Image: Francis of Assisi in Franco Zefferelli’s gorgeous film, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”
“All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor,” Galatians 2:10
Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis describes how, during the conclave, as it became evident that the voting was swinging his way, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes of Brazil, “a great friend, hugged me, he kissed me and he said, ‘Remember the poor!’ And that way the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.” The saint who loved the poor.
Canadian songwriter and church planter David Ruis, whom I heard speak at a New Wine Conference has a tattoo on his arm which says, “Remember the Poor.” Except it starts at the wrist, and travels up his elbow, and his shirt covers the last letter, the joke goes.
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So how do we remember the poor?
Well, we share our wealth. How much? The Old Testament figure of 10% remains a good yardstick, in my opinion, though this sum should be governed by grace and the spirit, not law.
Just 10%? Not “sell all you have and give to the poor?” (Matt 19:21). Well, I have noticed both when I lived in small town Williamsburg, VA and in Oxford, that God places Christians at every level of society from the highest, right down. In the Gospels, the people attracted to Jesus included rich members of the Sanhedrin like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as well as fisherman.
At my evangelical church in Oxford, my small group and spouses includes two Principals of Oxford Colleges, ministry heads, doctors, professors and successful business people. To be realistic, if these people did not dress, drive cars, entertain and live in houses that befit their “station in life,” to use a Catholic phrase, they would be written off as weird and different, and their ability to be the fragrance of Christ, to present Christ and faith in him as attractive would be severely compromised. For that is one way of winning people to Christ—lifestyle evangelism, being the fragrance of Christ, attracting people long before important conversations ever take place.
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Hmm. So remember the poor without necessarily giving away so much money that you are one of the poor. How do you do that?
Here are some ways I can think of, which I mostly practice.
1 Give. Of course. Many (most?) Christians in the first world could increase their giving without feeling the pinch, I suspect!
2 Even if the money you saved is not necessarily given away, and even if you are not yourself poor, act in your choices as if you remember that you live in a world in which there is extreme poverty.
Don’t necessarily treat yourself to the best of everything, even if you can sometimes afford to. It’s a small way of maintaining solidarity with the poor.
Some practical ways:
a) Restraint in clothing—not buying too many clothes which are overpriced, will rarely be worn, or are whimsically fashionable and will soon date—even if one can afford to.
b) Restraint in food choices—not necessarily buying the most expensive items in the store or in a restaurant menu, even if one can afford to. Being content with simplicity
c) Interior decoration. I used to upgrade when furniture looked a bit worn, but now I often say, “So what? It’s a bit old and a bit worse for wear, but so what?”
d) Not having the best you can afford in things which tend to be status symbols (houses, cars, holidays) frees you from caring what people think, or how they assess your income or net worth.
For instance, we bought our family car, a Chrysler Town and Country minivan (called a Dodge people-carrier here, in the UK) in 2001. It’s now 13 years old, but is running well, and so we haven’t replaced it!
e) On the other hand, avoid false economies whenever you can afford to. These waste both time and money. Though, of course, you will pay more at the outset, buying high quality furniture, clothing, appliances and cars which you can use for many years makes perfect sense even in a world of poverty (rather than buying cheap computers, shoes, toasters and clothes which you will always be replacing).
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Oh, I am just a novice at this. What is the best way to “remember the poor?”
Jo Amey says
Thanks for the reply. Sometimes I feel that ‘the simple life’ is conflated with being poor when living with very little resources is actually very complicated. My suggestion for remembering the poor is to find your local night shelter, food bank, rehab, refuge, etc and ask how you could support them most usefully, if you haven’t already.
Anita Mathias says
“‘the simple life’ is conflated with being poor when living with very little resources is actually very complicated.” Yes, I am sure that’s true–just as living in the country, which I do, is more complex than living in the city!! Your suggestions are MUCH better than mine, which were lame–but I was opening up a discussion on a question to which I did not know the answer.
Jo Amey says
Oh dear Anita, your ways of showing solidarity with the poor sound just like my normal life for the last thirty yrs…. Apart from the last one, that is..
Anita Mathias says
Oh Jo, I know my blog is lame…but I was honestly wrestling with the question of remembering the poor. Sorry! 🙂
Scott Berry says
Well I’ve just discovered your blog, so I hope it’s okay to just jump right in. As a hybrid missionary to the Philippines, I see many of these problems nearly every where I go. What to do for the poor is a hard question. One of the first problems that needs to be dealt with isn’t the poor, but the rich. Defining “poor” is in itself a difficult task — what is poor to one is not poor to another. I refrain from using the word “poor” because it is so relativistic. The word ‘ethnocentric’ comes in to play here. Our own cultures values need to be replaced with a more general view point. Many of the people most of us would call “poor” are simply leading a much simpler life style then what we are accustomed to. Once we’ve made that change, we can start to identify true poverty. I try to draw the line at health and safety – if the person in question is able to have a reasonably healthy diet, is living in a ‘home’ that is safe from disease and vermin, and has some degree of security from those who might seek to do harm, then I would say that they are living simply. However, if malnutrition or under-nutrition is an issue, or if their living conditions are such that they run a high risk of contracting Hepatitis or similar disease, or the they are under constant threat of maltreatment by others, then I would likely apply the “poverty” caveat to their conditions.
To the question of ‘what do we do?’ to help the poor: for most of us, sending money is really the only option. Unless we are able to go there and to something specifically helpful, it is difficult to do much other than provide financial support. Of course, there’s always the concern that we make the problem worse by dumping money into a system where it causes more harm than good. In my own ministry, I rarely provide money directly to an individual — my focus is on helping children stay in school, so providing school supplies for the students helps to improve the opportunities these children will have in the future. It’s an application of the “teach a man to fish” saying. By improving the education of the children, the entire community benefits.
I, personally, have taken to reducing my dependence on ‘stuff’. Rather then buy a meal at a fast food restaurant, I use a portion of that savings for school supplies for some child living in a squatter settlement or impoverished agricultural village. I don’t need the ‘bad quality’ food anyway. I haven’t recently bought anything that I don’t truly ‘need’. I am trying to encourage others to do the same.
Anita Mathias says
Thank you, Scott. I agree with for most of us sending money is really the only option. It certainly is for me, as I have no poverty-relieving practical skills at all. And finding who to support (and then not second-guessing how the money is spent) is another challenge. I agree with education is the way forward–esp. the education of women which has a big effect on their families.
I like your definition of poverty. What really gets me is hunger. It seems so unacceptable in a world of so much abundance!
Scott Berry says
Anita – I have a few contacts that I work with directly and whom I trust implicitly. It isn’t so much that I’m afraid people will use monies for their own purposes as I am concerned that they don’t have the skills to manage money correctly. Yes, even among the Filipinos there is much malnutrition and under-nutrition — I am also working to address that in some communities, but it is such a massive undertaking and I don’t have the resources to address the problem. Most of the work carried out by Educate Bohol is accomplished by myself and rarely with the help of others. I just continue to do as I can and let the Lord guide me and support me as He wills. You can learn more of my efforts at http://www.EdcuateBohol.org
Anita Mathias says
I highly recommend the book Toxic Charity. Money alone is NOT the answer to the plight of the poor and in fact because of the way it is generally spent, helps keep the poor in their state.
I feel God calls us to think radically and outside the box. He calls us not to give just money since when did we see Jesus ever, ever give money to a poor person. And in fact, when something extravagant was given to him and the giver was admonished since the money could have “gone to the poor”, Jesus admonished instead his judgmental disciple. I believe that Jesus called us to fashion a world and a society where poverty no longer exists and it is so much more than just self restraint on our part.
In our current world economy, unfortunately, many lives of the poor are inextricably linked to our consumerism. When we show restraint and not buy things made by poor people, they lose the little they had been getting. When we give free rice and other food to the people of Haiti, we put out of business all the farmers on the island because who wants to buy your food when we can get it for free from the charities. In our quick-thinking and often misguided but honest attempts to help, we have literally decimated economies and lives and created entire cultures utterly dependent on our handouts.
A somewhat unrelated, but germane comparison is the plight of the whales. When I was a kid, there was a huge campaign to “save the whales”. Thousands of dollars poured into the campaign from people who didn’t want the whales to become extinct. They bought boats to ward off hunters, propaganda to discourage hunting, all kinds of things. But the more money spent, the more the whales continued to be hunted. In our naïveté, we actually created a billon dollar industry in hunting whales. In lieu of the short-term goal of saving a whale today, that money, time and effort should have gone into destroying the market for these animals. We now have things that replace the products, we have international treaties that protect these gorgeous creatures and we have worked to change the cultures who felt the need to hunt them into extinction. It takes a long time and a lot more effort to accomplish the long-lasting change. And giving money and then saying “I’ve helped” is the easier road, but it did not going to lead to a long lasting solution.
Now that we have the devastation our short term “just give money to redistribute the wealth” policies have created, and with our media and global economy, I believe we must be insightful and careful about our mantra to “remember the poor”. We may be called to do things that run counter to our instincts to preserve what little they have in order to buy time for longer lasting work to come to fruition. And that long lasting work takes not money as much as our time, effort and brainpower.
“Do not give a fish but teach someone to fish” I believe is the answer. One feeds someone for a day, the other not only a lifetime, but also an entire community. I actually use my wallet to support the teaching rather than the “handout” method.
Here is what I’m doing to support the call to “remember the poor”:
1) giving money to charities that support micro-economic development such as http://www.threadsofhopetextiles.org
2) continue in my purchasing of products that support jobs and income for responsibly employed poor.
3) research every dime I spend to ensure it is not making the problem worse.
4) read books like Toxic Charity to help inform my choices.
5) give of my time and effort to help with social and political justice changes that form societies where poverty does not exist.
6) support with my time, effort and if necessary money programs which a) allow people enough free time to be educated and b) create opportunities to be educated, especially women.
7) support work on population control. It’s an unpopular thing to talk about, but our planet simply cannot support more people. Just a fact. There are some jaw dropping TED talks about just the reality of resources. It wouldn’t matter if all the wealth was redistributed, there is simply not enough natural resources to feed the people we have today. There are some very simple facts like to feed everyone on the planet today with a 1200 calorie diet, we’d need several Earths. It therefore follows that any long term solution to poverty must include birth control measures. For everyone. Not just the poor… Everyone. And that’s another place where education is the key. In places where women are getting educated, the birth rate falls into line with a sustainable average. It’s amazing how the numbers have turned out.
8) work 100% respectfully of other cultures and beliefs. Coming in and telling people they are “wrong” is not going to create buy-in to any long term solution. We must work carefully to respect cultures and beliefs that exist while working to change those mind sets that keep poverty in place.
But all of these things are long term. It’s going to take a long time and a lot of people spending a lot of time educating ourselves and thinking about long term consequences of the easier, shorter path ways we’ve been taking. We cannot be lured into these short term, devastating fixes. It is hard to buy into long term fixes when the faces of today’s poor are staring at us. It is easy to just give them a fish and say “we’re done”. But that fish given may break an entire economy and throw thousands more into worse conditions.
Sorry this has gotten long. I have just started to educate myself about my choices and about the choices others are making in this very global world we live in. I’m passionate about the opportunity we have to effect global change, but the huge responsibility to do it wisely or indeed suffer the consequences of our well-intentioned, but ultimately disastrous “help”.
Anita Mathias says
Yes, but is voluntarily accepting simplicity and living lower on the hog a way of living as if you are cognisant that there is extreme poverty in this lovely world?
“when did we see Jesus ever, ever give money to a poor person. And in fact, when something extravagant was given to him and the giver was admonished since the money could have “gone to the poor”, Jesus admonished instead his judgmental disciple.” I agree. Jesus did not appear to think of poverty as the threat and crisis that we do. We are grappling with the Beatitudes in small group, and I realized that I simply did not understand them. “Blessed are the poor,” and “Woe to you who are rich.”
When I see pictures of starving children, in Africa, generally, I want to do something. But what can we do but give money? In the short run? Serious question, not rhetorical.
The key is in the research…and spending ALL your money (yes, even food and clothing money) cognizant of where it’s going. All the way down the line, too, not just the pitstop it’s going to make at the vendor. It takes time and a lot of it. I researched little by little until I finally turned most of my spending over into conscious spending.
Also, our reaction to those pictures of starving kids in Africa is exactly what these charities want you to see. Anyone who parades these poor kids in front of cameras to get you to give money is immediately discounted in my book. REAL charities that do long term and really life-transforming work do not need to stoop to such levels to get your aid.
Through research, I have found a number of charities I no longer support at all and a number of new ones that I do. I give the main bulk of my money to local charities because there is a lot of poverty and devastating alcoholism here on the reservations…poverty at a level that rivals those pictures from Africa. For my overseas contributions, I give to charities that provide long term solutions and work with local leaders and people directly to determine the right aid for their community, not what WE think they need.
Perfect story out of Peru. One of the charities’ board of directors went down to meet the ladies we work with down there. She was appalled that our grants had not been spent on things SHE thought were important, and she totally imposed her American culture and values on them. It took a long time with our local contact there for her to understand that what she thought was “the next step in improving their lives” was not theirs. Too often, charities, though well-intentioned, provide projects and things that are not what the people actually need, but what we think they need based solely on our world view. It is devastating to these people also to do for them instead of just giving the right pushes in the right directions, as they need, not as we need. In building people wells for clean drinking water, many charities just do-for-them which sends a message of “I don’t think you’re smart enough to do this yourself”. Just like with our kids’ first time in the kitchen, you want to take over and do for them, but you know they’ll never learn if you just do it for them. These charities just don’t think of the mental impact coming in and just doing it all has on the community. And then there’s this problem after they leave…the people have no idea how to maintain these wells because nobody bothered to teach anyone. My friend here locally has joined a community of people who are getting degrees in engineering just to be able to travel to these remote places and teach the people directly how to maintain the technology these well-intentioned, but misguided charities left for them. I’m spending money to help her buy tool sets for these villages.
This level of research takes time, but Satan is counting on people not taking the time to research where our money is going. Not just our donations, but every single penny of our spending. As we get further and further removed from our money and our world globalizes, there is a danger of us losing touch with where our money goes. I’m doing my best to fight against that…it’s hard, really hard, but I feel it is the best way to live out Jesus’ request to always Remember the Poor.
Anita Mathias says
Thanks. I was invited by the CEO of Tearfund, a large evangelical British charity, to spend a day with him and his ministry heads learning about their work. http://anitamathias.com/blog/2012/03/28/a-day-at-tearfunds-headquarters-learning-about-the-real-hunger-games/
He said Africa is littered with the shells of schools, hospitals, hydroelectric power stations, and yes, wells, which no longer work, because people built what they thought the local community wanted, and stuck their names and ministry names on them, but did not ask the community what they really wanted.
Well stated and carefully selected points I’m most sure. But if you are willing and able to receive it, I posit to you that the roots of poverty reside in two separate grounds simultaneously.
1. The hearts of those poor souls who have little more than shambles.
2. The hearts of those who are in love with money.
If one accepts the premise “remember the poor”, then it is reasonable that one would, or could, also accept He who said it. Further, if one manages to accept He who admonished us to remember those less fortunate than we (and I say again financial destitution is only a small portion of one hemisphere which encompasses the global reality of being ‘poor’), then one would be considered astute to continue in acceptance and receive with gladness His other teachings. Not the least of which is:
“The ‘love’ of money is the root of all evil.”
Good evening LA.
When we come to Christ we receive salvation and escape damnation. At that very moment we have the grace (power) to do God’s will in a way we have never had before. In most cases it is prudent for us to examine ourselves, and to make some changes in what we think, believe, say and do. Next, we began to examine our immediate surroundings and adjust it according to God’s word. Some then go on into the ministry, while other’s are called to minister to their families. We pursue God’s blessings in all of the above areas – as we should. We want our loved ones to grow with us and prosper accordingly. However, it is easy to forget where we came from, and even easier to forget those who suffering in their sin.
Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” These can be rich or destitute. Whichever category they may be in; God has not forgotten them, and neither should we.
“True religion” Jesus said “Is to visit the poor the widow and the fatherless. Many times these are not financially competitive, or even poverty stricken. If they do not know Jesus as Lord and Savior they are indeed Fatherless.
As we walk with the Lord, growing in the knowledge of His truth (Word) and gaining the blessings therein, we must not allow our good fortune to be self-centric. We must not focus only upon our own needs and wants. The message of the Cross is for all men to prosper in eternity and time: Spiritually, emotionally, mentally and resources. That is a large part of what God intended to happen when he saved you and me. Of course he wants us blessed, but he wants us blessed not just for our sake. The Creator of all wants to blessed so that we can be a blessing to all mankind – including the poor. After all, they are the ‘least of these’ our Lord spoke of.. You know?
“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Anita Mathias says
Yes! Thank you for your well thought-out, and well-written comment!
You are kind and thank you much. I had been meaning to get around to your blogging much sooner. This one inspired me. If it is ok, may I respond to others of yours if I’m led?
Anita Mathias says
I will be honoured! Thank you 🙂