Poverty Up Close

I used to only view poverty from a distance. From that vantage point, I would see the corrugated tin roof on a shelter cobbled together from scavenged scraps of wood and I would think "shack." I would see the stagnant water and think "open sewer smell", "malaria", "cholera" and "typhoid". I would see a mangy dog and think “rabies” and “fleas.” I would see children playing in the dirt amongst litter and mud and think “body odor”, “parasites”, “disease.”

That's severe poverty being viewed from a distance. But severe poverty up close is very different than that. Up close, poverty has a name -- and her name is Theresa. And Theresa has a context. She has a story to tell. She has a history that landed her where she is.

Theresa is the matriarch of three generations living in a home smaller than most of our living rooms. She stands in her front door and graciously accepts the carton of meals I hand her -- meals which I helped pack a few months earlier. She thanks me in Creole and then invites me on a tour around the outside of her house. As I follow her, I don't see the litter. What I see is a rosemary plant, and oregano, and thyme -- herbs she proudly uses to transform what I just gave her into something special and unique. I also see the squash and melon vines spreading down the sunny hillside growing under and beyond the barbed-wire fence that borders her yard. I no longer see her shelter as a shack. Up close, what I see is a home with a garden and a woman filled with pride. What I see is a woman and her extended family doing the best she can to survive with absolutely nothing.

Then as she invites me into her home, I see a board tacked to the wall holding a vase containing freshly-cut flowers. I see a single very pretty dress hung on a nail from a rafter. A dress reserved for gatherings at church. A dress reserved for her community time with the Lord. A dress which, probably, was one of only a handful of treasured possessions she brought with her into the Dominican Republic from Haiti.

poverty up close also has another name, and her name is Bay-yah. Her name is spelled like Bella but is pronounced Bay-yah in Spanish. And she is a stunningly beautiful woman. And her children are beautiful with big smiles and perfect teeth. And as I was turning to leave her home, I noticed a gorgeous lacy fabric tied and tacked up festooning the door frame of her home -- the home of Bella -- the home of the woman whose name means “beautiful” and I am brought to tears.

The Lord spoke directly into my soul in that moment, for I can no longer call what is beautiful in God's eyes anything less.

Later that afternoon, I saw Bay-yah outside her house, washing the siding boards and the landing because they had become a little dirty. As I watched her care for the outside of her home, I glanced over and caught sight of the barrel that collects rain water from the tin roof. And I realized that the rain water becomes cooking water, which when there is any left over becomes washing-dishes water which then becomes washing-body water, and finally washing-home water. Water has a lifespan in these communities -- a lifespan of re-use which is totally foreign to us in
our  world. Having seen this kind of poverty up close has turned my entire worldview outside-in. I don't know how else to describe it. I can no longer watch water running unused down the drain without looking through the image of Bay-yah. I can no longer walk down the cereal aisle at a grocery store without first looking through the image of Theresa. They both are now permanent filters inside of my worldview.

The Spirit of the Lord then leads me to Matthew 25:35:
For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;

We usually view charity as a transaction between a giver and a receiver. In this passage from Matthew, on which end of the transaction is Jesus? He's on the receiving end. Doesn't that feel odd? Doesn't it feel more comfortable to picture Jesus on the giving end? On “our” end of the transaction?

As I have been working through this, it has occurred to me how easy it is for me to have a paternalistic view of charity. It's the attitude that says, “I was born into privilege. I have wealth. You don't. Here! Let me give you some of mine.” It's the attitude that attempts to export my worldview into the third world expecting it to fix their problems. It's the attitude that separates the giver and the receiver into two classes of people, one above the other. And it can be really dangerous when I start to feel like I am placing myself above the world, waiting to descend on those below, so I can be the “blessing” they’ve been waiting for, like it or not. It is dangerous because why?

Because then I am placing myself above Jesus.

As an Incarnational Christian, as one whose body, whose flesh, houses the Holy Spirit, you should be able to look into my eyes, listen to my words, watch my actions, and see the image of Christ; tarnished and dim to be sure, but His image nonetheless. As a Missional Christian that image within me meets Christ's image within Theresa and Bay-yah and we serve each other in love. The charitable trans-action becomes an inter-action and Christ meets us somewhere in the middle.

All I did is hand out a few boxes of meals to some families in need. What they gave me in return has completely transformed the way I interact with the world.

Who received the greater gift?

I leave you with this thought: Two thousand years ago the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Today I see the flesh becoming Word. The incarnation of Christ's love within us is becoming the missional love that we spread through relationships that become sacred because Christ's image is reflected from both ends. I am just starting to “get” this. And I am certain that I will be crunching on this thought for years to come.