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.