The Church and Poverty: On Friendships and Mutuality

I want to begin my series on Christianity and poverty with a post by D. L. Mayfield. I’ve recently begun to read her writing and I’m so impressed by the maturity and insight she possesses. I hope you enjoy hearing her words about living with refugees as we launch this series every Thursday for the next few weeks.

I have been fortunate enough, like Jessica, to have stumbled into an amazing multicultural community right in the midst of my city. I live in Portland, Oregon, and 8 years ago I started volunteering with Somali Bantu refugees. I went into volunteering with the aim of being a missionary to an unreached people group. I quickly realized that things weren’t as cut-and-dried as I would have liked them to be. Evangelism wasn’t as simple as showing the Jesus Film in Somali, and helping wasn’t as easy as giving food and money and clothes. To be a missionary, or even a friend, demanded an inordinate amount of relationship. But this can be hard to explain to people who want to know what your “ministry” is.

So, I ran around doing the things I knew I was supposed to be doing with the poor. Once, I took a bunch of refugee kids to a VBS (Vacation Bible School, for those not in-the-know). This was the second summer most of the Somali Bantu kids had been in America, and they were languishing in the heat and lack of supervision that summer brings.

My dad was a pastor at a large, successful Megachurch in the suburbs of Portland. Hundreds of kids crammed into a beautiful auditorium filled with good-natured volunteers running around trying to stop children from killing each other. The theme of the week was “Serengeti”, and the whole place was decked out with African-themed decorations. (What this had to do with Jesus, or the Bible, I still don’t know to this day.) I had brought a van full of kids from the apartment complex, and they stared in silent amazement at all the large cutouts of giraffes and elephants decorating the stage. They clapped their hands and screamed along to the songs, they listened patiently to the Bible story, they made their crafts and ate their snacks with gusto. I was so proud, so self-congratulatory for being a good missionary and bringing these kids to the church. And then, as I was herding the refugee kids towards the water fountains, I overhead a small child talking to a volunteer. “Oh! “ he said joyously “they brought us kids from the Serengeti!” Several children turned and pointed at me and my group, and I felt my face began to flush as I realized the church kids thought the refugee kids were props.

This happens all the time, especially in the church. No one is more guilty of turning the poor into props than me. I do it to make myself feel better, or to feel like a good Christian. I also do it in order to get other people involved in the work, to convince my church or friends or family to make the leap into service. Even when done with the best of intentions, however, using the poor as tools in the story of Us will always have detrimental consequences. We take away the complexities and the realities of working with the poor, and we make it a simple and marketable experience.

The reality is, of course, one messy business indeed. I am learning this at an astonishingly slow speed: there is no quick solution to any given problem. The Somali Bantu face so many forms of oppression it can seem overwhelming: they are a non-literate, tribal, animistic, Muslim, polygamous, patriarchal people transplanted into the middle of Portlandia. They come from war, violence, suffering, death, and at least a decade of waiting for freedom in refugee camps. They are not immigrants: they have no home they can ever return to. Life is very, very hard.

But it is still rich. Even with all the troubles and complexities stemming from their culture and experiences, they have made my life unbelievably richer. We have weathered births and deaths and weddings and sickness together. And the longer I have been in the community, the less like props they have become to me. They are real, precious, complicated people who I love and cherish (and, let’s be real, get extremely frustrated at). They become people in need of redemption, just like me.

So how can the Church make an effort to humanize the poor? How do we escape the dangerous language of the savior complex, the idea that we the elite can neatly and systematically “save” people from poverty?

It starts with friendships. It starts with a world where the Church knows the poor so intimately we simply must value their full stories and experiences. And it is as much for our sake as it is for theirs. I wholeheartedly agree with Shane Claiborne when he says “I truly believe that when the poor meet the rich, riches will have no meaning. And when the rich meet the poor, we will see poverty come to an end.” (The Irresistible Revolution, pg. 114).

Therein lies the rub. We can’t stop at an awareness campaign or a feeling of outrage or reading a thought-provoking book (although they are all great places to start). We need to be intimately involved with the poor. Of course, we all have a million reasons why this isn’t a possibility for us (I’m in school, or I have my babies, or it isn’t safe, or even I will . . . in the future). But I am here to challenge you with this thought: until we break down those barriers between us and the poor, they will always be with us. They will always be separate, devalued, and oppressed. They will continue to be mere props in our stories, stories we tell to feel better about ourselves.

I have had to make some conscious decisions in order to frame my life around relationships with the poor. For starters, they needed to become my actual neighbors. So my husband and I moved into the low-income housing complex where many of my refugee friends live. Next, as Jessica pointed out in her post several days ago, we have to be intentional about creating a life which is conducive to interruptions. Flexible, moldable–and open to the Spirit of God. And it became less about me “saving” them and more about bringing the Kingdom in any way possible. I became a conduit, a vehicle for love, simply by making my life more available and vulnerable.

I am in the thick of this journey. It is fraught with difficulties, tears, and setbacks. But also too, there is the joy, the peace, the supreme happiness of being in solidarity with your neighbors. The mutuality, the back-and-forth visits for tea and sympathy, the sharing of toys or vegetables. My life has been changed, irrevocably, by getting to know the poor. And I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, it has been the greatest blessing of my life. All throughout the Gospels, Jesus hung out with the poor.

By the grace of God, the poor have befriended me. And this is where I have found Jesus, and where I have come to love Him even more.

D.L. Mayfield lives in Portland, Oregon. She blogs somewhat erratically on the Kingdom of God, babies, and intentional community at http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com Part of this blog was excerpted from her column on Mcsweeneys Internet Tendency, first published on March 26th, 2012.  Link to column: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/savior-complex

3 comments on “The Church and Poverty: On Friendships and Mutuality

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