There is a heartening development within the mainstream Church of late: people are starting to take what Jesus said about the poor seriously.
Indeed, gone are the days when simply taking up a collection for inner city, rural, or overseas missions would suffice. Instead, Christians of all ages are rolling up their sleeves and getting far more hands-on in matters of poverty. We take mission trips, we volunteer in homeless outreach ministries, some of us even do advocacy work in our spare time. We are involved.
Yet as a new generation of Christians heeds God’s call to serve “the least of these” in our society, let’s stop for a moment and reflect upon our approach to serving with those living in poverty.
To put it quite frankly, some of our perceptions towards the poor are somewhat outdated.
So before we rush in with righteous vigor to help the helpless, so to speak, we would do well to dispense of some archaic lenses through which we view poverty. All parties involved will be better off for it. Here are some ways not to approach those in poverty.
Don’t Let Pity Be Your Motivation
The last thing that poor people need is your pity. Your friendship? Absolutely. Your prayers? Without a doubt. The problem is, when we approach someone with pity and then stay at that level, there is never any mutuality to the relationship. They remain a specimen, a project, if you will.
Look at Christ’s example of the Good Samaritan—his first response for the downtrodden man splayed across the roadway was indeed pity. That’s probably why he stopped in the first place. Yet the next phase of their interaction was far beyond pity. It was intimacy.
The Samaritan cleaned and bandaged his wounds, gave of his time and talents, and invested himself in the wellbeing of his newfound friend. Pity by itself allows us to keep people at arm’s length, never developing the reciprocity and meaningful exchange that characterize a real relationship.
Get Rid of Your Savior Complex
This leads to the next response to poverty, and it’s a complex one. Have you ever noticed that when people speak with children, they tend to change their tone and “talk down”?
We adopt that same tendency when encountering the impoverished of our world. Whether we have stopped to speak with a homeless man on the street, or are conversing with a local in a developing country, we adopt an airy sort of tone that—rather unintentionally, I’d say—sets up something of an intellectual hierarchy. The fancy word for this is paternalism.
When I first started living and working as an intern in the beleaguered but promising city of Camden, New Jersey, some leaders from our ministry held perhaps one of the most candid orientation sessions I’ve ever experienced. One of the directors, a Camden native, stood up and said in no uncertain terms, “You’re not going to change Camden in just two months. No one is going to carry you off on their shoulders at the end of the summer.”
He continued, his tone blunt and honest, “And don’t look at it as you’re ‘bringing God to the city.’ God has been here long before you arrived, and He will be here long after you leave.”
In our passion and energy, we can mistakenly assume something of a “savior complex” when serving with the poor. Note the intentionally-inserted word “with,” which implies that the relationship is not one-directional, but collaborative.
There is only room for one Savior, and His name is Jesus Christ. We are merely His servants.
Don’t Let Fear Hold You Back
I grew up in and around Philadelphia, and am no stranger to perceived “no-go” zones in our cities and in our world. For many, especially Christians, we have ensconced ourselves in the safety of the suburbs to avoid the rampant dangers and violence of—gasp!—the inner city. Many don’t engage with the poor because, quite simply, they fear the poor.
Eleven o’clock news sound bytes such as “fatal shooting” and “robbery at gunpoint” grip the collective mindset and paint those living in poverty with an oppressively broad brush.
I am glad to say that this perception is beginning to die out, albeit slowly. When I tell people I work in Camden, the requisite eyebrow raise and muted response of, “Camden, eh?” is becoming less frequent.
The millennial generation appears to making strides, and the old guard’s fearful ways of engagement is becoming a thing of the past. Though we are risking gentrifying long-term residents out of exponentially priced housing, at least the fence that fear put up is starting to come down, slowly but surely.
Find the Right Approach
There are ways to remedy this situation, to effectively shed the perceptions that we might impose upon the poor.
The good news is that it doesn’t involve a three-point plan, or anything of that sort. It’s something of a heart condition, an internal shift that changes the way we look at ourselves first, and then others.
The best summation of this change of heart might be from Brian Fikkert, author of When Helping Hurts. Sitting in his session at the 2013 Justice Conference, Fikkert asserted with much vigor that serving with the poor is about partnership, about sharing, mutuality and equity.
He said, “It’s about us grabbing each other by the hand and saying, ‘Hey brother, I’m a beggar too!’” Indeed, in this heavenly banquet that Christ has prepared, we have all been given the same invitation, and we will all one day sit side by side in His presence.
We can overcome pervasive pity, condescension and fear when it comes to serving with the poor. It will only happen though when we realize that we all approach the throne equally before God.