What do you think of when you hear the word poverty?
I think maybe the most common mental image is children walking barefoot through slums in India. Maybe it's a single mom living in a tiny run-down apartment with with a bunch of hungry kids in Chicago. Maybe it's the homeless man "camping" down the street from you in the park your children like to play in during the day.
Here's the issue though. Poverty surrounds us. I look up and see poverty every day, in so many ways. So do you. Many of people choose to ignore it, but not you. You allow the images seep into your mind and maybe even stimulate that supramarginal gyrus, the part of your brain that allows you to have empathy.
But then you are struck by the enormity of the problem. You pray, you distract yourself and say "poverty will always be with us" so what's the point?
But that still bothers you though, right? And we have enough poverty in our own country to worry about, let's help them before the other billions living in abject poverty globally.
The problem is even deeper though. The problem is that we are hopeless. We see American poverty and global poverty as two different issues.
My wife volunteers for an organization that sends boxes of care items to impoverished children worldwide every Christmas season that also open up doors for sharing the gospel in these regions. She annually polls churches in our region for how many of these shoe-boxes they would like to fill and have distributed. There is one church in particular that has turned her down every year. When this opportunity is brought to their attention she has received some interesting responses.
Once she was describing the program to a secretary a few years ago and the secretary said that they don't focus on global issues. They try to only help those right here in this little town. Amazingly, the church ended up packing and sending shoe-boxes anyway.
This year, she brought the issue up again and asked if they'd be donating and they again declined stating that they are making "care packages" of some sort of local children in foster care. This is a commendable thing, caring for the kids separated from their biological moms and dads for a variety of reasons, leading them to feel I'm sure quite forgotten, lonely and without love.
My challenge to this church, and to you is this: This is not an "either-or" situation. We don't need to either be local community-minded or globally-minded. We need to be both. We need to care about the poverty in the streets of Stockton, Modesto, Turlock, Manteca, Riverbank and Oakdale as much as the poverty in the streets of Jakarta, Kathmandu, Tegucigalpa, Aleppo, Mumbai, and Port-Au-Prince.
Here, we have hospitals, social services, aid organizations, police to protect them, churches that see those struck by poverty as individuals, not a problem of numbers and statistics. "Over there", aid agencies are financially strapped and governments are increasingly cracking down on outside influence and access to the impoverished. Hospitals are under-staffed, under-funded, few and far-between. Churches, if they exist in the area, are usually small and as poor as the region they reside in. Police notoriously stay out of international slums, allowing for exploitation, forced labor, human trafficking and violent crimes to go unpunished and unchallenged.
Their problem is our problem. As long as we do nothing to stop it, give it no passing thought, no prayer, no part of ourselves to the solution, we are allowing this to go on. Not just in Mumbai, but here, at home. Their exploitation is our exploitation. Their pain is our pain. Their suffering is our suffering. We were never given the liberty to ignore the plight of the poor and the lost.
But what can we do, right?
Here's a quick suggestion, because this is not an easy transition to make from thinking in a sort of a "them" and "us" dichotomy to thinking "they are us" globally, just start by praying.
Like me, you may need to repent for not caring, for ignoring, or for being too wrapped up in providing comfort for yourself to feel the empathy (that our bodies were designed to actually be able to feel for a reason). Ask God to break your heart. No, seriously. Ask God to break your heart for the poor and the lost. Look for Jesus in your interactions with others as you talk about poverty. Listen for apathy in your life and pray for it to be replaced with a sense of purposeful empathy to be His image-bearing, heaven-revealing Jesus-follower right here on earth... the whole earth.