Faith, South America, Travel Stories

Looking Poverty in the Eye

       I am on a bus going from someplace to somewhere else. I`m hot and anxious to pass the time and arrive at my destination. As I settle in I look across the aisle and notice as a well dressed businessman takes a seat beside a young woman, essentially forcing her to move so he can place his bag in her spot. She sits next to me. ¨What are you reading?¨ she asks. I stare at the cover of my book, When Helping Hurts- How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting Yourself and Others and tell her it is about how to help the poor. She takes the book and begins to flip through the pages, looking for words that she recognizes, pointing at several English ones that are the same in Spanish. We begin small talk (a fairly unusual occurrence on these bus rides) and eventually she asks me what I do. ¨Soy enfermera¨ I tell her. ¨Aah,¨ she says and points to a place on her neck. ¨Can you tell me what to do about this?¨ I gingerly palpate the place she has pointed to and feel the small lump of concern. I have no idea what to tell her. ¨Have you been to a doctor?¨ I ask. ¨Yes, but they want me to go to Quito for more tests and I can´t afford to go.¨ ¨Ohh, what about your family? Can they help you?¨ She shakes her head. ¨They can barely pay for things like food,¨ she explains. ¨You can help me. You are my Madrina.¨ ¨What is a madrina?¨ I ask. She thinks for a moment, ¨Like Mother,¨ she says as she looks into my eyes.

        All sorts of thoughts start going through my head. I think back to a time in college when I volunteered with our homeless ministry program. We dedicated one cold day in March to spend walking the streets of downtown Chicago. Holding hand-made signs, we stood beside our homeless friends and promised things like solidarity and advocacy. As we stood on the corners of downtown sidewalks next to famous department stores, we asked people  if they wanted to help end homelessness in our city. Time and again I would hear a polite ¨No thank-you,¨ as if I were trying to sell them a product rather than discuss an important social justice issue. I sensed a small taste that day of what dehumanization and desensitization look and feel like. Unfortunately, we have grown accustomed to dealing with poverty and inequality by quickening our pace, averting our eyes and with a polite dismissal, continuing on our way.

         Still, I am reading this book that speaks about the danger of giving hand-outs and doing for people what they can do for themselves. I also know how damaging the reputation of the¨Rich, Paternal, American¨ has been abroad and I don`t want to perpetuate the cycle of dependence and superiority complexes. I want her to see me for more than a rich white girl from the U.S. But clearly this girl needs help.

       We continue talking as I try to think of what to do. After sharing about our families she signals me to lean closer, ¨Will you lend me a dollar?¨ she asks. I feel paralyzed by indecision. I want to do the right thing but I don`t know what it is. I`m hoping the book I hold in my hands will give me an exact blueprint of how to handle these situations but there are no such easy answers to be found, only words of caution and economic formulas. What I need now is a decision. I think about the contents of my wallet and realize I only have a $20. I still have to catch a ferry to the hotel and I have no idea how much that will cost. I gently shake my head no and tell her I`m sorry, but I can`t. I put my hands together in a prayer and offer to pray that she will find the help she needs. She nods her head in agreement and then gets up to leave. This is her stop. We say goodbye and she smiles but I can`t help thinking…what if I was the help she needed? What if I did the wrong thing?

        As I struggle and wrestle with how I should respond to Poverty (because there`s no denying we all have to confront it, even if we do so by simply ignoring the homeless man on the corner as he asks for our loose change while exiting our favorite Starbucks), I keep returning to a passage of scripture in Mosiah 2:29-44. ¨And ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say, ´The man has brought upon himself this misery, therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him my food nor impart unto him of my substance for his punishments are just.´ But, I say unto you, O man whosoever doeth this, hath great cause to repent…for behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same being, even God for all the substance which we have…for all the riches we have of every kind? And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain?¨

        As an American and as a sinner I have become attached to the idea of ownership. That was my $20 to use and spend. I worked hard for it, I earned it, I deserve to hold onto it. Besides, I don`t know how she would have used it. As soon as I gave her that $20 it would have been out of my control how it was spent. Yet, the words above penetrate through any excuse I might pitifully offer for ¨staying my hand.¨ I pray for God to change my earthly worldview so that instead of viewing something as a hand-out I see it as an opportunity to redistribute a loan that I have been given so that another member of Christ´s family can benefit. God is about reconciling relationships, not just with each other, but the relationships we have with our money and our possessions. I believe God has a plan for long-term reconciliation where the lines between rich and poor no longer exist, superior and inferior are erased, and words like powerful and weak become extinct.

       All this being said, I do think some tools are more effective than others in helping alleviate the extreme burden of poverty in this world. While we are called to give freely without expectation, there are other times when we are meant to work in partnership with people to develop healthier, more stable communities and families. Words like sustainable, long-term, investment, collaboration, and community initiative should reflect the kinds of organizations, churches, and governments we support and work with. When Helping Hurts defines poverty as ¨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.¨ It goes on to summarize the alleviation of poverty as, ¨The ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationships with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of Creation.¨ This may take many forms in our lives as we seek to transform the brokenness in ourselves and others. I still do not have any easy answers. I continue to pray for the girl on the bus and for the wisdom to understand how I am being called to be a vessel of reconciliation to a world in Poverty.

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