You know, I've been thinking a lot lately about how so often we use the general sweeping words of "the poor" to describe places like where we work. I have a hard time in knowing how to describe my friends and our ministry. I mean, yeah, we hang out in a neighborhood that is 1 mile squared and home to an estimated 70,000 people living in handmade shacks. Yeah, lots of our friends don't have electricity and running water is shared by a block of people. We spend our time in an area that some people we know won't even drive by without their windows rolled up and their doors locked. We spend our time with kids who have to start learning "this is my body and I can say NO" songs when they are in preschool. And sometimes I hold babies and wonder what their lives will be like - if their parents will live to raise them even into their teens. All of that is true… but here's what I've been thinking… Remember when we were still living in Michigan and telling our story about how God invited us to live a different life than we had been? We always used to say that the different life wasn't about moving to Africa - even before that, we took God up on the invitation to live an intentional life with Him - and then, he invited us to take that same life and live it somewhere else for a while. So much of what we do here is just living a journey with people who are striving for the same things we are - a deeper knowledge and love for God - safety - opportunities to learn their strengths and grow in them- friendship - truth. Sometimes we take the lead because there is a situation we can navigate through with confidence (or at least have enough chutzpah) and sometimes they take the lead because it's a situation they have been given wisdom in. I have a friend who is a very real pastor to me , another who is my spiritual expression partner as we literally paint our hearts onto canvases, another who teaches me every day about what it means to truly live in community - taking care of each other even before your own needs are stockpiled into a safety buffer - I have friends who teach me to worship more freely and with great depth (I know, some of you didn’t' think that was possible) and friends that teach me about honoring God with absolutely every scrap that you have.
A few weeks ago, some guys were over at our house - I have a book I'm reading called "When Helping Hurts" with a subtitle of "How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor… or yourself" It's actually an amazing book... feels like someone is voicing our hearts about ministry in this place. Anyway, one guy picks up this book and starts looking through it. I was immediately embarrassed - what is he thinking? I don't want anyone to think that we are only friends with them because we are here to help the poor - and they are "the poor". I have all these things running through my mind. How do I make this okay? Have I totally offended or humiliated him? How do I affirm something to him that I am not even sure I know how to put into words yet? Anyway, so my friend puts down the book and I don’t get brave enough to say anything - and he doesn't say anything and the moment passes but is still there if you know what I mean. Later in the afternoon, he speaks what has been on his mind since thumbing through the pages . He starts out with "I can really understand that book because when I am trying to help the people who live by me......" ----- My friend, who lives in a tiny shack in wolf-side (the really bad side of Zandspruit) - who often has no food the last week of the month - who can't take advantage of an opportunity he's been given to enroll in a sports ministry program at a local university b/c he was forced to drop out of school and sell vegetables when he was Harrison's age - who can't enter a program to get his high school equivalency because the cost is way more than he can think about (about $150 a month for two years). My friend who will walk 8-10 miles in a hot summer Saturday, up a huge mountain hill so he can do garden work at someone's house for the whole day and get paid $8. This friend - he looks at my book on helping the poor - and he identifies himself with the "helper" not the poor.
And I realize right then what I couldn't quite figure out how to verbalize before. We don’t work with poor people - we work with people who belong to a different culture than we do and that culture is one where they have very little- but a great majority of them aren't "the poor" - they are people with value and vision and talents and direction and God's fingerprints knitted right into their very selves. It's not our ministry to help them achieve economically middle class status. That isn't' what helping the poor means - our ministry here is to walk a journey with someone and together identify our value in the kingdom God is creating here in this earth - in this space. There are many different kinds of poverty - and sometimes, the most obvious of them aren't what makes someone a "poor person".