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“War impoverishes many people. In most of the countries where we work, riots and wars in the last year have created an ongoing disruption. Anything that disturbs shalom relationships—that is, fulfilling relationships with God, one another, our environments and ourselves—tends to impoverish people.
"Poverty is also cyclical in that those who have been poor learn to be helpless. When you try to make progress again and again and any improvement you make is taken away from you, you learn to be dependent on others with no control over your own environment—you learn to not try.”
How do you break the cycle of poverty and helplessness?
“Income generation programs—not just giving money to people but enabling them to take responsibility—not only provides an income, but also begins to break through their sense of having no control over their lives.
“Especially where the culture devalues women, helping with income generation begins to give people a dignity they didn’t have before in a way that just giving people money does not.
“Health treatment helps break that cycle, giving people more energy and the ability to work. And education of children helps to break poverty’s generational cycle.
“Coming to be at peace with God makes a big difference. People who turn to Christ gain a sense of dignity and a community of support through churches.
"They grasp their ability to change their environment, and they understand righteous living—not spending money uselessly. We see people stop beating wives and children. They begin to move out of poverty.”
What’s the most appropriate Christian response to poverty?
“After the war in Sri Lanka, we interviewed people we’ve helped. They talked about physical benefits like food, and the way we’ve helped advocate for them. But they also said, “You’ve entered into relationship with us—you talk to us as if we really matter, not just as professionals dropping off food and then leaving.”
“Treating people with dignity is important.
“There are different responses people have to the poor. The story of the prodigal son is excellent for talking about poverty.
“So apathy, taking advantage, duty and compassion are responses people have to the poor. The response of compassion is what we in the Church are to have.”
When do you know you’re making a difference for a family or community?
“You look for external changes. They’re easier to measure, and without external changes you don’t have transformation.
“But internal change is also needed for transformation–building relationships with God and others, building community support systems, reducing conflict and helping individuals experience dignity as they understand their value.”
Do we ever come across people we can’t help? Why?
“Yes. Some you’re simply too late to help—a starving child, or someone who will be permanently disabled.
“The poor can reject life just as the rich can. They can choose to not respond to help. Or they might be so trapped in sinful behavior that it’s hard to reach in.
“When you see the poor rejecting life, you realize apart from the Holy Spirit, there’s little you can do to move them out of poverty.
“But early on when I was living in Bangladesh, I was going by a river where obviously malnourished kids were playing happily in the water—there was something universal about it. The vast majority of people are not beyond hope. It takes a conscious decision to turn from darkness and most choose that.”
This sounds like long-term work. How do you stay encouraged when serving the poorest?
“You don’t always stay encouraged. It’s tough for people to move out of poverty and it takes a long time.
“Remaining optimistic and hopeful really comes down to my faith. I think one of the keys is that in the end, the work with the poor is an act of worship to God. It’s my relationship with God and the ability consistently to offer my work to Him as an act of worship that enable me to work through discouragement with the poor.
“In the midst of that, there are many encouraging things. You seetransformation taking place. When you begin an income generation program or a community health program,you walk in and have your initial work with volunteers and participants. And there’s no light or energy about them. They don’t believe deep inside them that anything can change.
“So you do the program, and then you see the light go on in the eyes. The looking down and the lack of engagement are replaced as they discover their own dignity and that they can make a difference in their own lives.”
What can American Christians do to make the biggest difference for the poor?
“Begin somehow to engage. It’s discomforting to be faced with poverty—it makes you feel uneasy. It challenges us, even makes us feel guilty.
“I remember once listening to an anthropologist talk about the “veils” we wear when looking at Scripture:
“For most middle-class Americans, “veils” tend to keep us from seeing the poor and responding to them. It ends up that the poor are images on the television screen and no longer exist if you can eliminate them from your experience
“Seek engagement with the poor through your church, in your communities, by responding internationally—once the poor have a face in your mind it’s no longer an abstract thing you’re dealing with.
“Engagement begins to lead to prayer, compassion, giving—all as we see beyond the veils we put in front of us that obscure the poor from our view.”