Poverty And The Church

“When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a communist.”
Dom Helder Camara

On his blog, John Smulo was asking why there are so few poor people in most (read suburban middle class) churches, given that the role of the church is clearly to reach out to the poor.

It’s a good question that has elicited some thoughtful responses.

However, I sensed there was a potential here for another round of middle-class-suburban-church-bashing, which despite being a popular sport in the blogosphere, didn’t seem appropriate this time round. Don’t get me wrong, there is lots about this mode of church, especially in its attractional and progamatic avatars, that merits criticism.

However, of the churches I’ve been invovled with across four cities (and countries), they have all, bar one, taken the call to minister to the poor seriously. I’m not just talking about some generic donation to a charity in some far off land. I’m talking about an effort to identify the poor within their midst, to provide housing and shelter to the needy and at risk, to visit the infirm and shut-in, to sacrifce not just money but time and personal comfort.

Of course, it is easy to judge a comfortable looking congregation from the outside, as a visitor or passive observer. But one thing I’ve learnt through the years is to never underestimate how far God has taken people in their journey of faith. Time and again, behind the facade of middle class wealth lies a biography of someone who found faith in the despair of poverty. Back in Sydney, I was constantly surprised how many leaders and stalwarts of safe leafy suburb churches actually begain their journey with God in grinding Depression-era poverty and Inner-City missions. In London, many well educated and liturgically literate church folk had grown up with the limitations and sacrifices of post-war London, long before the fashions of gentrification.

This begs the really hard question – why are the poor, poor? It also begs a further question – if the church doesn its job, will they remain poor?

I’m not talking here about some misguided doctrine of prosperity, but a simpler economic reality. If we take poverty seriously, then we take dismantling it seriously. Addressing poverty means going beyond the handout, the soup kitchen and the extra blanket and journeying with people as they build (or rebuild) their lives.

There are, of course cultural issues that make it hard for poor people to intergrate into middle class suburban churches (actually they make it hard for anyone who is different, ethnicity can be as much of a barrier as class). Brodie McGregor is right to comment on the role literacy can play as a barrier.

Those with poor education do find it a struggle to intergrate in a literate environment. In many ways, the youth ministry driven, popular culture consuming mode of attraction church aggravates that problem. You need money to watch all those movies and listen to all that music to get all those pop references. Often times one needs to look beyond Sunday, to the week to week social networks of a church to see where poor folks are beginning to find community in the church.

It is important not to confuse “could do better” with “not doing anything at all.”

[tags] Poor, Poverty [/tags]

Comments

  1. Steve Lowe says

    Thanks for that last line. Reading through, my hackles were raising and I admit I felt myself getting defensive. I think the topic is much too broad to discuss adequately in this in medium, but I do have a couple of opinions based on personal experience.

    As a bit of background, I’ve been involved with my church and others in homeless outreach, and our church sponsors a couple of inner-city churches where we not only send money and food – we also exchange ideas and help out locally.

    There’s a few things I’ve learned. One, there are people who choose to be there. They do not want to change lifestyle, despite being given every opportunity. I don’t pretend to know why, but I suspect there’s a few main ones. Among them: drug/alcohol addiction; phenomenon of the prospect of change, even for the better, is scarier than clinging to what’s known; a desire to disassociate from mainstream society for a variety of reasons. Two, they ALL appreciate help especially when given with respect and not condescension. Three, the ones who are there through circumstances like unemployment, debt, foreclosure – are usually the ones outside of observation one: they want to get back into mainstream society just need help to do it.

    Most importantly, they’re people and deserve to be treated with decency, respect and compassion – not pity and contempt. And THAT’s where I think the problem is. The suburban Chuch-goer wants to throw money at the problem and thinks that these people desire the ‘american dream’ (Aussie, British, Chilean – is there such a concept?) when he could be way off the mark! Writing the check is fine – but don’t think that’s solving the problem. If there’s people that simply want to exist that way, and I believe there are, we will always have the poor with us. In that context, then, it’s not necessarily a ‘problem’ to ‘solve’, more a ‘situation’ to ‘address’ – namely how to help people exist in their chosen lifestyle, AND help the people who do not want to be there to move on.

    As to integrating folks into the suburban church – I’d love to see more of that, but don’t think it’s going to happen. I suppose I might be viewed as a poor person by someone in the upper class neighborhoods around me, and as a rich person by the homeless guy I was playing guitar for last week. BOTH situations make me uncomfortable. I don’t like going to formal dinners, theater, or churches. That’s not my lifestyle. I’m comfortable in jeans in a t-shirt and the occasional dress up. I’m very uncomfortable in a tux or 3 piece suit. I hate not knowing which fork or spoon to choose, and the one time a waiter put a napkin in my lap – well let’s say I wanted to remove his hand :) . Anyway, my point is perhaps we’re TOO worried about this idea of integration. Certainly it should not be ignored, and we should strive for more unity, not less – but perhaps the fact that people are naturally drawn to those most like themselves is useful and correct, too.

  2. says

    Fernando,

    Here’s where this all breaks down: “the role of the church is clearly to reach out to the poor.” I’m not so sure this is “clear” to most evangelical churches, certainly not in the U.S. Even the ones that have some concern for the poor are focused almost exclusively on “charity,” but what you’re talking about is “justice” (going beyond the hand-out to changing societal structures that maintain economic inequities). The problem with really pursuing justice is the inevitable accusation (as the Dom Camara quote indicates) of being a Communist!

    And to make matters worse, “prosperity gospel” teaching has become much more ingrained in the evangelical church (in the U.S. and especially in third world countries) than any of us would like to admit. This needs to be more firmly critiqued and challenged than it already is because it is so damaging to any attempts at real justice being done.

    I don’t agree with Steve Lowe’s comment that “the fact that people are naturally drawn to those most like themselves is useful and correct, too.” I believe that, as David Bosch describes in “Transforming Mission,” that God’s preferential option is for the poor, and we, as Christians, need to critique our own orientation toward wealth and prosperity (and hanging out with the other 99.9% who are oriented towards wealth as well).

    I thank God that He’s opened my eyes to my position of privilege (as a white male) in society and in the church (not that I can see 100% clearly now, but it’s much clearer than it was in the past). Most American evangelicals are still blind to this and how it affects their views of economy/poverty/justice. I just pray that by God’s Spirit more and more men and women would be confronted by the injustice and inequity that exists in the world — and have the courage and faith to do something radical to change it (not simply “throw money” at it).

    Shalom,
    Steve K.

  3. says

    Steve K – you are probably right, I might well be underestimating how self-evident the mission to the poor really is. Charity is far from the final word and there is, in the broader evangelical church a tendency to see the problem in terms of how big a cheque we need to write.

    Maybe my experience is more atypical than I tend to assume it is.

  4. says

    Fernando, I like your style, bashing middle class churches is easy to do but i agree with you that in my experience a lot of them are doing a lot of things in a lot of different ways to help the poor.

    I think it is important to take an economic reality check, the number of people i know who are on low incomes and can’t think of coming to church on a sunday cos they are working for instance is very high. Not to mention barriers in terms of the cost of attending church, particualarly if they are reliant on public transport.

    In fact i think it is unhelpful to look at the sunday service as a measure of a churches commitment to helping the poor – if people keep banging on about being missional, about social and economic justice then it is not who attends on a sunday but what is said and what action results from the other 6 days of the week this is more important in my mind…

  5. says

    Steve L – I recall feeling challenged to the core by a preacher who said the church should be a “sociological impossibility” bringing together people who would not, otherwise, mix. Whilst there are always practical limitations and barriers to overcome, I don’t like to accept that because things are the way they are, they have to be the way they are.

    That said, I totally agree with you that poverty is, first of all, a thing to be addressed. It’s deeply condescending to see poverty as an econmic equation that can just be served if we give enough money.

    On a very important level, money is not the answer.

  6. says

    Paul – thank you.

    You are spot on to point out the economic issue. It’s worth remembering that in a lot of places now, freetime on Sunday mornings/evenings is a class/leisure issue.

  7. Rev. Dr. M.A. Wimal Perera says

    2008.10.05

    Dear Sir,

    With reference to the joined and complementary Social service of the mother organization.

    Elroy Social Development organization is an association functioning in kurunegala and puttlam district N.E/ Batticalor and N.E/ Ampara doing a great service in the field of education for the children of the internally displaced people and poverty stricken families in the previous year [year 2008] our association has performed the following programmes specially for the poor children.

    01. Issue of uniforms and stationery.
    02. Supply of wheel chairs for the disabled ones.
    03. Supply of houses for the low income earners.
    04. Conduct of tuition and supplementary teaching classes for economically backward children.

    The funds and financial assistance needed for the above programmes we collected from the philanthropists added well wishes. As the funds were in poor condition we could not accomplish most of our preplanned activities. As the demand for such activities are rapidly increasing, your join collaboration with us will become a additional support in earring out our programmes more satstactorily.The quality of genuine work stand significant and in recognizing the services rendered by us the honory titles of J.P. degree and Deshabandu has been cantered on the chairman and secretary of our association and the secretary of our association.
    Further if you are like to get more information of our programme, we are ready to you kind request.
    As the prospects are such we appeal you humbly to join us to continue our social service as partner for the wellbeing of the recipients and astern additional guarantee. We can assure that we are performing our duties in accordance to the Sri Lankan democratic constitution and displaying a deeper transparency.
    We appreciate your service in lending a helping hand in serving humanity.

    About the project of we imaging to reach joining with you.

    We like to inform you and your programme about the below project to we imaging to reach join with your programme and our organization.

    The proposed District of get start the project:-
    ? Puttlam District
    ? Baticalor District
    ? Ampara District

    Puttlam District: –
    This is a dry zone district. It belongs the North West province. This district is in first of ten numbers in poverty of Sri Lanka. The basic problems have in this district. They are poverty, unemployment, problem of drinking water, Public facilities, Roads (Rural), Transport facilities, health, Houses.

    Baticalor Ampara District: –
    These are belonging the East Province. These liberated Ares faced the problem of terrorists. After this war people had many difficulties in this district. They are refuge of children, widow, education, houses, water, unemployment, toilets, health, and roads. Hundred of refugees are in the huts because they haven’t houses till today and there are hundred of refuge children. Baticalor district had faced the Tsunami disaster.

    The basic projects are to reach:-

    We identified that basic projects are to reach in this district.

    1. Building the houses.
    2. Repairing rural roads.
    3. Toilets and public facilities.
    4. Health facilities.
    5. Reforming the refuge children.
    6. The education of children.
    7. Developing the economy.
    8. Managing of disease.

    We inform that above information’s are we identified well known and we can get government permission for that. These necessities should be started as soon as possible. This is a short note and if you want full information we ready to inform you.
    We like to inform you about our basic idea is to get basic necessities for the helpless human and we have not any selfish ideas. We like to continue our necessities under your direction.
    We want your help our children ministry, Welfare ministry, Church planting ministry, helping independent pastor’s welfare ministry. We are working war area and poor area in Sri Lanka. But we haven’t more money. We have large vision in our heart. Our poor Christian people and pastors. Please help us and reply to this letter.

    Thank you,
    Yours truly,

    Deshabandu Rev. Dr.M.A. Wimal Perera (J.P. All Island)
    Secretary,
    Elroy Social Development Sri Lanka
    Senior Pastor,
    Elroy Worship Church

    E-mail : elroysocialdevelopment@yahoo.com
    TP. : +94714160605 ( Chairman- Rev. Dr. Samson Cristy)

Trackbacks

  1. [...] While Bono may be right that “most will agree God is with the poor,” unfortunately our response to that concept—individually and corporately as the Church—has fallen far short of pursuing true justice. I posted a long comment to this effect on Fernando Gros’ blog last night, and I’ll just link to that here if you’re interested in reading more of my thoughts on it. [...]