Friday, 11 November 2011

Poverty Critical Insight

Student Perspective--the following post is from a fall 2011 student.

 The past couple of classes we have started addressing the issue of poverty. In the context of being a student in an undeveloped country I get to see the Western idea of poverty everyday. When I say this I am referring to the idea that “poverty is the lack of material resources and possessions”(Corbett Fikkert, 55).  I have had several cross-cultural experiences the past few years through mission trips, work, and now studying abroad. In every instance I have had contact with the materially poor. In 2006 I had my first trip outside of the United States for a missions trip to Mexico. The key phrase that God gave me that week was “Don’t feel pity for the poor, but rather feel compassion for them.” Five years later that phrase is still working on my heart and the way that I view missions.

The past two summers I have lived and worked on the Navajo Reservation for a mission’s organization. Since I was on staff I had the opportunity to see and hear how different groups saw poverty. The constant from week to week was that they had a skewed vision of what poverty was. They thought that if they painted houses and played with kids for a week then their job was finished and the families they “helped” were now better off. Bryant Myers is quoted in “When Helping Hurts” by saying that, “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of Shalom in all its meanings” (Corbett Fikkert 62). In the two chapters that we’ve read so far this books has done a great job of highlighting the fact that poverty presents itself in many different ways; “social poverty, poverty of community, poverty of being, and poverty of stewardship” (Corbett Fikkert 62-63). 

The groups I met every week were leaving out the core issues that were causing material poverty on the reservation. They didn’t see that over eighty percent of Navajo’s have been affected by alcohol and that eighty percent have also been abused physically, emotionally, and even mentally. Some parents didn’t necessarily want their kids to hear about Jesus at our programs, but dropped them off every day because in their eyes our program was a form of free childcare four days a week. Others in the community know that they can get their houses painted for free so every couple of years they play the system and get a new color for their house. The groups only ever saw what they were doing while they were there, but failed to realize that they may be aiding to the endless cycle of poverty and poor stewardship on the reservation.

How does this relate to my stay in Uganda? I finally get to live with a family that, by my standards back home would have been considered poor. They have no running water, seldom have electricity, and don’t own a car. However, they aren’t poor. In fact, many other Ugandans would even consider them wealthy. Just having milk available to me everyday is a privilege many Ugandans don’t have. In just two months my idea of poverty has already started shifting. In all honesty, I don’t know where my mind will settle on this matter if it ever does settle.

There are so many similarities to what I saw on the Navajo reservation to what I see in Uganda. I see beautiful people who I need to have compassion and love for as brothers and sisters in Christ. It was so encouraging to read a chapter Shane Claiborne’s “Irresistible Revolution” and read this,“I talked to my neighbors and homeless friends about “vow of poverty,” they either laughed or gave me a puzzled stare. “Have you ever been poor?” some asked. I began to see how myopic my vision was, and how narrow my language. It reeked of privilege. So I would suggest we need a third way, neither the prosperity gospel nor the poverty gospel but the gospel of abundance rooted in a theology of enough.” (Claiborne 171-172)

He later goes on to quote Proverbs 30:8-9 where it says, “Remove me far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” This quote by Shane and this passage in Proverbs fits very well with what I’ve seen, felt, and even read in “When Helping Hurts.” In poverty stricken areas like Uganda and Native American Reservations we can easily promote the prosperity gospel or poverty gospel. This is too easy and does not preach the true gospel. I love the title “When Helping Hurts” because that is precisely what I see so often. Too many times I have been asked for money just for being white, both on the reservation and in Africa. It is as if I am a walking prosperity gospel. If I try and change that idea of me and try to live a life of poverty then I will be doing so on my own terms and looked at the same why Shane experienced. We must preach a gospel of contentment through a Lord that provides.
This semester has already changed the way I view those in poverty. In being able to live in a home many westerners would call poor I now have a better perspective on what goes on in the lives of people here. Yes, many struggle to place food on the table, but the images seen on tv back home don’t show how happy these people are with the little they have. They don’t need to live in a house with three bathrooms and own two cars. That is not poverty. Poverty changes from country to country, household to household, and person to person. When listening to the Anglican Bishop of Luweero this weekend I took away a quote that I will remember for years to come, “Westerners have watches, but don’t have the time. Well, we Ugandans don’t have watches but we do have the time.” In a world of appointments and schedules I need to remember this quote and live it out. The end of poverty, of any type, starts with building relationships and allowing the people you are trying to help to become more than just a face. I may not know how to end all poverty, but reaching in my wallet won’t do anything. Instead I need to reach out my hand and say, “Hi, my name is Daniel.”

Daniel Ensign (Fall 2011)

Works Cited

Claiborne, Shane. “An Irresistible Revolution.” Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

Corbett, Steve &Brian Fikkert. “When Helping Hurts.” Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009. 

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