When you see poverty weighing people down, do you want to run out and do something immediately? For those of us who answer yes, the Bible has 2,000 verses affirming that desire. Yet before we rush to start programs, there are a few questions to consider.
Is our focus on people or projects?
In trying to help, it is easy to inadvertently turn people into projects.
Yet that defeats the point of helping people. In Walking with the Poor, Bryant Myers writes, “The world tends to view the poor as a group that is helpless; thus we give ourselves permission to play god in the lives of the poor. The poor become nameless, and this invites us to treat them as objects of our compassion, as a thing to which we can do what we believe is best.”1
When addressing poverty, the ultimate goal isn’t feeding hungry people or educating children. It is helping people see themselves through a Genesis 1:27 lens—as people made in God’s image, fully human, fully valuable, and fully capable.
What are our assumptions?
Poverty is complicated. This is true halfway around the world and halfway down the block. It is easy to focus on surface stuff—lack of food, education, or employment—but poverty goes deeper than material lack.
Years ago, the World Bank researched how poor people themselves defined poverty. Their answers revealed a deep sense of shame. A Moldovan woman explained, “We depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of.”²
Others, like a respondent in Jamaica, highlighted lack of freedom: “Poverty is like living in jail, living under bondage, waiting to be free.”
Jesus seemed to understand the deeper layers in announcing, “The Spirit of the Lord . . . has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives . . . to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18-19).
As we drop assumptions about what defines poverty, we can also release those about why people are poor to begin with. Gabriel Salguero, pastor of The Lamb’s Church of the Nazarene in New York City and national poverty advocate, says that when we assume poor people are lazy, we create a “double victimization.”³ He continues, “We should not allow slander of poor people. . . . We are to speak up for the poor. We have a sacred text that speaks to these issues. . . . I don’t recall Jesus condemning a poor person—ever.”
What are the real needs?
You want to help? “Start with conversations,” Salguero suggests. “Talk to the people in your community.”
We have to build relationships to understand people’s needs. Matthew 25:34-39 encourages us to give food to the hungry, for example, but what if the best way to give food isn’t to hand out sacks of it? What if it’s helping others gain job skills so they can buy their own? We won’t know unless we ask.
What’s our motivation?
The greatest temptation in trying to help is doing what makes us feel good rather than what’s best for others. Isaiah 58 cautions against serving our “own interest” (v. 3) while fasting; the same words ring true as we seek to “satisfy the needs of the afflicted” (v. 10).
Jumping into action is easy, but it is wise to make sure the action is right. In Compassion, Henri Nouwen and his co-authors encourage beginning with prayer, which “challenges us to be fully aware of the world in which we live and to present it with all its needs and pains to God. It is this compassionate prayer that calls for compassionate action.”⁴
As we respond to God’s heart for the poor, may we hear and be guided by God’s words.
BETH CLAYTON LUTHYE serves as Communications Manager for Nazarene Compassionate Ministries.
2. Deepa Narayan, with Raj Patel, Kai Schafft, Anne Rademacher, and Sarah Koch-Schulte, Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us? (New York: Published for the World Bank, Oxford University Press, 2000).
3. Beth C. Luthye, Personal interview with Gabriel Salguero, Feb. 22, 2014.
4. Donald P. McNeill, Morrison, Douglas A., and Nouwen, Henri J. M., Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (New York: Image Books, 2005).