In my own attempt to deal with poverty in a Christlike way, the most profound lesson I've learned is also the most obvious: Poor people are people. Those who live and die in want of basic needs are just as smart, beautiful, creative, motivated, holy, and wise as you and I. They are also just as dumb, ugly, dull, lazy, sinful, and foolish as you and I. Living in Nicaragua, Mexico, and more recently Kenya alongside people in poverty, I've seen how our inability to identify with people across the wealth divide can subvert our good intentions in missions, hurting the people we're trying to love.
Examining our blindness to the humanity and volition of poor people would reveal a deeper issue underlying poverty: broken fellowship. We show our alienation from God by toxic relationships with each other, inequality, and poverty on a local and global scale. Fellowship among believers is at the heart of God's vision of redemption, alongside his desire for us to have individual relationships with him.
Maintaining healthy relationships across the wealth divide, however, is not easy. Lack of awareness of the enormous power differential between the "servants" and the "served" has led countless well-meaning mission groups to disempower poor communities. People who are treated as helpless come to hold a lesser view of themselves. People who believe they are "blessed to be a blessing" and in no need themselves come to a lesser view of the people they serve. These victim and savior complexes create a co-dependency that perpetuates the problems of poverty and far outweighs any temporary relief such missions provide.
I've seen this all over the world; poor people who understand that getting help requires appearing helpless, and rich people who unwittingly advance the helplessness of those they serve by seeing them as objects of charity, not equals.
"Watching the coverage of celebrities visiting Darfur one would never guess that of the 14,000 aid workers in Darfur, nearly 13,000 are Sudanese," Zine Magubane wrote last month in the Chicago Tribune. The Boston College sociologist described Vanity Fair's first Africa issuewhich features American celebrities on its 21 covers"an extravaganza of generous glitterati and anguished Africans" where "the Africans in question become, essentially, a colorful backdrop; their only function is to look miserable, as the intensity of their suffering bears a direct correlation to their utility in helping a celebrity build his or her brand." Our brand is Christianity, but it is promoted by love, not disparity.
As poverty becomes a frontline discussion in the American church and evangelicals step up their efforts to care for people living in poverty, we need to consider what role we take in ministries to the poor. Rick Warren in particular is calling thousands of ordinary Americans to respond to Jesus' concern for the poor in a respectful way. In our broken world, the love of Jesus calls us to mutually transformational missions that are educational to rich learners and empowering to poor teachers.
I've seen hints of a healing approach here and there, but never more vividly than in a little Nicaraguan village called Santa Rosa. Two friends of mine who work for an American nonprofit called Bridges to Communityone a young American woman, the other a young Nicaraguan womanspent several months in Santa Rosa working in the fields, cooking and eating, talking and listening, and generally making friends with the people there. Having built a foundation of friendship and trust, they called a meeting and asked the community, "Would you be interested in working with groups of young Americans, and if so, what would you like to do with them?"
Months of community meetings and conversations ensued, leading to the formation of a local organization called (in translation) "From Here to There." This organization defined an agenda for the development of their community, and they began hosting groups of Americans a few times a year. The community takes great pride in sharing their culture and way of life with these groups, teaching them how to work the fields and speak the language, and they've achieved a number of their development goals.
This project works because villagers in Santa Rosa are defining the terms of engagement, and each of the American groups spends several months beforehand studying and reflecting on Nicaraguan history, politics, economics, religion, land, and culture. These young Americans enter Santa Rosa on vastly more humble footing than most short-term groups; their agenda has been designed by the community, and they know something about their hosts' rich culture and complex history. Likewise, the community of Santa Rosa is better able to receive Americans than most communities; they have identified their problems and designed appropriate solutions, and they consider themselves teachers and guides.
The results of this mutually transformational approach are manifold. The people of Santa Rosa have all the pride and none of the helplessness of my friends in other communities, and the Americans are more deeply and humbly transformed than most mission trip participants.
I hope to add momentum to the change I see in the American church today to heal our broken world by loving our brothers and sisters, rich and poor alike, across the globe.
Joel Wickre serves on the board of Blood:Water Mission and studies medicine and public health at the University of California Berkeley. He and his wife, Cathy, currently live in a rural village in Kenya, where they're assisting the community to open a health clinic.
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