Have you ever been in a room full of educated, middle-class American Christians talking amongst themselves about the “issue of poverty?” They know there is a problem. They know that they have the power and responsibility to address the problem. But, all the passion and commitment in the world cannot force them out of their seats and into action. They have no real, tangible ideas of how to address poverty in their community or around the world.
I am not an expert on poverty. I have never been poor. Sure, I’ve been financially stressed. But I’ve never been truly poor–left with no resources, no safety net, no way to pull myself out, and no one to call for help.
And I’m not an expert on ministering to the poor. Yes, I’ve worked for and among the poor, both in ministry and in my occupation. Sure, I’ve lived within steps of the poor and have had the poor living (quite literally at moments) on my back steps. But, I am still young and naive and don’t have but an ounce of wisdom in how to address the complexities of cultural and institutional poverty.
But, if any of my Christian friends want to know what their churches can do to address the issue of poverty right now, I have a few suggestions.
First, address poverty at its root. Poverty is not as simple as a lack of money or consistent employment. And it is not always (or not only) a result of personal error. It is a complex cultural paradigm and often generations in the making. Solving the the problem of poverty means tackling it at its root, in the systematic injustices and personal failures that perpetuate it. If you really want to pull someone out of a cycle of poverty, you have to get strategic and address a few key issues. Find an issue that you can (or your church can) personally address and commit to it. You may not be able to address it all, but you can certainly do something.
– Educate. During my two-year stint in AmeriCorps, I worked with the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a Catholic order of Sisters whose mission is to share the goodness of God through education among the poor and marginalized. We could learn a thing or two from these and others who are committed–vocationally–to the issue of education among the poor. Without a proper education (at least through high school), the opportunities available to young men and women are limited. Something as simple as after-school tutoring could be a place to start, but perhaps you are capable of more. Other ideas: Start a community school or a co-op; become a teacher at a struggling school system; sit on the School Board; become a high school academic counselor; create a college scholarship program.
– Promote Strong Family Systems. There is a strong relationship between the stability of a family structure and poverty. In 2013, of the 11% of the American population living in poverty, 31% of them were households with a single mother. And, according to the statistics that same year, a married couple is much more likely to avoid poverty in the first place. Seeing as we are now entering an era in which almost half of the babies born are born into unmarried households, this might be an issue that the Church can address. Not by shaming unwed mothers. Not by ousting unmarried families. Not by coercing marriage. But by strengthening existing couples and encouraging healthy relationships, teaching basic conflict management skills, marital counseling, and by encouraging young women to abstain from sex (crazy, I know) to avoid becoming another “poor, unwed mother” statistic. For women (and men) currently parenting alone, churches can provide training in parenting skills and support in the way of daycare and counseling. And, for children who have already become victims of broken families, foster and short-term respite care, as well as adoption (open or closed, through public or private agencies) are great opportunities.
– Improve the Quality of Life and Housing Opportunities. Have you considered the environmental and lifestyle issues that make it difficult for people to move out of a cycle of poverty? The availability of healthy food, access to public transportation options, clean, safe, and well-maintained neighborhoods–they all matter. What if your church started a housing ministry that rented or sold decent homes to low-income families without the mess of government subsidies? Or started a community housing co-op that enabled lower-income members to build equity in shared property? What if you started a community garden that provided fresh produce to local families in need or organized a block watch to promote community-led policing? You can plant trees for increased safety and air quality; you could provide free medical care or health education.
– Teach Job Skills and Provide Employment. What would you do if you wanted to find a job that would provide for your family, but had a minimum education, few employable skills, or possibly even a felony on your record that (in an employer’s eyes) disqualified you from hundreds of available jobs? You or your church can help teach important skills that help secure employment for the otherwise unemployable: computer and technical skills; handyman, carpentry, or maintenance skills; cooking or cleaning. You could also take it one step further and start a business that employs those who have a difficult time finding employment or hire an under-employed person in your community to do odd jobs (at your church or your home) for extra cash to help make ends meet.
– Give Financial Guidance. There are financial skills that some wealthier people take for granted–things they learned from their parents or peers about how to manage their money, how to save money and stay out of debt, or how to make smart investments. Don’t take for granted that other people know these things. Things as simple as how to open a bank account, balance a check book, or pay a bill online might be a mystery to some folks. Without basic financial knowledge and wisdom about managing wealth, a sudden increase in income that comes with new employment can destroy a family’s financial future. Your church can provide something as simple as free financial counseling or as complex as interest-free personal or business loans.
– Fight Institutional Injustice. Sure, plenty of people living in poverty are victims of their own bad decisions. But, many are not. And, regardless of how they got into the mess they are in, there are mountains upon mountains of institutional injustices that can make it feel impossible for them to climb out. Christians should be in the business of pleading the case of victims. Either find a way to advocate for those who are in danger of being further victimized and left with no resources and no support, or use your skills and influence to work within the system to bring justice on an institutional level. The judicial system, banking, legislation, urban planning and community development, immigration–take your pick. Globally, nationally, or locally.
– Soothe the symptoms of poverty. Emergency assistance will not stop the cycles of poverty, but it can soothe the symptoms. And Christians should not be afraid to meet a need where an obvious need exists. Educate yourself about what resources exist in your community, but also consider how you can step in with a more personal touch. I know that a lot of us are afraid of being taken advantage of or being made fools, but churches should be places of hospitality and generosity. You can be wise about the help you offer while still being generous and merciful. Keep healthy boundaries, but keep your doors open–physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Pray that God refines your discernment to know where the real needs are.
And, there is the key element here that I haven’t mentioned:
Helping the poor–I mean, really helping the poor–requires knowing not only the “issue of poverty” in a theoretical sense, but actually knowing the poor in a personal sense.
Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to sell everything and move to a characteristically impoverished area, though I think many are called there. And I’m not suggesting that you go out and make friends with poor people out of pity or a savior complex or mere duty. But if you (or your church) realize you are ignorant of the needs surrounding you, then you need to readjust your vision. Walk outside and take a look around. There are hungry, hurting, poor people everywhere. (Yes, even in places where everyone else looks just like you.) And I would venture to say that if you literally cannot find people in need among you, in your church community, or if you think you have to drive across the country or fly across the world to “minister to the poor,” you may be doing something very wrong.
Let me leave you with some wise words from a man who worked for 40 years in my neighborhood to “strengthen the hand of the poor” before he sold us his house and moved away to live nearer to his family. As thankful as I am for this home, I think a little more time spent learning from him could have done me some good.
“Why was Sodom destroyed? Ezekiel tells us in chapter 16, verse 49: ‘This was the sin of your sister, Sodom: Pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness. Neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.’
“That’s also why Jerusalem was destroyed.
“And now, with greed as our national virtue, what hope is there for the United States of America? We are afflicted by imperialistic pride, obesity, and entertainment addiction, and we are all called to do our part to ‘strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.’
“‘Strengthen the hand’ is the King James wording. Modern translations say ‘help the poor and needy.’ And there’s a world of difference between the two. Helping the poor = as little as throwing some cash in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas time. That’s charity. It’s doing for, not doing with.
“My Grandmother was right about charity. On a below-zero day, she went out on the back porch with a skillet to throw hot grease on the back-yard snow. She shivered as she re-entered the kitchen and said, ‘Wooooh, colder than charity.’
“Strengthening the hand is much different. We get personally involved with another person who needs help, and we work with her or him to get the needed help. That’s risky. You’re vulnerable. It takes prayer, time and patience. You need knowledge and wisdom from the LORD. There are great rewards, however. You get a brother or sister.
“Strengthening the hand is great work for our churches — which we ignore far more often than we perform. Why? Because we’re afflicted with the American curse of individualism. Christians are to be a tribe — a tribe that takes care of each other. In Galatians 6:16, Paul calls us “the Israel of God” — the new 13th tribe.
“Jesus said, ‘The poor you shall always have with you.’ He didn’t mean that as a curse — the notion that the poor are an inevitable nuisance and expense, to be hidden in the slums. Rather, He was saying, ‘You shall always be among the poor.’
“When you strengthen hands, you fulfill Deuteronomy 15:4-5: ‘However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God . . .’ It’s a glorious responsibility and promise.
“And how do prosperous Americans fulfill that promise? Generally, by making sure they have no contact with people who are poor — and we have been that way from our beginnings in the 17th century. Early villages in Massachusetts solved the problem by out-lawing poor people. Today, we deal with the same problem by confining the poor in urban reservations, our slums.
“As the Supreme Court Bailiff says at the beginning of each session, ‘God save the United States of America…’ “- Jack Towe, “God’s Wrath.”
Some of you may have noticed that I didn’t list “Provide Spiritual Guidance” on my list above. I have two reasons for omitting it:
1. I take for granted that Christian people–especially incorporated church communities–already understand that they have a responsibility to preach the Gospel to all people whether poor or wealthy. Spiritual poverty knows no economic boundaries, so providing spiritual guidance should be a given, at all times, to all people. “Strengthening the hand of the poor,” however, is a particular command given to the Church in relationship to a particular group of people and can be discussed with spiritual realities presupposed.
2. I believe, like folks such as Tony Campolo, that it’s hard for people to hear the message of Jesus over the grumble of an empty belly. Perhaps there is a reason Jesus did so much of his teaching while sharing a meal. Perhaps we should learn to do the same.