I think this is one of the most powerful posts that I’ve published in a long time. I can say that because I didn’t write it. Instead, a reader sent this to me. I asked for and received permission to post it here. Please carefully consider what she says. This is not a theoretical or academic exercise for her. She’s living it. For now, she wishes to remain anonymous. Here is her story:
I was struck by a recent post of yours, asking how the church should respond to the fact that over ten percent of the population in Raleigh lives below the poverty line. (She’s referring to this article.) Whenever I hear this sort of discussion come up, I want to speak up, but because my family is one of those who live “poorer” than most, I fear that my comments will come off somehow as ‘self-seeking’ or of ulterior motive, or just whiny. My family has struggled financially for the past several years, and without going into all the details, I will say it has nothing to do with wasting of money or unwillingness to work. My husband spent ten of the last twelve years working 70 hours a week at three different jobs, to pay our bills, before being laid off 18 months ago. We lost our very small home to foreclosure and now rent a small older house. And we are so grateful for God’s provision. It was a devastating experience, but as in everything, He used it to draw us closer to Him. People talk of living paycheck to paycheck…. we envy those who live that way, as we are usually spending next week’s paycheck three days before it’s here… haha.
We live cheap, and we get by, but any little emergency is a huge stressor trying to figure out how to pay for it. I tell you all this, not to try to make you feel pity.. PLEASE don’t… we are so blessed… but just to say that my opinions on the church and poor come from my experience. And we are hardly the worst case. My youngest boys get angry if i use the word ‘poor’ to describe us, and proceed to point out all the stuff we own. To them, poor people don’t have television sets (even if they are ancient and don’t receive any cable). Perhaps I should say we are poor by comparison to those in America, but rich compared to most of the world.
I went to a Sunday School class for several weeks the subject of which was ‘giving’. I was excited to consider my own responsibility and privilege to give, as well as the church’s as a body. I was so deeply discouraged to see how much time we spent talking about all the reasons not to help the poor… they are living out the consequences of their own poor choices, we might ‘enable’ the receiver to stay in a bad situation, the “not work/don’t eat” verses, and most saddening to me, all the stories of people who themselves had been poorer, but pulled themselves out of it, so others should be able to as well.
When I mentioned a friend of mine, who attends a different church, who has eight children, and feeds them on 60 dollars a week, I was hoping maybe someone would see it as a chance to live out what we’d been studying. Instead, there was a shrugging of shoulders and comments that pancakes for supper weren’t so bad. And they’re not. If you aren’t having them four times a week.
I don’t know what the perfect response is to the poor. But what seems to happen is some combination of this:
1. Assume the poor can’t do simple math and immediately ask to help them with their budgets. Because it’s very fun for a man to have another man peruse his income and expenses and tell him what a bad job he’s done in both.
2. Assume the person or family has committed some error or sin that has left them in their current situation. Because nobody in America is poor unless they are either lazy, foolish, or sinful.
3. Give some Bible verses or other encouragements. God’s Word is powerful, and never a bad thing to hear. But you can’t take it to the grocery store and trade it for a meal.
4. Spend lots of time being vexed over whether giving this person or family money is the ‘best’ use for it. As if God’s whole universal budget will be upset if we accidentally give to a less ‘worthy’ cause.
5. Combine all of the above steps so that the person or family feels as much shame as possible for their ‘sin’ of having less. Spend less. Budget better. Earn more. I call it “Nike Christianity”. Just Do It.
Perhaps an unintended consequence is that it drives people to the welfare agencies the church is often so quick to condemn. The woman taking my food stamp application listened more intently and with less judgement than many Christians had.
You learn fast that people get tired of hearing how broke you are. So when you’re invited out for dinner with a group of people, you make excuses so you don’t have to admit you can’t afford it. You or your children don’t go to retreats and other activities that cost money. You feel uncomfortable on Sunday mornings when you see how worn out your child’s shoes are, and know you can’t get a new pair for awhile. It becomes a slow and subtle path to isolation.
HOWEVER. While all I’ve said above is the usual (of my experience), there have also been instances of amazing grace and Christlike giving that have blown us away. At our darkest, deepest time of need, when we had lost our home and were moving into our current two-bedroom house with five children, a dear Christian sister offered my college age daughter to live with her, rent free. Months later, a group of friends insisted we go out to dinner with them, and before we could make any excuse, they made clear the meal was “on them”. When we hesitated, they made our presence seem so desired, we couldn’t say no. That evening, I saw my husband more relaxed, and truly enjoying himself, than I had in months. Another dear brother gave us a very large sum of cash to help us get through. He and his wife said said they so loved us, and wanted to help, that it was an actual ‘relief’ for them to give to us. That was a while ago. When I recently mentioned the gift to this same friend, he looked confused, and then said, “Oh. I completely forgot about that.” He FORGOT?!?!?! Didn’t hold it over us, or didn’t judge us, didn’t shame us. Just helped, and then forgot about it. But not about us, as they are dear friends.
So if you ask me what makes the difference in the ‘typical’ (my assessment), response, and the responses that made a real difference, I would say it is a difference in how you view “the poor”. Are the poor a “problem”? Are they “potential” converts or church members? Are they a good “project” for the church? Or are they ‘people’? God-created, God-loved, died-for people. Even if some people are in bad financial straights through their own devices, is that reason to refuse them help? If someone develops lung cancer from years of smoking, do we excuse offering compassionate care because they ‘did it to themselves’? I hope not.
I hope this doesn’t come off as a rant of bitterness. In truth, I am awed at God’s provision for us. Not big, not fancy, but way more than I deserve. And I am so thankful. And I think part of the reason Christians in America are so confused in our responses to the poor is because we are so rich. We lack empathy because we just haven’t been there. I wouldn’t know how it felt to be “poor” if I weren’t “poor”.