Arguing With Myself, Or What To Do About The Poor

I was out of town and away from my computer for 4 days this weekend, on the Oregon coast trying to surf (terrible waves and even worse weather!) Therefore it’s been awful quiet around here, I hope you can forgive a guy for taking a vacation.

Here in Central Oregon it’s below zero (Fahrenheit) tonight. The air is crisp, because there is no life in it. When the temperate drops like this, I intentionally go for late night walks, just to feel how cold it is. On nights like this I think of the homeless people here, possibly fighting to stay alive as they sleep in the woods on top of snow.

Despite the fact it can snow anytime from October through May, and in years past has actually snowed on the 4th of July parade, thousands of homeless people reside here (approximately 3,000, but its hard to know). It’s the sunniest place in Oregon, a stark contrast to the rainy temperate rainforest of the valley where 75% of the state population lives, and I suppose this is why so many homeless people come here. Nonetheless its a wretched place to be homeless.

I’ve worked in homeless shelters for a few years (which progressed into my current work as a drug and alcohol counselor), and at one time you could say I was one of “those” Christians, the ones Glenn Beck thinks has been deceived. But I’ve since lost some zeal, and I’ve lost some compassion. I admittedly judge beggars, the people who hold up signs all over town requesting spare change so they can eat, precisely because I know just how many services there are in town that will give them food no questions asked.

I think there always will be poverty and homelessness. Even though Christianity has had two millennium to fix it, we haven’t. Despite our immense collective wealth as Christians, especially in America, poverty is still here and quite strong. I used to think Christians simply needed to support the non-profits working to fight poverty, and if enough Christians did the problem would be gone. But throwing money at problems never works.

I don’t think Jesus ever told us to cure poverty. He did, however, tell us to love the poor. This is a big difference. I think lots of organizations try to cure poverty while never loving the poor. If there is one thing fundamentalism has taught me, its that institutions are no substitute for people. Institutions aren’t very good at loving in meaningful and tangible ways, not like people are.

Unfortunately I think if we could ask Jesus today what we do about the homeless, he’d simply say “take them in.” And he wouldn’t mean into our programs and organizations. He’d mean our individual, personal homes. I’m not there yet. In my Utopian view of the early church I imagine the first Christians bringing in the homeless to their dwellings, but I don’t see me bringing in a scruffy man in dirty clothes to our couch.

What does a guy like me do, who’s got a wife and an infant daughter and two jobs? I like the idea of hanging out with the poor, and I’ve done plenty of it, but these days I’m a bit occupied. I’m asking you – this is not a post with a moral or a message, but a “how the heck do we respond?” I’ve lost faith in institutions and programs, and I think Jesus was more in favor of a personal touch rather than addressing the problem with well designed organizations.

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17 Responses to Arguing With Myself, Or What To Do About The Poor

  1. JamesBrett says:

    “I think there always will be poverty and homelessness. ”

    that bet’s pretty safe — since Jesus said the same on several occasions (or on one — and it got repeated in the gospels several times). and he may have gotten if from deuteronomy 15:11. though verse 4 of that same chapter says there shouldn’t have been any poor among the israelites — because if they only obeyed God and were generous with one another, he would bless them generously.

    what i’m about to say is likely to be misunderstood by some. but it is clear in scripture that christians are first and foremost responsible for taking care of the poor within the church — not those outside. i’m not saying we have no responsibility to the needy outside our congregations, but i believe there is purpose in God’s plan for us to take care of one another. part of that purpose has to do with demonstrating to the rest of the world what it means to be a part of the kingdom — that we share with one another, taking care of each other’s physical needs. the church should be attractive to those outside in this way. [i know it sounds like a cheap plan to convince others (ie trick them) to accept Christ — but i assure you it won’t be a cheap plan. a plan perhaps, but it will cost us much.]

    and i’m not against helping the poor who are not christians; i believe the bible teaches we should do so. but it should in no way be our first priority in giving. i think the modern church has really screwed this up, though, because it’s a lot sexier to send money to people in haiti than it is to help the single mom in our congregation who has trouble paying her family’s electric bills. it makes us feel better to buy mosquito nets for people in african villages than it does to pay for the funeral of the mother of the lady who sits on our pew each sunday. i think we’re selfish with our giving in that we contribute to that which is exotic or gives us a sense of purpose or reward. and that doesn’t seem to be God’s plan for giving.

    i think his plan would be something more like this (or close to it): first to our families, second to those in our churches, third to those in our immediate communities (and nearby churches?), and then to those not in our faith community or geographic space community. we like to just pick one of these, and whichever one is the “coolest” opportunity or gets us the best free album by a christian artist (best being relative, of course).

    • David says:

      Agreed – first the poor in church. That was a given in my comment, but well worth mentioning. Thanks.

    • it is indeed a good witness for others to see us taking care of another, but I could also see it being an incredible witness for us to give to people we have no common bond with, or people who aren’t just like us. At least you’re giving, at least.

      You are dead-on that we love to give to sexy causes, but at the same time people in third world countries are considerably poor-er than most people among us. But poor is poor, and if someone can’t pay bills then something needs to happen.

      • JamesBrett says:

        but those people in third world countries are a different kind of poor. for instance, a lack of money is likely no more keeping many of them from medical treatment than it is those who live in the poorest neighborhoods in our towns. poor is relative to those around you, and what needs you have. if you have a thatch-roof house, you want to buy a tin roof — but both keep the rain out just fine.

        also, i think if christians always gave to those who were in their own communities, we’d have much more appropriate levels and forms of giving. part of the problem with these big sexy giving projects is that americans have no clue what they should be giving toward in rural tanzania. nor do they understand how a gift of money is received or what that means. but they do understand that in their hometowns — and could give there with greater wisdom.

      • @James I like the idea of using helping each other locally, and you’re right we can give more wisely. It reminded me of that book Revolution in World Missions where it argued for Africans being missionaries in Africa, rather than Americans. But then I realized this could offend you. Hope it doesn’t, its not meant to!

      • JamesBrett says:

        it doesn’t offend me at all, charlie. i think of myself more as a development worker than “missionary.” i do agriculture development, and all the disciple-making i’m involved in is just because that’s what christians do, wherever they live.

        our approach to disciple-making, actually, has the africans being the missionaries anyway (for the most part). i mentor a non-christian on how to facilitate a bible study, and he leads the bible study with his family and nearby neighbors, etc. i have no leadership role within those meetings. the group of non-christians read the bible together and interpret it for themselves.

        this is mostly in response to what i see as the two largest problems in missions: 1) we don’t trust God to do his job. he says he will draw men to him and that he will teach them. the Holy Spirit will guide people to the truth, and bring transformation. but we want to take all of those jobs as our own. 2) because we don’t trust God to do his “part,” we come up with these really detailed and elaborate schemes for making disciples, planting churches, and maturing leadership, etc. not only are these methods surely not as effective as the Holy Spirit’s work, but they’re a) nearly impossible to hand over to locals in short time, b) incredibly slow to reproduce, making multiplication difficult, and c) filled with our own cultural ideas and traditions of man.

        so i fully support movements in which the africans, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are the missionaries in africa. though i do think of myself as a mentor to some of those individuals in that process.

      • I love that my readers (aka you and David) have such different and fascinating perspectives that are totally new to me. It shouldn’t be – as you are in essence saying “let God do his thing” and “stop complicating it,” but I was raised with a restless-ness in relation to simplicity.

  2. David says:

    We are not going to fix poverty even if we redistribute all the wealth in the world. I think that you have answered your own questions. Love them and take them in.

    The problem is that we are going to have is that when we take from the rich and give to the poor, some folks lose the incentive to make and/or have more. I am not saying that it is right, but it is a fact. If there is no reward for working, then people will not want to work.

    Preaching the Gospel in love and backing it up with works is the only way to change the world.

    Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” It’s interesting that he foresaw that fact that there is no cure for it except for good character, and the love of believers – the acceptance of the full-gospel.

    Proverbs 14:23 All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.

    1 Timothy 5:8 But if any man does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

    Focus on what you can do, and don’t worry about everybody else.

    One question, how could you go surfing when there are starving people right in your midst? See, it’s common to not want to share it all. 😉

    • even worse David – I spent all that money to travel to the coast, for lodging, and barely caught any waves. Therefore I’ll be back to spend even more and continue in my selfish descent. 🙂

      I think I’ve changed my views on the welfare system, which is startling since I worked in homeless shelters for so long. Sometimes we need to hit the bottom in order to come back up. It just sucks to hit that bottom (and its easy for me to say, as I’ve never even come close to hitting it)

      Dude you must be a wordpress genius, I didn’t know you could italicize and write bold in comments. Well done.

      • David says:

        It’s a tough call, Charlie. I have hit bottom and lived in a welfare motel for short while. I also worked in a de-tox where most of the residents addresses were the de-tox. I got out because I was loved, not because folks gave me money. Welfare CANNOT be a way of life; it needs to be a bridge.

        Programs are rarely God, I’ll agree with James on that.

        Changing culture comes from loving and serving others, not from imposing religious of social systems. I believe that mankind will adopt anything that makes their life easier – and if Jesus is part of the formula, it works well. IE: James’s agricultural techniques coupled with a sincere heart to see God at work.

        I keep thinking that God only has one will, maybe we should ask Him what that is, instead of trying to figure it out in our head.

        The formatting is easy; they are in gray under the comment box. is bold and is italic…. but I will send you my wife’s email and you can tell her that I am a genius. 🙂

      • David says:

        Well that HTML tags broke in my example, but they are enclose in a less than and a greater than symbol b = bold and i = italic.

    • I definitely agree that we will take whatever path is easiest – its human nature. We do like shortcuts, though I personally have taken plenty of shortcuts (literally, on trails and roads) and they are often not any quicker.

  3. JamesBrett says:

    this is really long, so i apologize. and even more i should apologize because it wasn’t written specifically for this page. but i wrote it last night in a comment on someone else’s blog — and i think it makes some sense here (in light of my comment on how we may give in other cultures inappropriately without knowing):

    i live in tanzania, and most everyone in our small, rural town buys their clothes at the used clothing market (me included). the clothes there are cheap, and there’s a decent selection if you go back every couple of weeks. but these small gifts from the states have affected at least the following changes in our community:

    1) the people who make clothes for a living (or used to) can no longer compete with the really cheap clothes coming from the states. so their businesses, perhaps passed down through families, are now going under. so nearly everyone in the clothing industry is now without a job, and their families not cared for.

    2) but a new industry has come: selling clothes for a profit that were donated by americans. somewhere along the way, these clothes (many of them sold by goodwill and similar groups) have been put in huge bundles that are sold to people who want to sell them again. so a “wholesaler” buys some of these bundles on the coast in a bigger city and brings them back to our small town. he then opens them up on an auction platform of sorts and sells them to the local clothes-sellers in big stacks. so they buy them (the third or fourth time now these clothes have been bought), and take them to their little outdoor market areas to sell, where the people of our town can buy the clothes. so lots of people are making money off these used clothes that (most of them) were donated to charity. [i have no problem with business. i think one of the best ways for development to succeed is by showing people how to make money doing so. but all the seamstresses in town are not the ones making this cash — the makers of clothes are without jobs while the guys who used to sell their goods are now selling these donated ones.]

    3) we’re unknowingly importing our culture to the small and rural towns of tanzania. it’s not intentional, but we’re forcing them to accept a lot of our (fallen) culture by limiting the clothes they can afford to wear. and i’m not talking about giving them poor or out-of-style fashion. but we’re selling girls and young women shorter and shorter skirts and more and more pants and jeans — things which are not traditionally acceptable here. it’s not that these items of clothing are inherently bad; it’s just that we’ve taken away the opportunity for these cultures and people to determine for themselves which clothes would be appropriate in their own society.

    and this is all done because we wanted to donate clothes to help people. i don’t know that i have a real point, other than to say this is all so much more complicated than most of us think.

  4. Chris says:

    Here’s a quote from an interview with Tim Keller and how he views the justice issue and how it plays out at his church.

    “I believe that making disciples and doing justice relate (not exactly) but somewhat in the same way that faith and works relate to one another. We would say that faith alone is the basis for salvation, and yet true faith will always result in good works. We must not “load in” works as if they are an equal with faith as a salvation-base, but neither can we “detach” works and say that they are optional for a believer. Similarly, I would say that the first thing I need to tell people when they come to church is “believe in Jesus,” not “do justice.” Why? Because first, believing in Jesus meets a more radical need and second, because if they don’t believe in Jesus they won’t have that gospel-motivation to do justice that I talk about in the book. So there’s a priority there. On the other hand, for a church to not constantly disciple its people to “do justice” would be utterly wrong, because it is an important part of God’s will. I’m calling for an ‘asymmetrical balance’ here. It seems to me that some churches try to “load in” doing justice as if it is equally important as believing in Jesus, but others, in fear of falling into the social gospel, do not preach or disciple their people to do justice at all. Both are wrong. A Biblical church should be highly evangelistic yet known for its commitment to the poor of the city.”

    I think he has a well-balanced, biblical view of this subject. I like his comment that there is a priority, Jesus first then justice, because this meets a more radical need. You change society by changing individuals. To try and change individuals by changing society is to do it the wrong way. History demonstrates the bankruptness of getting this order wrong. I think we are compelled through scripture to help those that are poor and on the margins. How best to do it will always be an ongoing struggle. There may be unintended consequences as James pointed out. But I think our task is to help as best we can, in good faith, trying hard to avoid the pitfalls and and then leaving judgement of the abusers of the system to God. At that point they become responsible for their own decisions.

    • fantastic quote – I really appreciated that it and it helped alot. I’m still fuzzy on the how-to’s, but maybe there really isn’t a correct answer.

      You make a good point about how we try to change the entire culture (thru politics, etc) hoping it will change individuals – even though it is so obviously backwards. I may have just found a future post!

  5. Pingback: Rethinking How We Treat The Poor, Or Power Differentials Are Only Fun When You’re Up | Charlie's Church of Christ

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