A few years ago, early in the morning, I was taking a walk around my American middle class neighborhood and I just began praying for the homes and the doors that I passed. Not thinking anything of it but just praying for blessing over the hearts and minds all who who dwelled within them. At some point in my walking and my meditation, I heard the voice of the Spirit say, “Chris, your neighborhood is destitute”. Now, I live dead middle in middle to upper middle class suburban America, nobody is starving, everyone has access to education and services . . . at first this didn’t make sense. Later, I began to realize, poverty comes in many forms. I was living in an impoverished suburbia.
Who are the poor? What is it exactly that justifies the label of “poor”? How does one quantify poverty? How do you help the poor? Am I impoverished? These are some of the compelling questions I got out of the first half of Bryant L. Myers “Walking with the Poor”. The author gives one of the most comprehensive and holistic treatments of redemptive community development, particularly amongst the poor that I have read. He breaks down in technical terms what he calls “Principles and Practices of Transformational Development.”
The author states that the causes of poverty are spiritual and fundamentally relational. “Poverty is the absence of shalom and all its meaning.” (p. 86) A person that does not know who they are in Christ, who they are in the image and possibility of God, has no hope and remains in impoverished thinking and acting. Their detachments and entanglements perpetuate broken relationships, holism becomes unreachable. “When the poor accept their marred identity and their distorted sense of vocation as normative and immutable, their poverty is complete.” (p. 76) Poverty is a broken frame of mind and identity that affects all behavior fundamentally. Certainly there are cultural and political factors as well of access and systemic evils, but the root of impoverished thinking starts internally before it is acted out externally.
Those of us in the West tend to see the poor through our own lenses of reality (worldview). “We view the poor from a point of view, in terms of our personality, and in terms of the culture from which we come”. (p. 58) “Poverty is in the eye of the beholder. We see what our worldview, education and training allow us to see.” (81) This is our blind-spot according to the author. We walk into a ministry context to help the poor, but we bring our biases. They must be poor and impoverished because they are not like us: they don’t have access to things, education, opportunity, freedom etc. We read into it that they need our kind of help and thus put ourselves in the power seat of being the Savior of their needs. Our story and our blindspot interferes with the story that God may be wanting to write with the poor and leading them to a new kind of freedom in thinking and living. We play God and can put them in dynamics of dependency. Myers states that the “non-poor understand themselves as superior, neccesary and annointed to rule.” That is a dangerous and sinful frame of mind.
The most powerful idea I gleamed from the first part of this book is to see all of humanity as fundamentally broken due to the Fall of man and thus we all share in a kind of spiritual poverty. We are the same, we are family in our impoverished hearts and minds, seeking the shalom of God. The poor and the non poor are lacking, impoverished in different spaces. When our stories come together, it should not be with one over the other, but as a family, at a round table, working out transformational development before and under the throne of God.
So back to the impoverished suburbia. Myers says that within western capitalism, we have lost our way. “ The result is a life full of things and short on meaning. The non-poor simply believe in a different set of lies.” (90) This is my impoverished suburbia, these are the poor I am called to serve and proclaim a different story to. True meaning only comes from seeing yourself rooted in the story of God and His Kingdom.“The poverty of the non-poor is fundamentally relational and caused by sin.
My prayer for our community is that we could look like this: “A church full of life and love, working for the good of the community in which God has placed it, is the proper end of mission. Transformational development that does not work toward such a church is neither sustainable nor Christian.” (39)