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Happy Are the Poor

Last November, I went to an upscale grocery store in search of an apple.

By the end of my errand, however, I had submitted to what some would call ‘the lusts of the flesh’ and exited the store not only with an apple, but with two Snickers bars, a bag of Peanut M&M’s, and a bottle of Sprite in hand. These five items, I discovered a day later, cost me $206.37. “Rip-off!” you say? “How?” you ask? Welcome to Zimbabwe.

I had the privilege of spending three months in the southern African nation of Zimbabwe during its poorest time in history. For the last decade, the country has been in a gradual economic decline, sinking into unprecedented poverty. Inflation has reached 231 million percent and bank notes were recently printed in amounts reaching 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars. Such financial conditions were the source of my unfortunate credit card transaction in that Zimbabwean grocery store. The five items that should have totaled no more than six or seven dollars in America were, due to inflation, a great blow to my checking account. 

Consequent to the fiscal issues are disturbing food shortages that have caused mass starvation in the rural areas. These shortages, however, have only intensified due to a government-mandated restriction on all food aid programs in 2008. In fact, current estimates suggest that 70 percent of the country’s population—seven million people—will need food aid in the coming months. The HIV/ AIDS epidemic that already plagued one in four Zimbabwean adults has substantially worsened in the nation’s economic crisis, as medication has become virtually unaffordable. A recent cholera outbreak has taken the lives of more than 3000 citizens, while leaving an additional 65,000 ill. And all of these aforementioned issues that haunt the nation are manifested in a population that records only two in ten of its citizens as officially employed.

While in the former British province, I traveled to nearly every region with not much more than the gospel and a good friend. As we visited various areas, the attitude and demeanor that we most often encountered in church gatherings was frankly bewildering. People without food, finance, crop, or even teeth commonly carried a peculiar sense of hope and blessedness. Though lacking what we in the West may classify as a basic necessity, these Zimbabweans carried themselves in a truly exceptional manner. It is in this witness that we can acknowledge together the truth found in the words of Jesus. Indeed, happy are the poor (Luke 6:20).

As we ministered in different areas, we partnered with indigenous pastors who not only exerted extraordinary energy in order to care for their congregations, but also sought to take advantage of the widespread desperation among their countrymen by launching new evangelism and church planting efforts. One ambitious Zimbabwean pastor whom I ministered alongside planted 80 churches in 2008, hoping to answer the despair of the people with the gospel. Prior to his church planting campaign last year, this particular minister founded an organization that paid the school fees of underprivileged rural children, adopted and ministered to over 150 orphans, provided HIV/ AIDS victims with Christian counseling and encouragement, and cared for the elderly and widowed. Still other pastors employed the strategy of redistributing their congregation’s monthly offering to the church members with the greatest need. Over and over, I witnessed dynamic expressions of community that closely resembled that of the church in the book of Acts—expressions of community that I now covet terribly.

Although I took very few possessions with me to Zimbabwe, I left the country with countless memories that go beyond price. My experiences truly marked and changed me forever. No film, novel, or professor could possibly teach me what I learned in Zimbabwe. In a very direct way, I was exposed to a company of Christians who remained unmoved by circumstances far worse than that of the American Great Depression. I was privileged to glean from the example of fellow lovers of God who trusted in His sovereignty and refused to cower in fear of a corrupt and misleading government. Forever I will reminisce about my friends who refused to submit to the hopelessness that seemed to triumph in the nation and chose instead to turn their eyes to Jesus, whose Kingdom was their blessed hope (Titus 2:14). I will always recall the sweet worship that filled the churches of Zimbabwe– worship so defiant of circumstance that exalted a Provider who, if economic condition was sole proof, seemed to be absent. Deeply seared in my memory are the Zimbabwean women who, with baby fastened to back, responded to paltry rumors that food had arrived at a neighboring village by walking several miles, singing the praises of Jesus every step of the way. Remembering such Zimbabweans will forever provoke me to lean into God more fully.  

These things have brought a poor, uneducated 20-year-old missionary into true affluence and erudition. I have been given a gift that can be neither purchased nor exhausted. I have been given an education that transcends any course offered at a university or seminary. And now, as I experience my own country’s descent into an economic slump, and witness its people fret and worry, I cling to the examples of faith shown to me in Zimbabwe. I strive to assent to the model that my African friends so marvelously put on display as I choose heaven to be the storehouse of my wealth (Matthew 6:19-21). Furthermore, my prayer for the church of America is that God would grant her the grace necessary to trust in Him, regardless of the surrounding economic tremors and particulars.  

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If only we would throw off the insidious materialism found in the pursuit of the all-but-fleeting “American dream” and remember Jesus, who was incomprehensibly rich but, for our sake, chose the deepest poverty. Even nobler than those Zimbabwean Christians who set their sights on God in the midst of economic disaster is the example of the One who gave all for the chance of having you and I. Poverty was His choice. Let us be instructed… Happy are the poor.

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