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I had the honor of speaking this morning at Campbell University’s chapel service to kick off Poverty Awareness week. Below is the text of my talk. As always, I write what I intend to say, but sometimes go of the map when actually up there. So, it is about 95% accurate as to what I really said.
Also, when I write my talks, I try to write them conversationally, so often they are much looser than my writing for publication. Please forgive any typos or run on sentences, etc. That is just how my people talk.
Why are These People Poor?
There are people who work in inner-city ministries that teach job skills. Or have after-school programs or keep kids off drugs.
That is not my story.
I run an organization in Raleigh called Love Wins Ministries, where we pastor and work with chronically homeless people. These are not the people in line at the soup kitchen or in the shelters. These are the poorest of the poor – folks who live under bridges and sleep in dumpsters. People who smell of urine and mumble to themselves as they walk down the streets. A lot of times, these people do not get better.
I don’t get a lot of success stories. But I do know an awful lot about hardcore urban poverty.
As a result of my work, I speak to a lot of groups like this about our work, and one question always comes up in the Q and A afterward. So today, I am just going to focus on that question: Why are these people poor?
I will answer that question in a minute, but first, I want to talk about Jesus.
Incidentally, if you ever want to get the guy in the seat next to you on the airplane to shut up, answer any of his questions with exactly that sentence:
I will answer that question in a minute, but first, I want to talk about Jesus.
In the 10th chapter of Luke is the story we call the Good Samaritan.
We all know this story. It is a Sunday School, Vacation Bible School story. When I was a kid, we did it on flannel graph (I am showing my age there… you probably saw it on Veggie Tales). There, up on the orange flannel background, was the victim, lying by the side of the road. The scripture tells us he was “set upon by thieves”. In the neighborhoods I spend time in, we would say he got jumped.
On our flannel graph, to the far left of the man we see the priest, very elaborately dressed, looking very pious (he is doing God’s work, you know…), on his way to the temple, having passed by the man. Behind him we see the Levite, a pious layman, also on his way to the temple… he is in a hurry too. It might be his turn to be a greeter that day, or maybe it’s his turn to read the scripture during worship. And there, kneeling by the cutout of the victim, we see the Samaritan, cradling the victim in his arms.
Then the Sunday school teacher would say “Which person should we be?” and we would all scream “The Samaritan” and the teacher would say “good job” and give us a sucker and we went home. And that is about as far as we ever go with this story, even if we have reached an age where we no longer get a sucker after being taught about the Bible.
But for a minute, let’s not pretend we are the Samaritan. Let’s pretend we are the one who got jumped. We are laying there in the ditch, oozing blood.
Today, we are the victim.
I know if I am the victim, I only have one question: Why me?
We know virtually nothing about the victim. Jesus gives us nothing here. We do not know if he was a good man or a bad man. We do not know if he was pious or apostate, rich or poor, stingy or generous.
We don’t know.
We don’t know, and we don’t like that. We people of faith do not like to admit when we do not know. We don’t like that at all.
About a year ago, Tanya was walking back to the rooming house after having a fight with her boyfriend. It was late at night, and to get there, she had to cross Martin Luther King Blvd, which has five lanes.
Like I said, it was late at night, and on that section of MLK, the street light was burned out. And Tanya was wearing dark clothes.
The drunk driver never saw her. He hit her dead on, ran over her and drug her now dead body about 300 yards. He said later he thought he had hit a dog.
I preached her funeral, and I said the sort of things one says at a funeral, but inside I was screaming -
Why God? Why Tanya?
The church did not have any really good answers in that moment.
The reporter on the TV said Tanya was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Personally, I think that reporter was, in that moment, quite Jesus-like in her theology.
We like to see our prosperity, our good family, our happy lives, our full stomachs as signs of God’s favor, as evidence of our doing “the right things”.
But if that is the case, then I have a few questions:
Why did I grow up in a house with parents who loved me, who passed on a work ethic and taught me how to dream, how to set goals, how to love? I had nothing to do with it – it just happened. I was in the right place at the right time.
Why did my friend Danny grow up in a house where his mamma’s boyfriend beat him with a fan belt, where his mom had to sell her body to survive after Daddy went to jail and where the only male role model in his life was the local pimp? He didn’t pick that life. He was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
When it comes to the economically poor, you need to realize you are not better than these people – you are not smarter, you are not more in God’s favor, you are not more virtuous. You aren’t better, you are just better off.
How would your life have turned out if you had to steal food in order for your little sister to eat? If you had to go to school three days in a row in the same clothes? If you had to sit on the porch in the cold while your momma is ‘entertaining’ men for money so you can eat tonight? How would that have shaped your views on sex and intimacy?
There are all kind of reasons that people are economically poor, and it seldom has anything to do with their salvation, or their walk with God, or their destination after their death or whether they said some prayer.
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Last spring, I was invited to a small group meeting a local college ministry puts on in order to talk about Love Wins, to see if any of them wanted to volunteer. I thought I was the main event, but they told me they had to do the Bible Study first.
The passage was the story of the rich young ruler, who comes to Jesus for advice, and then Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and to give it to the poor. The people in the small group were having a tough time with this.
After hearing that story read, a young guy in the room – richer than 80% of the planet, born the predominant race and the most privileged gender in the wealthiest country in the world – the very epitome of a rich young ruler to the majority of our planet – it was then that this kid said,”I think the important thing to keep in mind is to have a balanced view. After all, God gives us our possessions for a reason, and—”
It was then that I lost it.
“Hold on”, I said. “God didn’t give you your possessions. You have those things because you paid money for them. You had money to spend because you are employed. You are employed because you are well educated and look trustworthy to employers, both benefits of growing up white and male and inheriting a culture built on stolen land with the labor of enslaved people.”
You would have thought I drop kicked a kitten across the room.
Look – I have a congregant who lives in a car. And at night, when its 25 degrees and she is shivering and shaking and wanting to turn the car on for heat but knowing she does not have the money for gas – all the while crying out to God and praying for warmth… but no warmth comes.
So if you tell me that God has given this rich young ruler in that overheated living room his possessions while leaving my friend in the car to shiver, I call shenanigans. Because if that is true, then you are saying that God loves this kid more than he does my friend in her car. Or more than he does the 80% of the planet that lives on less than $10 a day.
You are not better than they are. You are just better off.
# # #
Hear what I am not saying. I am not saying poverty is not caused by sin – I think it is. But I know a guy who used to work for a textile plant where they made t-shirts. We demanded cheap shirts, so they closed his plant. I won’t ask for a show of hands today asking who is wearing a shirt made overseas – I know I am. But if you are, you and I are complicit in this man’s misfortune.
Yes, poverty is a result of sin – but it is the sin of the deacon in your church who works at the bank and that approved those mortgages he knew were sketchy. It is the sin of ignoring our fellow man while we obsess over American Idol. It is our sin that allows us to grow obese while 17 million children go hungry here in the US.
It is our sin, not theirs.
Once after I spoke somewhere, I had a pastor come up to me and “If poverty is not caused by the person’s sin, then what do we as people of faith have to say to it?”
In the 9th chapter of John, Jesus heals a blind man. Maybe you know the story?
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
The disciples are a lot like us. They want to know why this problem exists. They want to get down to the root cause. And, being religious people, they think the root cause has got to be this man’s sin.
Jesus does not seem to get too caught up into root causes. Jesus knows that the blind man was just born in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, he says, that God’s work can be revealed in this man, as a result of this man’s condition.
Maybe that is the answer for us, as people of faith. Not – How did this happen? But – As a result of this, how can God’s work be revealed?
How can God be glorified in this moment?
The apostle Paul tells us that we are the body of Christ. The work the resurrected Jesus does in this world happens through our hands.
When Jesus walked the earth, he did not hunt for root causes – instead he touched the sick, fed the hungry and brought good news for the poor.
As the physical embodiment of the resurrected Jesus, we should do no less.
If you would like to find out about having Hugh speak to your organization, click here to get that conversation started.
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If you liked this post, you might enjoy my newsletter Confessions of a Street Minister.