Presence in the face of Poverty

This is the time of year when many of us consider ways to serve the poor and marginalized. We’re living in a time where the world’s brokenness is particularly noticeable and Christmas brings a message of hope and justice to this very broken and dark world. However, too often when serving the poor and marginalized, we focus on what we think people need without actually listening to them. More privileged people tend to see poverty differently than those actually living in poverty do. Therefore, we must become great listeners in order to truly understand how to help.


The World Bank’s aim is to alleviate poverty in poor countries. In the 1990s they consulted with the poor themselves by simply asking “what is poverty?”

From Moldova  

“For a poor person everything is terrible - illness, humiliation, shame. We are cripples; we are afraid of everything; we depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of.” 

From Cameroon 

“The poor have a feeling of powerlessness and an inability to make themselves heard.” 

Cornel West, a well known African American scholar, says this about the ghettos in America: 

“… though economic well-being and political clout are requisites for meaningful progress. It is primarily a question of speaking to the profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair so widespread in black America.”

In their book, “When Helping Hurts”, Steven Corbett and Brian Fikkert comment on the above:

“While the poor mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness. North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc.” 


Illustration from Citizen Advocacy, Australia  

Illustration from Citizen Advocacy, Australia  

Several weeks ago a couple advocates and I were sitting around a table with one of our partners with disabilities, when the support staff saw us and said, “Oh.. how nice that you have volunteers who come to visit you.” I smiled at our partner's response, “These ain’t my volunteers, they’re my friends!”

Volunteers can meet needs, though often times temporarily, whereas a friend can get beyond that point. A friend can affirm someone’s dignity through a reciprocal relationship. A friend will see beyond the need and help someone discover their own skills and ways to use these to address the issues. A friend will also provide what they can along the way in order to make sustainable long-lasting change in a person’s life.

There is a chapter in the Bible where Isaiah writes about true service to the poor, “and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” (Isaiah 58:10)

As we look to serve this holiday season, let’s consider ways we can move beyond the hurry and bring heart, presence, and mutuality to those in need … not just by giving them free handouts, but by investing in relationships. Relationships that steward one's own skills and resources and help them move closer toward their calling.