Friday, December 19, 2008

The Problem with Poverty

This sounds like a terrible thing to say, but its true. Poverty makes me tired.

Not my poverty of course, because truthfully, I’m not poor. At least, not by the world’s standards. At least not in the sense that I’ve missed a meal due to a lack of money or had to wash my clothes in a muddy river, or had to walk miles to get water because of not having indoor plumbing. Not poor anyway in the sense of living in a house made of mud with no electricity and no more hope than the dim bit of sunlight that illuminates the holes in the roof. No, my brand of poverty entails little more than settling for a refurbished MacBook instead of a brand new one and watching for the sales at Penny’s.

Oh, the horror.

At times (not always though, because we tend to live in a world quite removed from this reality in Zambia), but at times our world and that world, the world of poverty, intersect. Or rather, they collide because the two really can’t just cross one another’s path and continue on as if nothing happened. No. They meet and the result is a sprawling wreckage of shattered ideals and lofty perspectives.

Recently a pastor came to visit us whose shoes were so worn out that he could only afford to wear them on Sunday, and then only by putting cardboard in the bottoms to fill in where the soles had worn through. He told us how his wife was no longer able to work at the market because she had just had a baby. Now his family hardly had enough food to eat. He asked us for a loan so he could set up a small stand and sell a few things, some soap and other common household items, in his community in order to earn a few extra kwacha to help make ends meet.

Today one of our workers came to us and asked if we could help him repair the toilet in the house he is renting. The landlord is nowhere to be found and the family has been using the outdoors out of necessity, much to the embarrassment of our worker (and surely his family as well).

The thing is, I wish I didn’t know that these things were a reality for people. I wish I didn’t know that a man who had committed his life to Christ and was serving God in
full–time ministry as a pastor can’t afford to buy shoes, or that a man had to go to bed every night mulling over the reality that his wife and children were living not much better than animals. Thoughts like that could really haunt a man.

I wish I didn’t know, not because I don’t care about them, but because I do (at least I want to care, and sometimes that’s enough, isn’t it?) and more often than I would like, I find myself wrestling with this vast discrepancy in things, in the lives that people live because my life is so far removed from not being able to afford a new pair of shoes or not being able to call a plumber when the toilet is broken.

But I suppose it doesn’t do much good to wish that you didn’t know something. You know what you know and the world is what it is.

I suppose the heart of the thing, what wearies me about poverty, is that I’m uncomfortable with being uncomfortable; and being confronted with other people’s pain is uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable because I don’t usually know what to do and because I know that there is no really good reason that I’m not in their place and they’re not in mine, except that that’s just the way things turned out. Neither of us had a choice in the matter and sometimes when I look into the eyes of some of our Zambian friends I can’t help but think that it could easily have been me in their shoes, or lack of shoes rather.

Today I read an article that stated that, “for nearly two out of every three people alive today, hunger is not merely an occasional pang felt before lunchtime. It’s a lifestyle.”

The article also said that the amount of money needed to provide basic education, health care, and clean water to the entire developing world is equal to the amount of money spent every year worldwide on golf. 1

Ouch.

And in case you don’t play golf, its also equal to the amount of money spent worldwide on diets.

I know what your thinking. God does not care about my Slimfast! He wants me to be skinny! And you’re probably right.

As I try to process my aversion to the unpleasant face of poverty I think that the source is (and this sounds a bit trite and I hate to even offer this except that I’m sure its true), my American brand of Christianity that causes me to believe that my faith in God is mostly about me. I have become pretty accustomed to the notion that God likes me and that I have nice clothes and other things precisely because he likes me.

But I’m starting to wonder if its not poverty that makes me tired, but rather my own excess, and the vast amounts of effort required to maintain the belief that there is nothing wrong with the fact that I have enough clothes to fill two large suitcases.

Maybe my stuff is really what makes me tired.

And perhaps poverty just makes me see things a little clearer.

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