Poverty and Community

by Jim on 11 October 2008

Poor widow

The poor lady sits by the market, begging.  Is any other option open to her?  How many children is she trying desperately to feed?  Did she have a husband long ago, and where is he now?  How many months – years – has she sat here, day after day, begging from strangers?

I say strangers, because I have a feeling she doesn’t get a lot from people who know who she is.  Apparently, she’s quite wealthy, and owns land all around the city.  Begging is a very lucrative business for her.  Another story of Mexico for you.

I’m very frustrated with poverty, and very frustrated with the money that’s being made, squandered, and stolen in the name of helping the poor.

I’ve heard missionaries talk with that same frustration about the high percentages of aid workers who are only in it for the money, who scoop away the goods meant for the poor.  Goods maybe paid for by someone across the ocean, who actually cares and wants to help.

Though I wouldn’t want to discourage large scale aid efforts, I’m increasingly convinced that a key element in helping the poor is community.

There best help comes when people really know and trust people.  The money goes into the hands of someone you trust, and makes its way to someone who is in a community with the poor person or family, who knows the situation and knows what might help.

Paul wrote to Timothy,"Honour widows who are really widows" (1Tim 5:3).  And how would Timothy know who was really a widow?  Community.  Most of all, the committed church community, but also the larger community.

Not long ago people in our local church built some cabinets and installed them into the houses of some "unsuspecting" families.  These were families in need, who were somehow connected with people in the church.  Creative, fun, and likely to be a real help, and a real demonstration of God’s love.

I tell this story a lot, but at one point researchers in Baja California discovered that the poor in many communities would wear their clothes once and then throw them out.  They stopped doing laundry altogether.  Why?  Because a steady stream of groups came from the USA – well meaning, but ill informed.  These groups brought down clothes in such large quantities that the poor no longer needed to wash their clothes – they’d just wear another donated outfit when one got dirty.

What was missing?  A connection to the community.  If they’d just asked someone, instead of using their eyes and making assumptions, they could have been a much bigger help.

Large scale help efforts can succeed, and small efforts where someone-knows-someone can also succeed.  But I think an important thing to look at is, where does community fit in?  Who really knows and understands the situation?

We need to help the poor, and help more.  But lets do it with wisdom.

A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows,
Is God in His holy habitation.

Psa 68:5

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Johnny Brooks October 11, 2008 at 10:24 am

I agree, community is vital to dealing with poverty. I also feel it is high time short term missionaries partnered with local communities to be able to better assist them in the long run.

Your clothes story sounds all too familiar.

Jim October 11, 2008 at 12:01 pm

Amen! I hope these stories will be a good reminder of that.

Amrita October 15, 2008 at 9:37 pm

Very good post Jim, and the situation is very familiar here. Due to corruption only a fraction of aid gets to the poor both in NGO and Govt. circles.

But in India we have a good community sense so that is good.

The clothes story coundn ‘t have taken place here.

Here also begging is a prfession many times. Some beggars are very rich.

Jim October 15, 2008 at 9:49 pm

I certainly think, Amrita, that the “clothes story” is more likely to take place in Mexico, simply because of the steady stream of the “rich” coming in from the USA. Few other countries have a situation quite like that.

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