Interacting with the Face of Poverty

The internet, media and ease of worldwide travel have amazingly shrunk our planet over the past 50 years. No longer does one need to take a ship to get to outer Mongolia. Missionaries traveling to sub-Saharan Africa no longer pack their goods in a coffin as they did some 200 years ago (now, more than likely, they would lease a portion of a shipping container that would meet them several weeks after their own arrival by air). More and more, the internet is used to connect people through online venues like Skype, Facebook and the soon-to-vanish Tokbox.

Still, our times of face-to-face international travel does leave us wondering how to help our ever-expanding global community deal with issues of poverty. Jesus put little boundary on His idea of who our neighbor really is—calling humankind to help out any neighbor in need as His story of the Good Samaritan showed that we can even cross, ethnic, religious and cultural lines in this help.

Writer Kevin Salwen for The New York Times has an article on this very subject for today. How do we assist those in need as we travel internationally? Faced with such a situation myself in Salima, Malawi, I encountered a young boy, roughly 12 years of age some 4 years ago. This boy came up to the small bus I was traveling in with some other Westerners and very readily said, “Give me money,” to those of us sitting near the windows. I was shocked, and a bit appalled. How had this kid learned to go up to complete strangers and ask such a thing? Seeing this situation through my own cultural lenses this Malawian boy was in the wrong or was at the end of his rope and in some desperate financial straits to ask a complete stranger for some coin. I learned later through a great book on this subject that a general rule of thumb in sub-Saharan Africa is that soliciting funds from strangers as this young man did is completely the norm.

In Kevin Salwen’s article, I appreciate his desire that we continually seek the greatest good as we encounter these scenarios. Oftentimes, it is a sticky situation. In the case of the young boy in Salima, I ended up not giving him anything because we saw that the purpose of our trip was not to alleviate the poverty of roadside beggars, nor was this young man, to my knowledge, part of the community we had come to work with. It seemed right at the time to say no to his request which would, hopefully, direct him to other places of income generation, while not setting up the next mzungu (foreigner) up for an obligation to give a handout. Were I to have had a greater amount of time on that trip (which we Westerners continually are in need of and forget that so much of the non-Western world is on a different time schedule!), it would have been great to connect this young man with an income generation trade program, many of which exist in Salima. But in our brief 30 second encounter to refill on petrol, I can only hope that my action with him assisted him in his poverty, albeit hastily and briefly.

In his book Walking With The Poor, Bryant Myers (former president of World Vision) talks about the importance to remember in any encounter we have with poverty that poverty is not simply a measure of the amount of money one has in their pocket. Poverty, Myers asserts, is more a measure of broken relationships, one’s relationships with their community, their Creator, and the earth around them. To put this in my own Western context, the homeless man in the middle of the street is begging for food or money not because he is financially poor, but because his relationships with the three aforementioned entities have been marred. And if we ask ourselves how rich or poor we are in this context, we’ll most likely get a far different answer than the balance told to us by the ATM machine. For all we know, the young man I encountered during my petrol stop in Salima, Malawi, might have indeed been one of the richest men on the planet!

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