How I learned that poverty isn’t just about lacking things

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by Jess Bauer, California Development Intern

Last summer, I spent three months in Haiti learning about poverty in a hands-on and often heart-wrenching way. I listened to the stories of new friends and experienced the heartbreaking reality of material poverty.

One afternoon, I met an elderly man in Leveque, a village where families resettled after their homes were destroyed by the 2010 earthquake. A relief agency had distributed blue tarps to Leveque after the earthquake to be used as a temporary shelter. The tarps were designed for only a few months of inhabitance—any longer and the extreme heat could cause eye damage. After living in his tarp home for five years, this man was completely blind.

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Despite his blindness and seemingly destitute living situation, the man I met shone with joy and hope. He asked to sing worship songs together, and we sang “How Great Is Our God” in English and Haitian Creole. I was convicted by the depth of joy this man had—a deeper joy than I experienced, even as someone who lives with relative material wealth.

As I have reflected on my experience in Haiti during my internship at HOPE International, I’ve been able to put this paradox into words: poverty isn’t just a lack of material things. I have learned that poverty encompasses material, physical, relational, and spiritual aspects. To fixate on one aspect of poverty while ignoring the rest does us all a disservice.

Bryant Myers, professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, says it best in Walking with the Poor:

Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.

As I began to understand poverty as not simply material, my heart broke in a different way. While I still feel deeply for people living in material poverty, my heart also aches for those living in material abundance—including myself. I see forms of poverty in my own life—in my relationships with God, with others, and with myself.

I can be transactional in the way I build relationships, inattentive and too busy to connect deeply with others. I can sit in a room full of friends yet look only at my phone, or study twelve hours for an exam, only to be unable to rest after it is over. I contrast that reality with the ways I saw many Haitians interact with each other, and I want more of their relational and spiritual richness. Only when I realize the mutual brokenness of all people can I even begin to understand how to alleviate poverty in all its forms.

Poverty alleviation starts with my own heart as I pursue reconciliation with God and other people. As I strive for shalom in my life and fail repeatedly, Christ says:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

If we are poor in any way, there is good news for us! Christ has come to proclaim liberty both to those living in material poverty and to my heart held captive by the number of likes I receive on Instagram or my GPA. He has appointed each of His followers as ambassadors of reconciliation, even as He finishes the incomplete work of reconciling our own hearts with Himself and others.

To me, the great mystery of God’s Kingdom is His work of reconciliation that has already been accomplished on the cross—and yet it is not finished.

God makes it clear that He is making all things new, including my own heart and all forms of poverty—but nothing will be fully restored until the day He returns. That is good news for people living in material poverty, and that is good news for me.

 

IMG_7103-webJess is HOPE’s California development intern. As a senior at the University of Michigan majoring in marketing, she hopes to serve God with her future business career. Jess is passionate about HOPE’s commitment to sharing the Gospel while alleviating material poverty and thanks God for the work HOPE is doing around the world.

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As Christ’s followers responding to His great love, HOPE International seeks physical, social, spiritual, and personal restoration in places of brokenness. Through Christ-centered microenterprise development, we empower men and women to strengthen their families, build their businesses, and unleash their dreams.

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