If you were forced to choose between helping a believer who is starving or an unbeliever who is starving whom would you help? I put this question to one of my classes last semester and I was surprised by the answers I received. A number of students chose to help the unbeliever ahead of the believer reasoning that at least the believer would go to heaven if they starved to death.
Our time here has made me aware that poverty, at least in Zambia, is much more complex than we have been led to believe. In fact, you could say that I’m just learning what poverty is, not to mention what my response to it should be. Used in a discussion about the third world, poverty evokes images of refugee camps full of people displaced by war, drought, and famine. Relief for these souls means handing out bags of food. Used in the context of my place of birth, it evokes images of Brooklyn, NY in the 70s and 80s – bloated welfare rolls, city projects decorated with graffiti, elevators befouled by litter and urine. Relief for these typically means more government programs.
The World Bank defines moderate poverty as living on less than $2 per day. It is important to note that just because people don’t have a western lifestyle does not mean they are living in poverty. Even Paul the apostle wrote “if we have food and clothing with this we should be content” (1 Tim 6:8). True, it is startling to experience a different kind of lifestyle, one that does not have access to lots of power, or easy transportation, but this difference in and of itself does not define poverty. The lack of access to the basic things necessary for life is what defines poverty. To that list many would add lack of access to sanitation, clothing, healthcare, and education.
The implications of this kind of grinding poverty seem straight forward, but let me highlight one consequence that might be new. Poverty can fill a life with despair. Don’t think for a moment that people who are suffering in poverty are not aware of their situation. Husbands know how hard life is and they hate it that they can’t feed their children. Wives know that their babies die because they couldn’t get the necessary medicine. These people do not like it any more than you would. In this context despair comes to steal and destroy. All this to say that poverty extracts a mental, spiritual toll in addition to a physical one. Despair can lead to fatalism, loss of hope, lack of concern for the future, laziness, and neglect. It does not affect everyone the same way of course, but many are crippled by this dark cloud, and despair can afflict Christians and non-Christians alike. There are true believers living in poverty around the world teetering on the brink of hopelessness. This has been an important realization for me.
I think that somewhere in the back of my mind I had not become reconciled to the fact that there are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who do not have access to clean water, or sufficient food, or medicine, or even education. This is important because although I may find it easy to shrug off my obligation to “humanity” I find it difficult to ignore my responsibility to fellow Christians. Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about concern for unbelievers who are impoverished and whom we should help (that is a different blog post). I’m thinking here about Christians who will be with us in heaven but, whom on earth, are impoverished. When I look at the scriptures I find examples of believers helping believers in ways that suggest I have misunderstood my responsibility toward suffering Christians in far away places.
Paul commends the Macedonians to the Corinthians by explaining that they really wanted to give to their fellow Christians in need even though they had great needs themselves. (2 Cor 8). This is confirmed in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he mentions that he is carrying a gift to the church in Jerusalem from the churches in Macedonia and Achaia for “the poor among the saints” (Rom 15:26). Paul commends these Christians to others as examples. The Macedonians were concerned about how their fellow believers in Jerusalem were faring and, understanding that their need was a great, gave money to support them.
I can only surmise from these examples that we too ought to be concerned about poor Christians even if they live very far away from us. In Galatians, Paul instructs the church to do good to all men but “especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). This is an interesting text because it suggests that in the mind of the Apostle there are widening circles of responsibility. Of course, he assumes we should “do good to everyone,” but we ought to have a special affection for those who are followers of Christ.
When I contemplate worldwide poverty it just boggles my mind. It’s too big. I feel there is little I can do. However, when I reckon that there are Christians in poverty suddenly the game changes for me. I believe it’s because I feel a sense of solidarity, albeit distant at first, with a fellow believer in need. Have you ever had the experience of visiting a strange place and meeting a Christian? The bond felt between believers is palpable and this makes a difference when I consider my responsibility to Christians around the world. I am inclined to help people with whom I have a relationship.
I can’t help everyone. I can’t even help all Christians. But a strange thing happens when I develop a relationship with a Christian in need. I want to help them. For example, two weeks ago the vehicle that belongs to Levy Kasoma, Principal of the Samfya Bible School, caught fire and burned. It was a total loss. If I had received an email about this need two years ago I probably would have just deleted it. Now however, because Levy is a friend, I feel a responsibility to help him in a way I did not before. This reality, that a relationship empowers generosity, suggests a few things Christians can do when it comes to discharging their responsibility towards the “poor among the saints”.
First, admit that by virtue of your relationship with Christ you are bonded to these Christians in spirit if not in location. This bond comes with certain responsibilities one of them includes helping fellow believers who are in need. You will be with these people in heaven.
Second, work hard to develop a personal relationship with the people you’d like to help. I find it odd that churches don’t include in their yearly budgets the price of a plane ticket that would send a person from their church to visit the Christians they have decided to help. For a few dollars per member, the church could send an emissary to keep the relationship from going stale and promote solidarity. Surely there are individuals who would be willing to serve this way? By including the price of the ticket in the budget a church sends the signal that they are serious about this relationship.
Third, don’t work exclusively through the missionaries you support. This is not as scandalous as it sounds. Try as much as possible to get to know Christians on the ground. I know missionaries include faces and stories in the reports they give, but this is not a substitute for building a relationship with the people the missionary is serving. If you think it’s not possible, think again. I first met Levy when he came to Dubuque for a conference. He stayed in my home for a few days and our friendship began. Missionaries and a church in New Zealand paid for him to come to the US. I have since been in his home multiple times and our relationship continues to grow. Resist the temptation to offload the relationship side of missions to the missionary and get to know the people on the ground. If you know them you will be inclined to help them when the need arises.