Thursday, August 11, 2011

Guest Post, Wrestling with Poverty in the US (part one)

A few weeks ago the pastor at our church here in College Station was talking about some issues surrounding the poor.  He said something very interesting.  I wasn't there, I heard it second-hand from Aaron, so this isn't a direct quote.  The gist of what he said was that it may sometimes be difficult to figure out how to serve the poor.  We may have to go out of our way to live out Jesus' heart towards those living in poverty.  In the city where our home-church is located, if a homeless person slept on a park bench, that person would be arrested.  The poor are not allowed in our city.  This makes College Station a very "safe,"  beautiful place to live, but for believers living in a city that has "outlawed" poverty and homelessness, this can make it easy to forget that the poor exist.  Out of sight, out of mind.  As Aaron was telling me what our pastor said, this thought ran through my head, "Although a city like College Station seems "safe" maybe in reality it's very dangerous when we consider Jesus' commands to love and care for the poor.  Isn't that just like Jesus' upside kingdom?  What if the most "safe" places, free of any trace of poverty, are in fact the most dangerous."  I used to live in College Station, so that's obviously not a judgement on anyone living there.  It's just a thought...

Although I will continue to think through "Who are the poor and am I caring for them," this fact remains while I am and will be in the midst of that difficult struggle:  the poor, the destitute, they are here in America.  Right here.  They walk our streets.  They sit in half-way houses.  They run in gangs.  They sit in battered women's shelters.   There are people right here in our own country who are suffering and living in absolute poverty (financial, spiritual, relational poverty).  I'm thankful to know people who love and serve those living in poverty within our borders.  They teach me a great deal and inspire me to continue fighting for solutions and answers. They keep me humbly asking how Jesus would have us respond to the outcast, the broken, and the unlovely.  I've asked a few of these people who live and serve in the US to write guest posts to give us all some ideas on how to get involved and live out Christ's heart in our own cities, neighborhoods, and states. The poor are here.  They are nearby.  I pray these posts inspire us to hurt, grieve, respond, and live out the gospel towards those living in our own country where there is no language or cultural barrier to overcome.

{{Guest Post by Sarah Dornbos}}
I first met Sarah in Haiti.  
She comes to our favorite island frequently and serves with us at Heartline.

I have been traveling to work in Haiti (short-term) for 11 years. I speak Haitian Creole. I absolutely love the Haitian people. And I am employed by my church to work as a “Local Missionary” with the at-risk population of kids in my immediate neighborhood in Los Angeles. So this is my story, (and not a proscriptive post) as I have tried to live my life between these two beloved places.

Since I don’t live in Haiti full time, I have wrestled through what it looks like to still serve God and the people he loves who are my neighbors. When Heather asked me if I would be willing to share my perspective on working with the poor here in the US, my immediate thought was, “I have nothing to say, I am still figuring this out”.

But, I believe the tension that Heather has asked us to wrestle with in her post "Looking for the Poor" is a good one. When I go to my grave, I hope I will still be wrestling through the questions of “who are the poor”, and “have I loved them”?

I have had people say, in response to my trips to Haiti, “Why go so far away when the poor are right here?”—and if I’m really honest, in my own brokenness and judgment, most of the time I have seen that as a smoke screen for a desire to ignore the larger population (the “majority world”) of people living in extreme poverty, and a way to change the subject to avoid acknowledging the pain and suffering outside of the good ole US of A. And I have lost out on the possibility of deeper connections because of it.

A simple question, instead of judgment, usually works better to expand the conversation, “You know, that might be true, can you tell me their names?” Not only because all of us (rich and poor alike) respond better to acceptance and invitation than judgment; but because when you know “poor” people by name, whether they live in Los Angeles, or Port-au-Prince, something changes inside you. In fact I think Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, not just for our neighbors sakes, but for our own as well, because he knows what happens inside our hearts when we let in those who are vulnerable, needy and even repulsive near us. WE become vulnerable, needy and dare I say it, even repulsive too. Our own motives and shortcomings and entitlement and laziness come to the surface and stare us in the face. And that IS uncomfortable.

I think that’s partly why Mother Teresa said, “Come and See”. She knew that writing a check doesn’t change our hearts in the way holding an HIV+ baby does. Even though writing checks is necessary, it isn’t the whole story. She was a smart one, that Mama T.

I think it is hard for “us Westerners” to look at poverty as something other than lacking material wealth/resources. But poverty is much more abrasive and harsh than that. Bryant Myers in Walking with the Poor(p. 86) says, “Poverty is a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.”

And the authors of When Helping Hurts say, “If poverty is rooted in broken relationships, who are the poor?” And their conclusion is: We are. Until we realize this and start there, we risk doing great harm, not only to the poor but to ourselves as well. There is a great poverty of spirit here in America. But this is only the beginning—not the whole story.

Let me give you an example. When my apartment manager puts the trash cans out on the street every Sunday night, I get frustrated that homeless people are digging through the trash so loudly, right under my bedroom window, at 4am. Please note: I don’t get frustrated that they are digging through the trash or that they are currently without homes. I get frustrated that they are waking me up. Every. Sunday. Night. Do you see the poverty in that statement? The brokenness of relationships/ harmony, the addiction to comfort, in ME? Have any of you seen the trash in Haiti? Even dogs have trouble finding something to keep them alive in Port-au-Prince. The trash outside my apartment each Sunday night could probably feed an entire tent city. But this post is NOT about relocating our trash. Well-meaning Americans already do that, in the name of “missions” or “charity” at an alarming rate.

I would venture to say that most of us reading this blog (since you have computer access, internet, and the ability to read) are among the wealthiest and most privileged people in the world. Frederick Buechner says to us:

“Hunger in a literal sense is unknown to you and me. In a world where thousands starve to death every day, we live surrounded by plenty…we hunger to be known and understood. We hunger to be loved. We hunger to be at peace inside our own skins. We hunger not just to be fed by these things; but, often without realizing it, we hunger to feed others these things because they too are starving for them. We hunger not just to be loved, but to love, not just to be forgiven, but to forgive, not just to be known and understood for all the good times and bad times that for better or worse have made us who we are, but to know and understand each other to the point of seeing that, we all have the same good times, the same bad times, and for that very reason there is no such thing in all the world as anyone who is really a stranger. …Not to help find some way to feed the children who are starving to death is to have some precious part of who we are starve with them. Not to give of ourselves to the human beings we know who may be starving not for food, but for what we have in our hearts to nourish them with, is to be ourselves diminished and crippled as human beings. “

So that is the starting point, acknowledging our own poverty. Our own selfishness and greed and desire for comfort--which is at war with the advancing of God’s Kingdom. But if we stop there we do ourselves, and our world, a great disservice.

part two, tomorrow...

Other posts in this series on "Caring for the Poor While Living in the US":

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

Who Are the Poor?

Looking for the Poor 

Hi, My Name is Heather and I'm a Modern Day Slave Owner

Helpful Links

Barn Burning 

First, The Purging 

The Better World Shopping Guide 

More Really Great Shopping Resources 

Running Hard After Redemption 

Seeko Sandals 

Batik Boutique 

Be Informed 


Shop for Clean Clothes


Rachel said...

I'd like to add to what you said about the reality of poverty in America. Indeed, this morning I read an article about tent cities. At first, I was taken aback, I've traveled to Haiti and seen tent cities filled with thousands. However, this article concerned tent cities in America! They are also called modern-day "hoovervilles" filled with the homeless. When I grew up I was obsessed with the idea of the Great Depression; I only saw the romantic side of growing your own garden and flour-sack dresses. Now, I face this poverty in my own life and in my own city! And what we as believers must do about it is a striking question. Thank you for writing and researching about this topic.

Flower Patch Farmgirl said...

Heather - Your first paragraph is so spot on. You said so well what I've struggled to say.

Thanks to your guester for sharing her heart. I loved every word.

The revolution has already started in my heart, but you're the soundtrack now. At least part of it. So keep on...

brooke r. said...

oh, this is just brilliant. really brilliant. i needed to read it. i sent it to someone who is working with someone who needs to read it too (who may not like it though). thank you for these words!