A Tale of Two Poverties

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:3


In reading Tom Davis’Scared” , I was struck with a collision of two worlds, each with it’s own poverty.  There is Stuart Daniels, the award winning photo-journalist who is living the American dream of the ruggged individualist.  High society, fast deadlines, exciting stories, good wine, fine steaks and invitations to the flavor of the month parties.  He has it all, with the exception that he really has nothing.  At the onset of the story, Stuart has a marriage that has grown distant and cold, a job that has lost its momentum, an increasingly shattered identity having accomplished much without knowing who he really is or why he is here.  Stuart is poor in spirit, confused in his brokenness, trapped to the questions of his heart.  He is surprised at his internal poverty. 

Then there is Adanna, the 12 year old heroine in the story growing up in Swaziland, Africa.  She embodies all that is expected of what poverty is.  She lives days without food and is never sure where the next scrap of sustenance may come from.  At the sudden death of her mother to AIDS she becomes the matriarch to her younger siblings.  She is malnourished, susceptible to all sickness.  Her dwelling is barren and the land is dangerous prone to natural disasters without warning or resources to cope.  She is not safe, has no protection from the animals of evil men who do not see her as a child, but as a body meant for them to consume.  She is the recipient of unspeakable abuse.  Adanna is a survior, she doesn’t stop trying, doesn’t stop hoping, doesn’t stop praying.  Adanna’s poverty is not surprising, it his her only reality. 

I’ve long wondered if it is possible long-term for the spiritual/relational poverty of those in the affluent West to find the meaning they are looking for by reaching to the physical/psychological needs of those in abject poverty.  It seems that both worlds need one another.  However, history has shown us that the relationship between the two can be both complex and even detrimental at times.  The organizations that have long-term impact seem to understand some basic concepts that go far beyond immeidate relief and on to rehabilitation and development.  Organizations have to see their own blind-spots, recognize the difference between self-serving charity and others-centered development.  History shows us through western bias a kind of imperialism and paternailsm where we project onto the native culture the foreign culture and customs of the relief agency without thinking through long-tern effects. 

Recently I have come into contact with many organizations that are thinking through these poverty relationships for results that are mutually beneficial and a blessing to all at the table of help.  Children’s Hope Chest, Back2Back ministries, Self-sustaining enterprises, La Limonada, Kiva and Physicians without borders to name a few.  I have been meeting with business leaders in my suburban community strategizing what these relationships with those in developing countries can look like.  What are the real needs?   What will help them?  How could our help get in the way?  Where are our blind spots?  The needs are there, the resources are available, but what is the best way to attack the development issues in long-tern relationships.? 

One of the books I’ve chosen to add to my research for my project is “When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.  The sub-title to the book is “How to alleviate poverty without hurthing the poor and yourself.”  They contend for an Asset-based community development (ABCD), as opposed to ‘needs’ based.  They seek to start with what the poor have, not focus primarily on what they don’t have.  ABCD has 4 key elements:

  1. Identify and mobilize the capabilities, skills and resources of the individual or community.  See poor people and communities as full of possiblities given to them by God.
  2. As much as possible look for resources and solutions to come from within the individual or community not from the outside. 
  3. Seek to build and rebuild the relationships among the local individuals.  Associations, churches, businesses, schools, government etc.  God intended for the various individuals, institutions and communities to be interconnected and complimentary.  
  4. Only bring in outside resources when the local resources are insufficient to solve pressing needs.  Be careful about bringing in resources that are too much or too early.  Do this in a manner that does not undermine local capaciy or initiative. 

The lies of consumerism keep people in the West in perpetual poverty internally and even at times externally.  When we can free ourselves to bring care and resources to the kind of poverty that Adanna was facing, we can’t rush in with a Savior-complex that doesn’t really help either party past one day of food.  What Adanna needs is long-term development, care, protection, education and opportunity to pursue the solutions to her community’s problems within their own resources.  We all need to seek the position of being poor in spirit.  We need to sit at the round-table of poverty eradication seeking holistic kingdom solutions.  Stuart and Adanna are in need. 


3 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Poverties”

  1. @ChrisMarshall_ #dmingml Indeed, Stuart and Adanna are in need. What they need are long-term relationships which will act as conduits of care and transformation physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The "quick hit" of much aid is insufficient because it does little to address day 2 or 3 or 4 (as you so aptly note). Instead of going long and deep, relief work tends to go broad and wide. I think of the scene in the book where "Helping Hand" packs up the aid they’d brought to press on to the next village.What would it look like for a group of Christians, just an ordinary community of believers (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) to "adopt" an impoverished sister community for the long-term? What might a 25 year commitment to a village look like? How might the flow of capital, ideas, and labor change of the course of that time? What lasting and different impact could that have over the meandering relief caravans?

  2. @ Eddie, absolutely on the long-term relationship piece, Missiology shows us that is the most effective.Here is a mantra I have long held to and our community follows: "If ordinary people can’t get it done using ordinary means, ordinarily it won’t get done." 😉

  3. Chris, your descriptive illustration of the need for something different than the charity we sometimes bestow on others who are in need from our perspective is right on target. One of the essays I read last Fall in relation to this talked about wells that used pumps whose parts were not available on the continent of Africa, buildings built that were not sustainable by the local community, and "day 1" solutions that were not sustainable. The ABCD approach you discuss is so much healthier for everyone involved. For years the Search Institute has promoted an asset based approach to ministry with youth. It reflects our giftedness as God’s creation, believing that all have something to offer to the Body. Appreciative Inquiry which Myers suggests provides a framework for utilizing this approach within a community. The challenge is opening a community to this healthier avenue of development when they have been enculturated into a more classic mindset by past experience. Moving forward in relationship through the ressentiment that is naturally a part of that process will test relationships, no matter how strong. I do, however, believe that sustained, long term relationships are the key. You and Eddie seem to affirm that. I’ve often said that if all of us would find our "corner of the world" to build a sustained relationship instead of chasing the next cool mission trip destination, much more would be accomplished to transform the destitution in all of our lives. Thanks for the reflection on your journey…it could be helpful to many who are seeking to help without hurting.

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