BY DAVID HOLSTON |
“Our Lord Jesus entered into this world’s misery to bear it and to overcome it. We seek to follow Him in serving His brothers and sisters. Like the love of Jesus, this service knows no bounds. Therefore we pray the Lord ever anew to point out to us the way to reach our neighbors, opening our hearts and hands to them in their need.”
–Ground of the Unity, #9
We live in a world of great opportunity, where you can enjoy a long and happy life. We also live in a world where the idea of a long and happy life to some is merely a dream.
I think a lot about the word “poverty.” Merriam-Webster provides this as a simple definition of poverty: “the state of being poor, a lack of something.” A lack of something. What is it that people are lacking? It should be easy to see and to bring an end to material poverty. People need something; we just give it to them and we have fixed the problem. It should be that simple. People are homeless; give them a home and the problem goes away. Right?
This world would be a different place if it were that easy to end poverty. After World War II, the World Bank worked on poverty alleviation in third world countries, but without much success. They asked over 60,000 people about poverty, and the results were published in a three-volume collection entitled “Voices of the Poor.” Here are some of the responses:
“Poverty is like living in jail, living under bondage, waiting to be free.” — Jamaica
“Poverty is lack of freedom, enslaved by crushing daily burden, by depression and fear of what the future will bring.” — Georgia
“If you want to do something and have no power to do it, it is talauchi (poverty).” — Nigeria
“A better life for me is to be healthy, peaceful and live in love without hunger. Love is more than anything. Money has no value in the absence of love.” — a poor older woman in Ethiopia
“When one is poor, she has no say in public, she feels inferior.” — a woman from Uganda
“For a poor person everything is terrible – illness, humiliation, shame. We are cripples; we are afraid of everything; we depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of.” — a blind woman from Tiraspol, Moldova(1)
Notice that none of these people described poverty as simply the lack of food, housing or money. They describe poverty as “the lack of something” bigger, in most cases — a sense of power over one’s own life. A sense of empowerment and self-sufficiency enables people to repair and improve their lives and that of their families. The phrase “a hand up, not a hand out” has been used by different non-profits for decades, so long that the original source seems to be lost. And while this rolls off the tongue, it is a difficult message to put into practice. But it is what we must do if we truly believe that part of our mission is to improve the lives of others.
A lack of something.
Do we see the poverty that is in our neighborhoods, offices, schools and yes, even our churches? You may say to yourself, there is no poverty in my office; our salaries enough for our employees to live on. You may say to yourself, there is no poverty in our neighborhood; it is full of nice homes. You may say to yourself there is no poverty in our church; we are a good church with nice families and everyone is well off.
I had a distant cousin that passed away in the 1990s. She was nearly 100 years old and still lived alone. She lived for decades as a widow after her husband was killed in a farming accident. She did not drive. Other cousins took her to church, to the grocery store. She was not wealthy, but had income from land leased to other farmers. She gardened and canned vegetables she grew. Now I realize that she suffered from social or isolation poverty. When I was about 10 years old, I mowed her small yard, which didn’t take long. She would sit and visit with me, asking about vacation or school, and this made her very happy. These conversations were a source of poverty alleviation for her, as they filled that “lack of something.”
“I like money and nice things, but it’s not money that makes me happy. It’s people,” says one woman in the World Bank survey. She’s not alone: research has found that social integration is more important for well-being than income, and also decreases poverty. Loneliness, conversely, can be deadly: one study found it did more damage to health than smoking.(2)
My cousin lived a long life. As I think of her, I remember a woman alone, in a house with a parlor never used. If more people had taken the time to visit her, how would her life have been different? If I stopped by and visited her more often, how would our lives have been different? Would those later years have been less of a struggle? What could I have learned from her? Is that not a part of what church is or should be — caring for others, seeking to find and fill the need that is lacking?
First we must examine our own poverties, whatever they are: hunger, poor health, addiction, loneliness, mental health or illness and so on. Then we look to move ourselves out of the poverty that grips us, by seeking the help of our own congregations, our fellow Jesus followers. We as the people of Christ, who are the Church of Christ, must welcome, uplift and empower each other out of our own poverties. And then as a church through the command of Christ in John 13:34-35, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Sunnyside Ministry has a financial literacy program called Gaining Control. I recently asked one of the graduates what they got out of this program. She responded, “You all gave me back my self-esteem, and made me feel like I could really change my life. I wish that I could do that class all over again, it made me feel so good.” I like to think that our work helped her regain her innate sense of self-worth and equipped her with skills to take control of her life and move herself and her family out of poverty.
I believe that what will bring an end to poverty is simply this: empowering people to greater self-confidence and greater self-sufficiency, so that they are able to be independent of assistance. And through this improved sense of self, they are able to enter into rewarding relationship with their neighbors, enact change in their neighborhoods and beyond and live without the stress that accompanies any type of poverty.
Taking care of each other in our poverties is what Christ calls us to do. When we lift each other out of our individual poverties, we open our lives to the rewards offered in the Jeremiah 29:11, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Questions? Or want to learn more about Sunnyside Ministry or possibly volunteer? Contact David Holston at david(AT)sunnysideministry.org.
David Holston is the Director of Sunnyside Ministry under the Moravian Church of America, Southern Province
(1) Listen to the Voices. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTPOVERTY/0,,contentMDK:20612465~menuPK:336998~pagePK:148956~piPK:216618~theSitePK:336992~isCURL:Y,00.html
(2) With a little help from my friends. (2015, June 6). Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21653680-poverty-about-who-you-know-much-what-you-earn-little-help-my
Images via Sunnyside Ministry.