Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Responding to Poverty

Many years ago, when I was still in high school, I had the opportunity to travel to Haiti with a group from my church. It was my first encounter with extreme poverty and it profoundly impacted the course of my life. In my present line of work I often encounter poor people as well. On a recent trip we passed through many remote villages where people live much as their ancestors probably lived 100 years ago or more. Driving through one such village I saw two young girls squatting by the side of the road. Their clothes and faces were dirty and my heart was moved with compassion for them. I try to imagine what it must be like for them. Do they have any hope for the future? Do they have any hope for eternity? How I would love to take them under my wing and offer them a better life.

At moments like these I return to one of the issues I have wrestled with throughout my life. What can one person do in the face of such conditions? What can I do? I cannot lift everyone in this country out of poverty. I cannot even deliver the fundamental message of hope to all of them. At times the immensity of the need overwhelms me and I am tempted to throw up my hands in despair.

Even if I had the resources, would it be truly beneficial for me to just give to everyone I see who is in need? Or by doing so am I perpetuating their poverty and instilling an attitude of dependency? In talking with a good friend about this recently, she mentioned a woman she knows who, despite being a believer, has developed this type of attitude. She expects that others will give her whatever she lacks and regularly makes requests for things. Surely this is not a healthy situation. At the same time I don't think we can just turn our backs. Scripture makes it quite clear that merely offering words of comfort counts for nothing. As James wrote:

"Suppose you see a brother or sister who needs food or clothing, and you say, 'Well, good-bye and God bless you; stay warm and eat well'--but then you don't give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?"

And through the prophet Isaiah God said:

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter--
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?"

I want to take these words seriously, but I am overwhelmed by the immensity of the task. I could give away everything I have and still not begin to reduce the need around me. So what does God ask of me? I am learning to seek his voice every time a situation for giving presents itself. I am trying to walk in the Spirit, seeking to give freely as he leads but not feeling like I must meet every need around me. But I do want to learn to give more and more freely, not trying to determine from my own perspective whether the recipient is "worthy" or not, but simply to listen to the direction of the Spirit. Even after all these years I feel I still have so much to learn in this area. I don't think there is a simple answer or a convenient set of guidelines that one can refer to. But maybe this is part of what I am supposed to gain in the process--to learn to walk step by step with God and let him direct my actions.

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