An innate desire to save can begin with good intentions, but it leaves us shortsighted and vulnerable to burnout. We may even be stripping dignity from those whom we aim to “save.” Our initial reactions are also often unaware of the many dynamics that need to be addressed to minister to the whole person.
It was my first time walking through the shanty-clad streets of the Mathare Valley. A sea of rusted tin roofs lay ahead, scattered with bright hanging over dirt paths. Walking gingerly to avoid trash and excrement, we were invited into a home. Ten people were sleeping in a ten-square-foot room of tin, with expired calendars and advertisements on walls for decoration. Threadbare blankets covered benches, and mattresses doubled as bedding and seating. Sewage-ridden rivers marked the neighbourhood boundaries. This is where the poorest of the poor reside.
Our short-term volunteer team of medical professionals and others came to visit the sick, pray and make house calls, especially those unable to make it to a government hospital. Even with the help, they would wait for days before being seen. Mary was in the second round of treatment for Tuberculosis. As we entered her home, you could smell her sickness and struggle. HIV/AIDS made her more susceptible to the disease that rattled her body. She coughed up blood while we asked how we could pray for her that day. We prayed, she thanked us and I stepped back onto the path outside her shanty.
When I stepped back onto the street, I was mostly unaware of what had barraged my senses just moments before. I was engulfed with emotions and questions. As an American college student studying at a private Christian university, my worldview had been exposed to the plight of the poor. Yet Mary was the first of many that I came to know by name. Only by meeting these people and hearing their stories did the complicated web of their life of poverty begin to reveal itself. In that moment, overwhelmed by the immensity of the millions who lived like Mary, I turned to the Psalms: “Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless. You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror” (Ps.10:12; 17–18).
I turned to prayer on behalf of those that I met that day. Continuing to pour over pages in the next few weeks, I struggled with what to do with the emotional burden I felt in light of the injustice I saw. But what can I do? I asked the question with others who are paralyzed by such horrific suffering and poverty.
The whole person
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). Although these verses are often featured in prayers about personal sin, reading them in the slums of Nairobi brought to light how we might also respond to societal and systemic brokenness: a posture of compassion and humility.
An innate desire to save can begin with good intentions, but it leaves us shortsighted and vulnerable to burnout. We may even be stripping dignity from those whom we aim to “save.” Our initial reactions are also often unaware of the many dynamics that need to be addressed to minister to the whole person. For example, when delivered in isolation, necessary medical treatments such as the ones Mary received that day may not consider her need for hope in other crucial aspects of her life. She desires restored relationships with her community and family, which suffer because of social stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. Even reassurance in eternal hope can obscure the hope that Jesus gives for the present day.
All of these things are part of the web that creates and sustains poverty. In Walking with the Poor, Dr. Bryant Myers explains how they are connected. Poverty is relational, he points out in an earlier chapter, just as we are created to be relational beings. More than simply a lack of material things, poverty is a broken relationship between the self and the community, the environment, others and God. The lack of physical things, which we typically associate with poverty, is a reflection of a broken relationship with the community, which suffers from oppression and what Myers calls “moral poverty.” Inevitably, those in poverty either have no land, or suffer from the results of degredation of the land, revealing a broken relationship with creation. Many of the complexities that come from communities in poverty such as racism, a hunger for power, violence and so on are a reflection of the brokenness of relationships. Brokenness in humanity’s relationship with God is at the core of it all, creating a “marred identity” which results in what he calls a “poverty of being.” Because the systems that create and sustain poverty are multifaceted, our responses must be too. In my own work I began to learn that ministry must use a holistic approach to poverty. This means simultanously addressing each of these broken relationships in their complexity and diversity.
Branches and roots
Community Health Evanglism (CHE) is one strategy that implements participatory learning exercises to work at a grassroots level with communities. The goal is to assist people in identifying their own resources, and to empower them so that they might use these resources to benefit their larger communities and networks. At the beginning of this process, CHE trainers ask the group to idenitfy the biggest problems in their community using the image of a tree. The conversation moves on and it becomes evident that these problems are the branches, and not the roots of the problem. Time is spent discovering what is at the root of the issue, and ultimately what needs to be addressed by the community itself.
While there are no simple solutions to addressing the challenges of extreme poverty, we are challenged and invited to participate in the renewal of creation with both hands open. Holding onto the promises of God to rescue and redeem the brokenness of this world in one hand, we work from a place of humility. Broken, yet hopeful, we are called to be present in and amongst those who suffer.
There is a temptation after years of working with the poor to become jaded and unsympathetic when needs are overwhelming. Such an attempt at holistic ministry does not yield quick results. Yet this initial tender response of compassion to those in suffering is a sacrifice, one that we see modeled in Jesus himself. When we left Mary’s house that day, I was comforted knowing that my visit was not the last. The CHE trainers that I visited with would visit her again. As much as was in their power, they helped her know that she was not forgotten.
Shortly after this experience, the local missionary shared a vision that a friend had experienced in the very same streets I walked. Charles* was delayed as they walked through the community, and appeared around the corner of the entrance to the slum a few minutes later. He was clearly affected by what he witnessed.
“I saw Jesus,” he said, “standing in the street. He was wearing white robes, standing waist deep in the mud.”
This is where God is. In the midst of suffering, Jesus steps in and is present – just as he calls us to be. Addressing the root of the issue, this hopeful presence dignifies poor and rich alike to recognize themselves as beloved.