Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Caution in Serving the Poor

This past Thursday I had the opportunity to volunteer at Night Strike, where hundreds of homeless and poor are served food, drink, provided clothes, and services like hair cutting and feet washing. As the leaders of the ministry put it we "love people because people matter." I think this is an awesome ministry, and I was really impressed with the simplicity and deeply relational focus. I floated around, serving people coffee or hot cocoa while they waited in line for a hot meal. I enjoyed talking to the folks and learning some of their stories. Some of the folks were talkative, but others seemed uncomfortable and I had to work at the conversation.

I spent some time with a man I'll call Jim, and he shared that he has been living somewhere in Northwest Portland in the bushes for 2 years. He was suffering from some sort of disability, and was trying to find work. I learned that his wife had been unfaithful years ago, bringing him from New York to Portland for a "new life." I got a chance to pray with "Jim" about some job applications he was hoping would result in something. I hope that I can see Jim again soon and see how things are going with him.

I felt good about the evening, and was thankful that I volunteered. And I think that most of the volunteers felt that way. So have can I possibly find any sort of "caution" in this?

As I contemplated on the evening, I realized how easy it is for those who are serving, to feel somehow superior to those who are being served. (To be clear, I don't have any reason to believe that others were feeling this, I am only sharing some of my deeper, hidden thoughts.) Indeed, when you learn about their stories, it is natural to feel thankful for the blessings in your own life. Obviously there is nothing wrong with this. But oh how easy to fall into the trap of superiority and pride! I raise this caution not as an excuse to not serve the poor, but to be aware of our motivations and attitudes. I've written previously that all of us, even if we are not materially poor, have our own brokenness and poverty that needs God's healing. I want to put that truth into practice, especially when serving those who have a whole lot less than I do.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Looking into a Face of Poverty

With a big issue like poverty, it is perhaps tempting to focus on statistics and systems and keep the personal at a distance. But any genuine attempt to address the issue of poverty, be it a small response or a large-scale effort, must begin and end with people. In 1995 Jill Berrick captured the personal lives of several families of women and children on welfare in a small book entitled Faces of Poverty.

I found "Darlene's" story particularly compelling. Rather than just reiterate the sad details of how she was born into a poor family, got pregnant as a teen, and at 38 years of age seems destined to live out her life in abject poverty, I want focus on words and phrases that show what is going on inside of Darlene:
Darlene would tell me that she was not "good enough", or "smart enough", or "strong enough." She was not good with relationships; she was not good with her family; she was not good with her son; she was not good in school; and she was not good at work. (pg 94)
She [Darlene] does not understand who she is or where she is going, and she is always uncertain of the next step to take. (pg 97)
"I feel very, very distant from this group of people - the black middle class, especially. I feel that we're worlds apart. I don't feel accepted." (pg 100)
"You can get to thinking in a rut, thinking there's absolutely nothing that can be done, that black people are doomed and my child is doomed. But I don't want that fear in me." (pg 102)
"People who know I'm on aid will say, 'Welfare's the worst thing that could have happened to black people...' It's a very humiliating experience. And the shame is really inside. I don't tell people I'm on aid now. You feel like you're living down to people's expectations and you're a statistic." (pg 106)
"I have to work very hard not to feel that I am a slovenly person. That I'm just not contributing to society. I think it would be nice if people recognized that everybody here is contributing. That I couldn't be here and not contribute." (pg 107)
"It's like you are constantly filling out papers justifying who you are, what you're doing. It's not a picnic." (pg 108)
"There are some people who have no resources; whose families have even less knowledge about society than mine had...They needed a nurturing institution where they could get hugs five times an hour. Besides knowledge, they just needed mothering." (pg 108)
The challenge? See beyond the circumstances into the heart. It's this kind of caring and insight, combined with well designed responses and systems and programs, that can make a difference.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Lame Biblical Excuse to Ignore the Poor

I have heard it, and so have you. Maybe you've thought it or said it: "Didn't Jesus say that the poor will always be with us? So why try so hard to fight against poverty? Isn't it just a loosing battle?" I've been chewing on this for a couple of days, and just found an excellent article by Bryant Myers (author of "Walking with the Poor" a highly recommended book) on this very topic. I encourage you to read it, but I'll summarize it here and offer a couple of comments.

First, yes Jesus said something along these lines in Mark 14:7 (as well as John 12:8 and Matthew 26:11). In context, the disciples set-up a false dichotomy: they were upset at an extravagant offering of perfume which was related to Jesus' imminent death and burial. They felt that the money would have been better used to help feed the poor. From Jesus' reaction, it looks like the disciples were more interested in shaming the women than they were in really helping the poor.

But Jesus took their sinful attitudes and turned it into a teaching moment. He said that the woman's act of extravagant worship was a good thing because it was offered with pure motives in a genuine attitude of worship. So Jesus was setting priorities straight: God first, everything else second. Even our dedication to social justice and healing the hurts of the poor can become an idol, if we forget about God in the process. It is said that somebody asked Mother Theresa why she was called to serve the poor. She replied that she was not following the poor. She was called to follow Jesus, and she was simply following Him to the poor.

Another important element of these words of Jesus is that they are quoted from Deuteronomy 15:11. If you read that chapter, you will see that the whole point is that we need to be generous and open-handed toward the poor, because poverty is not something in God's original design. There is no indication in this passage that God is somehow reducing the pressure on His people to care for the poor. Quite the opposite!

So will the poor always be with us like Jesus said? Unfortunately, because of sin in the world, I think the answer to this is "yes". But there is coming a day when God's Kingdom will be fully here, and on that day I can confidently say that there will be no more poverty. Until then, we are called to follow God, and follow His leading in caring for the poor and working with Him in redeeming and restoring all of creation to God's ultimate, perfect design.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Right Response: Relief, Rehabilitation, or Development?

We've all encountered people on the street who ask for money. And if you're like me, you are really uncomfortable giving it to them, even if you feel compassion. We instinctively know that the money will at best bring short-term comfort (a cup of coffee?), but we fear it will be used to feed an addiction, or somehow extend and enable their poverty. It turns out that our instincts are largely right. 

Not all poverty situations are the same, and therefore not all responses should be the same. There are three responses that must be considered: relief, rehabilitation, and development. (See Steve Corbett's and Brian Fikkert's excellent book When Helping Hurts for more information on this framework.) Applying the wrong response to a situation can actually create more problems than it solves. This framework is extremely useful in determining what our own responses to a given situation should be, as well as in evaluating non-profits in their approaches to alleviating poverty. 

Relief is immediate and urgent assistance in response to a disaster or crisis. A good example is our response to the earthquake in Haiti with provision of food, water, and medical supplies. The goal of relief is to stop the bleeding with external assistance because the recipients can truly not help themselves.

An important principle of relief is that it should be temporary, not a recurring practice with the same individuals or communities over and over again. Relief should be used for emergencies, not regularly occurring dilemmas or short-falls. If relief is continually being called for, this indicates a deeper issue that must be uncovered.

For example, a family who needs emergency rent assistance because of a recent job loss could be a legitimate relief situation. However, if that same family asks for rent assistance several times a year for years on end, then a longer term response such as development is called for. 

Unfortunately, many charities and individuals provide relief when development is more appropriate. Not only is this a waste of precious resources, it can also strip dignity and reinforce a poverty mindset by validating the recipient's belief that they are inferior and incapable.

Rehabilitation seeks to restore people to their pre-crisis situation. An example is the aid given to tsunami victims in Thailand to help rebuild houses, schools, and businesses. In rehabilitation, the immediate crisis has ended and relief has been provided. But now there is a huge hole from which the victims need to rebuild.

An important element of rehabilitation is that it should be done with the affected population, not for them or to them.This builds up their dignity, giving them appropriate levels of resources to rebuild towards their own future.

Development is an ongoing process in which we work side-by-side with the poor to help them improve their own lives and communities beyond where they have been before.  Examples of development include job training programs, training in budgeting skills, as well as a wide variety of community and economic development programs. As with rehabilitation, it is important to include the poor in the process. In fact, it is absolutely critical that the poor own as much of the development process as possible because this is really the only path to empowered, self-sustaining individuals and communities.

Back to the example of the family seeking rent assistance over and over again: one possible development approach would be to meet with the adult(s) in the family and lay out a plan toward economic sustainability. This may include getting some education, skills training, or job finding assistance. It is important in this process that the development personnel allow the poor to define their own future and pathway. This calls for a difficult stance of "leading by stepping back", offering ideas and help where appropriate, without commandeering the situation and imposing our own rules and wisdom upon the poor. Such a participatory development process can actually do more for the poor than the official training or education they receive. The reason is that by empowering them to own their own future and path, their dignity is affirmed and healing to their "poverty of being" propels them forward.  

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Learning empathy for the poor through unemployment

Most people believe poverty is simply the lack of material goods. While lack of food or money is normally the most visible aspect of poverty, there are social and psychological components to poverty that are incredibly destructive but often ignored by those lending aid. Up until the last couple of years, I really didn't understand the psychological and social components of poverty. All those sad faces that I saw were surely the result of bad choices or natural disasters that would pass, and now they needed to buck up and get with the program, right? And then unemployment hit me...

Before we get to that, let's first look at how the poor actually describe their situation. These quotes are from a World Bank study called "Voices of the Poor":

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.
Blind woman from Tiraspol, Moldova 1997

I feel ashamed standing before my children when I have nothing to help feed the family. I’m not well when I’m unemployed. It’s terrible.
A father in Guinea-Bissau 1994

During the past two years we have not celebrated any
holidays with others. We cannot afford to invite anyone to our house and we feel uncomfortable visiting others without bringing a present. The lack of contact leaves one depressed, creates a constant feeling of unhappiness, and a sense of low self-esteem.
Latvia 1998

So we now feel somewhat helpless. It is this feeling of helplessness that is so painful, more painful than poverty itself.
Uganda 1998

So how do the poor describe poverty? Yes, they mention having a lack of material things but they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms. They talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness. When we ignore these vital components of poverty, our good intentions to help the poor will simply fall short.

If you don't have empathy maybe it will be given to you!

So how has unemployment given me empathy for the poor? I have enjoyed a relatively successful high-tech career, always "up and to the right". But I've hit some rocky periods lately, with 2 periods of unemployment during the last 3 years, each around 6 months in length.(I have just found a new job which I will be starting soon, after being laid off from a start-up around 5 months ago.) These periods of unemployment have taught me some very valuable lessons, things that I would never have understand from just reading something in a book. And now as I look at poverty, I realize that God has used these times of unemployment to give me not only understanding, but real empathy in regards to the psychological and social components of poverty.

I have not been forced to live on the streets, and we have kept our home and cars. I in no way mean to minimize the conditions of the poor by comparing them to my own relatively posh existence. But I have encountered darkness during unemployment that is indeed very dark. For example, I noticed that I started to avoid talking to people. I just got sick of saying that I was "looking for work" and explaining how I came to be unemployed. I found it difficult to deepen relationships during this time because I was protecting myself by avoiding conversation. So it doesn't surprise me at all that poor people are isolated and have a hard time engaging with the world around them in productive ways. I pray that I will be more sensitive to this in the future and be more determined and committed to reaching out to the poor, even if they act aloof and unapproachable.

At a deeper level, being unemployed can strip you of dignity and identity. I felt like a failure. I had a hard time answering the question "What do you do?" and often thought about what I was accomplishing (or not) in this life. I tried to stay productive, but at times felt like I just wasn't contributing to the world in any meaningful way. This produces a sort of despair in the core of your being: "I am just a by-product". My faith and relationship with God kept me from the true darkness of despair, because I was continually reminded by Him that I was of tremendous worth, regardless if I received a paycheck or not. But even with this strong and sure grounding, I struggled. What utter darkness for the poor who do not have this assurance of worth! I hope that in the future I can share this good news with somebody who is struggling!

The poor are not "they". The poor are fellow humans who are suffering from a variety of types of brokenness, as we all are. This includes destructive social and psychological factors that tell the poor that they are worthless, inferior, and stuck in despair. If we are honest with ourselves, we can admit our own brokenness, whether in the throes of unemployment, or during other challenges that we face in life, and be more understanding in our interaction with the poor.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Where are the poor?

Where are the poor? Most people would immediately respond "in the city, of course". And yes, when I walk through downtown Portland, I do see quite a few people whom I would label as "poor". On the other hand, when I walk through my neighborhood, or many of the nearby neighborhoods, I just see kids playing, empty front yards, cars in the driveway -- no panhandlers.

But research now indicates that there are more poor in America's suburbs than in the city. Yes, you heard right. Between 2000 and 2008 the suburbs in large metro areas saw the ranks of the poor grow 5x faster than in the city. In 2008, there were nearly 12.5 million poor in the suburbs, compared to 10.9 million in the nation's primary cities.

See the full report here. (PDF). Rob Pitingolo has a nice write-up on this topic at his blog Extraordinary Measures.

This seems to me a "myth buster". When it comes to poverty, what we assume may just not be true. Maybe time for me to open my eyes?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Rethinking Poverty Presentation

I recently had opportunity to pull together a short 15 minute presentation on Rethinking Poverty. To see the talking notes, you can download the actual PowerPoint presentation from SlideShare.

Friday, January 29, 2010

On Being Challenged by Poverty

I’ve been on a personal odyssey of sorts these past few months to better understand poverty and our responses and responsibilities towards it. I don't quite know why, but I do know that poverty is a subject near and dear to God's heart, and so I guess it is a good thing that it is growing near and dear to my heart as well.

I have been involved in helping alleviate poverty in very small ways: through volunteering at a homeless shelter in Hillsboro, Oregon as well as serving food to homeless youth in downtown Portland. And of course my wife and I have also written checks to various charities, as I’m sure most of you have.But I’ve found myself asking questions like these, and maybe you have as well:

“Is my money doing any good?”
“Why are these people homeless?”
“Am I truly helping when I volunteer?"
"Why do I see the same people in line for hand outs over and over again?”
“What is the best way to spend my time and money to help alleviate poverty?”

And maybe the most convicting question for me:

“Do I really care about these people, or am I just helping out to make myself feel better and more fulfilled?”

Who are the poor? One thing I've discovered, is that I am poor in many, many ways. And yet, I am also rich beyond measure.

Where will this journey of being challenged by poverty lead?