Friday, August 19, 2011

Wrestling with Poverty in the US, part three

{Part three of the guest post by Sarah Dornbos.}
 If you missed parts one and two, you can find them here and here

I work with kids who by elementary school have stopped believing that their lives matter, that they have value and worth outside of their ability (or inability) to be #1, to get good grades, or to stay out of the principals office… Kids who have been living on the streets or in hotels/cars, who have been taken away from their parents, who have no parents, and even kids who have very caring and loving parents who are working two jobs just to put a roof over their heads and can’t help them with their homework…or parents who simply don’t speak English and cannot help their children with homework.

The elementary school where I work feeds into two local High Schools. At those High Schools, the attrition rate is 50%. So statistically speaking half of all the kids at my school will not graduate from High School. When I read this, I started applying for grants to fund an intervention program, and began a conversation with the leadership my local church. As a public school teacher, I was aware that public education is a justice issue. I am sad to say that I believe there is arguably no greater perpetuation of historical injustice in the US, than the public educational system.

In When Helping Hurts, there is a fabulous chapter, Chapter 8, titled “Yes, in Your Backyard”. Read this. In that chapter the authors point out, “Inadequate funding of schools in poor communities is one contributor to unprepared graduates, who then go on to earn low wages and to pay little in school taxes. And then the vicious cycle repeats itself.” (Page 187) The documentary Waiting for Superman paints a vivid picture of this inequality in our country.

So as I was experiencing this inequity in my own neighborhood, and traveling back and forth to Haiti, I got connected up with an intervention program called Kids Hope USA. It’s a one-church, one-school model that helps make an impact in this one little area of injustice and poverty in the US. And do you know what they use to change the lives of kids? Relationships!

I coordinate and train a team of volunteer mentors from my church. They work one- on-one with kids who have been referred by their teachers. Each mentor makes a minimum one-year commitment to the child they have been paired with, but ideally they will continue with the child until they graduate from Elementary School.

My volunteers are ordinary people like you. They range in age from 16-80. Ms. Mavis, an 80-year-old mentor, is on a fixed income. She can’t give big money to overseas missions. She’s not going to get on a plane to volunteer in Haiti. But she’s doing what she can in the life of a little first grader at my school. And let me tell you—there is “kingdom work” going on—tangible transformation, in both of their lives. You see, Mavis only has an 8th grade education herself. She didn’t think she could make a difference in the life of anyone. But Mavis can read. And Andrea can not. And you put these two together week after week and something beautiful happens. Laughter and drawings and words being sounded out…and friendship.

I don’t mean to make it sound simple--there are deep and complex factors that contribute to poverty in the United States (or any country). So I want to point out that there is also something else that is happening in these mentoring relationships.

One element of endemic poverty can be a lack of access to “social rules”. Ruby K.

Payne’s book A Framework for Understanding Poverty is an excellent treatise on the cultural ‘language’/rules/habits of the poor, the middle class, and the rich here in the US. Unless you know the “rules” it is very difficult to successfully move between these classes in our country. One small example is that many of my students have never been taught manners. They are not by nature rude, but they have never had someone teach them to say “please” and “thank you” so it does not cross their mind to do so. Manners must be learned. It is difficult to get anything above a minimum wage job without manners, but some kids never have an opportunity to learn them.

Last year, at our 6th grade graduation dinner, I realized that one of my students had never used silverware. Can you imagine? At the restaurant, he was thoroughly confused by all that was going on: a waitress taking his order, staying seated, drink refills. But there was a real look of panic on his face when his plate of spaghetti arrived and others at the table began to eat. His mentor wasted no time helping him put his napkin on his lap and teaching him not to put his face to the plate, but to cut up his food and bring it to his mouth. He is an orphan being raised by his brother and all they eat is fast food. This little boy did not know the basic ‘rules’ of eating in a restaurant.

Was that an awkward moment for that mentor? Possibly. But she felt privileged to have been able to teach her little guy how to eat food with utensils. Does it cost Mavis something to be a mentor? Absolutely. Has it been challenging for mentors to keep their commitments? Most Certainly. Faithfulness can be one of the most boring parts of the Christian journey. But that is the beauty of our God, who models this faithfulness to us every day.

Has it been easy for me to live in Los Angeles? Absolutely not. I was living below the poverty line myself when my car was stolen and there was no compensation from my liability insurance. My apartment has been broken into. I will probably never own a home. But there is a joy I have in being part of these tiny redemptive moments—when a first grader learns to read, or an 11-year-old boy learns to use silverware--that I am certain no house or new car could provide.

I am 100% convinced that God loves every child in my Kids Hope program at the school. But he can’t hug them, he can’t play with them, he can’t read to them…he gives us (the people who know Him) the great privilege of doing that. And without mentors who will come and invest in the lives of my kids, there is no change.

I heard something in a sermon by Tim Keller several years ago that has stuck with me: “By staying in the city…we stay at the center of human suffering, and discover that God is there”. I share this not to insinuate that we should all move to the city (…though it certainly would change things if more people did.) I say it to make the point that wherever suffering is found, there is poverty. And THAT is something that God cares about. He does not say, “The poor will be blessed” because poverty is ‘good’ or because suffering is ‘good’…But because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. And it is quite possible that Roy and Ray and Andrea and my friends in Haiti know something more of this kingdom than I do or ever will—because there is a lot more “stuff” (literally) in the way for most of us living in the US. (We do our best to distract and insulate ourselves from suffering every day, but doing this ironically also keeps us from experiencing the Kingdom.)

“Loving the poor” doesn’t always have to be scary like “befriending the homeless” or “moving my family to Haiti”, it can be (and often starts as) something small; like teaching a child to read, to use silverware, or just to be present with someone who is suffering. I do believe however, that finding the poor inside us and around us will always stretch us and grow us. And it will do something else. It will begin to erase the borders between “us/them” and help us see that we are all human beings. (For an interesting example check out this link from my church’s Skid Row ministry and try to discern who are currently without homes and who are the volunteers…I bet it won’t be as easy as you think!)

At the end of the day, I don’t believe it is an “either/or” dichotomy. I believe that if we claim to know Jesus, that no matter where we find ourselves on any given day, we would seek out the people that matter most to him: the poor, the vulnerable, the hungry, the suffering; and LOVE them. What does that mean? That means first and foremost, knowing their names. That means getting our hands, and our knees, and our hearts, and even our theology dirty. If American Christians did this, it would be radical, and it couldn’t help but change the world.

Henri Nouwen has some pretty great thoughts about what it looks like to be this radical. So I’ll leave most of the last words to him:

“Radical servanthood does not make sense unless we introduce a new level of understanding and see it as the way to encounter God himself. To be humble and persecuted cannot be desired unless we can find God in humility and persecution. When we begin to see God himself, the source of all our comfort and consolation, in the center of servanthood, compassion becomes much more than doing good for unfortunate people. Radical servanthood, as the encounter with the compassionate God, takes us beyond the distinctions between wealth and poverty, success and failure, fortune and bad luck. Radical servanthood is not an enterprise in which we try to surround ourselves with as much misery as possible, but a joyful way of life in which our eyes are opened to the vision of the true God who chose the way of servanthood to make himself known. The poor are called blessed not because poverty is good, but because theirs is the kingdom of heaven; the mourners are called blessed not because mourning is good, but because they shall be comforted. Here we are touching the profound spiritual truth that service is an expression of the search for God and not just of the desire to bring about individual or social change. This is open to all sorts of misunderstanding, but its truth is confirmed in the lives of those for whom service is a constant and uninterrupted concern. As long as the help we offer to others is motivated primarily by the changes we may accomplish, our service cannot last long. When results do not appear, when success is absent, when we are no longer liked or praised for what we do, we lose the strength and motivation to continue. We see nothing but sad, poor, sick, or miserable people who, even after our many attempts to offer help, remain sad, poor, sick, and miserable, then the only reasonable response is to move away in order to prevent ourselves from becoming cynical or depressed. Radical servanthood challenges us, while attempting persistently to overcome poverty, hunger, illness, and any other form of human misery, to reveal the gentle presence of our compassionate God in the midst of our broken world.” -Henri Nouwen, Compassion

And if what 1st Corinthians 12 asserts is true…that we are ALL part of one body…it means that you and I cannot live without those we typically deem “poor” or “needy”. In fact, the astonishing truth is, we need them. If we think that those who are suffering or poor need us, and that we bestow honor on them by pausing from our busy schedules to give them a little time or money….not only is such thinking insulting, it is wrong. The poor in my own community as well as in Haiti have taught me wonderful, life-changing truths about God and his Kingdom. Things I may have never been able to learn any other way. My relationships with “the poor” have made me long for the kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven” with a level of passion I did not know I possessed.

And the truth is, until the Kingdom comes, we all have work to do. Until that promised day arrives, we can all do better. So lets start today…

Get to know your neighbors.
Learn their names.
Look inside yourself.
Order When Helping Hurts
Watch Waiting for Superman
Visit your local soup kitchen
Sign up as a foster parent
Visit your local elementary school

But most of all keep searching for God. You will find him in the most delightful and unexpected places!

(For more information on Kids Hope and how your church/community could be involved go to:, or

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

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

Guest Post, Wrestling with Poverty in the US, part two


Sarah R. said...

very good and challenging stuff here. my husband is a middle school public school teacher in a low income area. he sees so many of these issues every day.

there is a group in our town called Kids4Christ that is doing very similar work to what is described here. i have some friends who help, i have been prompted to check it out and see what i can do.

Diana said...

Thank you, Sara, for contributing! This has been an incredible series and this touches my heart very deeply in terms of very practical ideas. I am going to watch Waiting for Superman tonight!

Anonymous said...

"faithfulness can be one of the most boring parts of the christian journey".....because when it is boring or mundane or common we don't think it is God's work anymore....oh sarah way to be brave and act upon kingdom work and to share and motivate others...especially the children!!!


Alanna said...

So very glad this was shared. I don't think God will allow there to be one nation on this planet that has an absence of hurting, helpless people. And for so long as the earth and sin co-exist, God will place His people in places to help all throughout the world.

There are pockets of darkness in this town that make me shudder and want to run and hide. The things that come across my desk on a daily basis are not happy stories. They are deep pains, many where the children are so broken I wonder if they have any hope at all. The tragedies of being in a situation so broken and yet having just enough to survive are heart-wrenching. It's a lifestyle of endless despair. A spiral staircase through hell. It terrifies and angers and breaks my heart all at once. The hands I hold, the words I hear, the things I read ... they all resound with intense continual pain.

It makes you wonder - where do I start? How do I help? Is what little I do going to matter in the big scheme of all this darkness at all? What should my mission be when I see this over and over and over?

Well, God called us to "loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.. to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood. ... do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, ... spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed. ... the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. ... He has sent me [us] to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair."

These are the things that make me get up and go to work everyday. Suffering is the place, like CS Lewis said, where "God shouts to us in our pain." So, if you want to be where God is, find a place of suffering. That is where God is shouting. It is where the harvest is abundant and the workers are few. It is the land to which Jesus came.

I guess for me the question hasn't been so much how to define the poor, but rather how to define who God says is poor, oppressed, suffering, enslaved, in need, etc. in my life and help them. Be the only "Jesus with skin on" that they will encounter today. I can't save the world. I get that. But the tragedies that abound, the injustice and oppression of this world... oh, how they break my heart. I pray for the whole world, but I act and live in my little piece of it.

I love my job because it is an open doorway to these souls on a daily basis. At the same time though, my job makes my heart ache and long for heaven in ways I sometimes cannot stand. I feel the joy of the Lord because I see the contrast of blind despair. His way holds value that is so clear when compared to the ways of the world.

I'm so grateful that God finds people everywhere to help Him love the world. I'm so glad we hear your story from Haiti and Sara's story from LA and so many other stories from around the globe. I'm so glad God has skin on.

Psalm 27:13 "I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living."