A HOMELESS MAN stood on the corner of a busy freeway exit. Leaning on his crutches, with a wheelchair not far behind him, he was holding a flimsy cardboard sign that read “Please help” in black bubble letters. I was stopped long enough to notice him–I was on my way to a dumpling house. As my car inched up the traffic, I was able to see the discoloration of the man’s skin, and more, that he was standing without his left leg.
Moved by the scene, and perhaps by the New Year spirit, people started extending dollar bills from their lowered car windows. The man took the bills from the sedan, then slowly made his way to the blue pick-up truck. As he reached for the money, he extended his arm a little too far and lost his balance. His crutches slid under him and the man came crashing to the ground. The cars sat there, like motor statues, motionless. While he struggled to get himself off from the ground, the light turned green, but the money was still extended from the window. The pick-up wasn’t going anywhere; no one was heartless enough to honk at the car that was offering money to a man with no leg. I just sat there, taking in the awkward and uncomfortable scene before me, uncertain of what to do. In my head, I was a little child screaming, “Please, just make it go away.”
By the time the man got up–after a very long two minutes–and took the money, the light had turned red again. Only three cars had gone. Now, as the second car in traffic, I was sitting front and center to look at the man who didn’t have enough dignity to look anywhere but down. His eyes were staring at something and nothing. I had already decided to help the man, but I was treating my family that day, so I dug past the twenties for loose ones. Careful to avoid a reenactment of the scene, I got out of the car and walked over to hand the bills to him. “Thank you,” he said sheepishly, avoiding eye contact. I know I helped out, but something didn’t feel right. I got back in, closed the door, and stepped on the gas.
I entered the restaurant and saw my joyous family dining at the center table. I sat down to a table set with bowls of noodles and plates full of fried rice and dumplings. The meal was good–great, really–but all I could think about was that man with one leg who fell down reaching for a couple dollars. He must have felt small. And I didn’t feel like I solved anything; I didn’t feel like I did enough. Worse, I didn’t know if there was anything more I could have done.
It was nothing a few dollars or a meal could fix. His was the great problem of poverty. That scene was the representation, the teacher, of all I ever knew and had known about the issue. And there was not a damned thing I could do about it.
All this while I was sipping my cup of tea, downing my last dumpling. My family was rightfully enjoying themselves. I tried hard to hold it together at the table, and somehow I did.
But there was no solace for a soul that was weeping.
THE PROBLEM ISN’T simply that poverty exists. It’s that we see it all around us and yet care to do nothing about it. Or worse, many of us don’t even know how to properly define it.
We tend to judge poverty based on the material. The man on the street doesn’t have food or clothes or money, so he must be poor. In one sense, that is true. However, the man who lends him a dollar or buys him a meal might come from a superior material standing but could be equally poor, if not more so, as the man whom he is serving–in the emotional or spiritual sense. As Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert outline in their book When Helping Hurts, poverty is not merely a material thing:
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 [. . .] Every human being is suffering from a poverty of spiritual intimacy, a poverty of being, a poverty of community, and a poverty of stewardship.
This insight reveals the deeper roots of poverty that seem to reach further than material assets. In essence, poverty includes external riches but is also largely a state of mind or being. Until we understand that poverty is an extension beyond mere dollars and cents, we will only address the symptoms rather than the root and possibly cause more harm than good.
In my case, I had no problem giving the man a couple dollars. But what I could not give him was his dignity, his feeling and sense of self-worth. I couldn’t articulate it then, but my experience was confirmed as I read further in the book:
Research from around the world has found that shame–a ‘poverty of being’–is a major part of the brokenness that low-income people experience in their relationship with themselves. Instead of seeing themselves as being created in the image of God, low-income people often feel they are inferior to others.
Even if I had enough money to sponsor him–food, housing and all–for the rest of his life, as long as he is “receiving” from me, he will always feel like charity. He will be struggling with an inferiority complex, feeling like a second-rate citizen because he does not have a means of supporting and providing for himself. (More than income is lost in unemployment.) I thought I had helped the man, and in a way I did, but I also internalized the very shame my help had elicited.
One of the solutions to be inferred is that any assistance to the material poor needs to help address their relational/societal brokenness as well as their economic woes. To use the old adage, by teaching the poor how to fish instead of fishing for them, you will effectively have given them both a new identity (relational) and their own means of sustenance (material). This concept is nothing new–organizations like Kiva have been doing this for awhile now with their own microfinancing strategy.
The key difference–however, and what I didn’t understand before–lies in the person who lends help. It begins with our understanding of our own spiritual poverty. We have our own issues, our own brokenness that connects us to the rest of humanity–no better, no worse. Our only hope comes from a proper relational restoration with God and others. Until then, we will always be lacking in some sense.
When we acknowledge our own spiritual or emotional poverty–and how easily our own material fortunes can change–we can identify with our communities much better. Thus, when we give money (which is still important, by the way) or help first-hand in another country, we are no longer serving with a god-complex. We are not coming with an attitude of subtle condescension to the poor. We are giving, but as we do we are also proclaiming that we are beggars in desperate need of grace.
OCCUPY WALL STREET has done much to popularize the slogan “We are the 99 percent”. Men and women, young and old, people from all spheres of life are posting stories about their situations. Certainly, there are some serious issues that have been brought to light. Some of it is due to political corruption, some also because of our own financial negligence. This is a problem that is quite entangled with various others (e.g., outsourcing, overpopulation and lack of political structures to keep and expand domestic work opportunities, for starters) and I’m not sure where to start.
But my mind is fixed mainly on the other 3 billion or so people on this planet who are are living on less than $2 a day. People who are worried about things like clean running water and how to provide for their next meal. By God’s grace I have never had to worry about sanitary conditions and where to get my next meal. I’m looking at my room right now and it’s filled with more hats, shoes, and button-up shirts than are necessary. I am the one percent, and if you are reading this in the United States of America, then most likely you are too.
The idea isn’t to make any of us feel guilty or ashamed to be materially rich. Rather, it’s to open our eyes to our own condition–both the many blessings as well as areas of want–and to the condition of those around us in our neighborhoods, cities and beyond. Frankly, I’m not sure the problem of poverty will ever end. After all, Jesus said we will always have the poor with us. But that never stopped him from feeding the hungry, healing the sick, defending the orphans and widows. And neither should it stop us.