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. 


darkness is his covering


“9 He parted the heavens and came down;   dark clouds were under his feet.10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;   he soared on the wings of the wind.11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—   the dark rain clouds of the sky.12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,   with hailstones and bolts of lightning.13 The LORD thundered from heaven;   the voice of the Most High resounded.  Psalm 18:9-13

If you are prone to believe in and listen for the voice of One who is the creator and sustainer of all things, sometimes it is just flat out hard to hear it.  Our preoccupations, our anxieties, our muchness, our manyness, our unbelief, our rebellion. . . we are a people who tend to stray.  And when the darkness comes, when it seems all hope has passed, when it feels as if the walls are closing, when light has left the room of your heart; you perceive that you are alone in that darkness.  Reading this Psalm today raises a new question for me:  What if darkness is his covering?  What if he is cloaked in that dusk?  What if that lonely place is actually the canopy of his  presence?  Often when we least expect it, often when we think all hope is gone, often when we come to the end of our rope . . . we find there is more.  Look to the clouds of your heart, your mind, your soul;  see if there is not a radiant light waiting to break through, see that you were never alone.  Listen for that voice in the thunder, for darkness is often his covering.peace,Marshall

Back to Africa

For a global Christianity that may have lost its way, might a path be to go back to Africa to be informed by our past?  Finding a way forward sometimes can be attained by looking back.  This video of Christians protecting Muslims in North Africa is an example of a vibrant and living African Christianity where ‘loving neighbor’ is not cliche or a bumper sticker, its a dangerous way of life. 

“Africa played a decisive role in the formation of Christian culture.  Decisive intellectual achievements of Christianity were explored and understood first in Africa before they were recognized in Europe, and a millenium before they found their way to North America.”

Thomas Oden in his book “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind” traces the roots of Christianity within the first four to five centuries after Christ to Africa as a ‘seedbed’ of Christianity.  In chapter two, Oden specifically lays out an argument for 7 unique intellectual contributions that originated in Africa to world Christianity.  (p. 42-43) 

He states them as follows:

  1. The birth and influence of European universities was anticipated within African Christianity
  2. Historical and spiritual exegesis of Scripture first matured in Africa
  3. African thinkers shaped the core of early Christian dogma
  4. Early ecumenical decisons followed African conciliar patterns
  5. African monasticism shaped and influenced the spiritual formation of its European counterparts
  6. Neoplatonic philosophy was discerned in Africa first before moving to Europe
  7. Influential literary and dialectic skills were refined in Africa

If Mark was the Bishop to Alexandria and if there is considerable textual evidence for numerous patristic influences within the African continent, why has the West lost sight of or overlooked its primitive influence for all of world Christianity?  Oden suggests there has been either a conscious or subconscious bias of historians intuitively assuming the mental superiority of the global north to the global south.(31)  In addition, where oral tradition is accepted as credible in most other ancient cultures, it is somehow overlooked in Africa, held to a higher standard of only legitimizing written texts.  With the large majority of growth and Christian population in the Global South, this is a prejudice we can no longer afford. 

There are advantages to uncovering the origins of African Christianity not just for its western influence, but also for the African’s own ecclesiastical identity.  Oden states:  “If African Christians are going to entrust theri children to Christianity, they must have confidence that Christianity is trustworth, that Christianity is true and truly African, and not fundamentally alien to the African spirit.  They need not be intimidated by either an exhausted modernity or Wahhabist Islam.  They have survived too many crises to be intimidated.” (105)  There are voices within Islam that have spread the fallacy that Christianity is white man’s faith from the West, imperialistically projected onto the vulnerable people of Africa for the past couple centuries. Africa itself needs to uncover the richness of its own history and faith heritage to understand and root itself in a rich Christian past that is uniquely and powerfully African. 

I believe one of the greatest challenges both presently in the West and most certainly moving forward in the future for Christianity is pluralism.  The loss of Christianity as the dominant worldview for western culture requires church leaders to look for examples of how to approach this challenge.  Having read Oden, I now believe that one of those examples is Africa for its deep history of Christianity amongst Islam and tribal faiths.  Learning the ecumenical traditions and patterns of discourse that are pre-modern may be the key to effectiveness for a postmodern West.  Our way forward may in fact be a way back to Africa.