchens, food pantries, clothing closets, homeless shelters and distribute school supplies. We financially adopt children. We take groceries to our struggling neighbor, invite them over for a meal, let them ride out a tough spot in our guest bedroom or on a couch.
Many Christians also believe our laws, culture and tax codes should call everyone in our society to participate in helping the poor. Free public education and expanded access to health care both have their roots in a Christian vision for our society, as do minimum wages, food stamps, re-distributive tax codes and laws against exploiting workers. None of these programs would exist without Christians standing up for their neighbors and fighting poverty through government policy.
I have come, Jesus said, to bring good news to the poor.
For one friend, bringing good news to the poor means coordinating one of the largest annual food drives I’ve ever seen.
For another friend, bringing good news to the poor means boycotting Wendy’s so they’ll join a coalition of restaurants committed to fair wages for agricultural workers.
For yet other friends bringing good news to the poor means picking up groceries for a neighbor and footing the bill, or writing letters to their legislators in support of generous benefit programs, or financially supporting the Mahoning Valley Rescue Mission or volunteering for Meals on Wheels or marching in the streets against systemic poverty or living on half their income while donating the other half or being a mentor with The Way Station.
We’ve not built the society God desires. We never have, so the poor are with us. How we journey with our neighbors in poverty may vary according to our callings, our personalities, our ideologies, our politics. But that we do so is non-negotiable. To be a true sister or brother of Christ, to land on the side of the sheep instead of the goats, we must hear the cry of the poor and respond.