Poverty at Your Doorstep
It had been an idea of mine to do a round table discussion on this particular topic at a recent Women of the Harvest furlough retreat. All the lunch tables had signs on them offering interesting subjects for noontime conversations. Our table filled up immediately, and we regrettably had to turn women away. It wasn’t until I saw the number of women who wanted to join our table discussion that I realized how close to a global worker woman’s heart this subject really is.
Our topic? Poverty. Poverty through a global worker woman’s eyes. Poverty and how to deal with it when it is so daily and so much with you. How can a global worker live among the poor and not put a callous around her heart, just to survive? How can a global worker remain full of mercy and yet strong enough to survive living near the constant, gut-wrenching needs of the poor day after day?
Eight global worker women from Africa and three from other continents eagerly gathered around the lunch table in North Carolina to discuss these questions. Before I could even begin with my questions, a woman from the Caribbean piped up. “It sure feels weird to be back in the United States for a while! There are no guard dogs. No one hassling you when you go out. No razors or cut glass on the walls. I’m not an automatic target because of my skin color. I can wear jewelry out in public!”
Most of the women were nodding their heads in agreement. Several had stories about having a favorite piece of jewelry ripped from their necks when they wore it out in public—painful in more ways than one.
So, over the lunchtime hour, we explored practical ways to deal with poverty at your doorstep.
WOTH: With poverty so prevalent all around you, how do you determine whom to help?
Africa: If the person is asking for money to visit a relative in the hospital, check first with the hospital (if possible) to find out if that relative is in the hospital. Or if they say a relative has died, try to check the story out.
Someone chimed in, “We all have had people at our door who have had a mother who died 5 times!”
Caribbean: If you have no one to check with, then if possible, go with them to buy their exact request.
Africa: Yes. If you are ever in doubt, go with them to buy the item if you can. But let any error you may make be on the side of generosity.
Africa: Give the food, not the money.
Africa: We want to be wise as serpents. For example, a national accused me of driving over his foot and wanted money from me to go to the hospital. Knowing I hadn’t done such a thing, I offered to drive him to the hospital, and he quickly disappeared.
Asia: I try not to give to anyone in a crowd. Then everyone expects to get something and there is no way to check out the legitimacy of the claims. But once in a while when I am safely in my car, I will choose one or two to give to and then drive away.
South America: The people we work with were for generations hunters and gatherers in the jungle. They looked for game and for fruit that was already produced for them. Now, with the jungle disappearing, they ask “How are we going to get the money to buy what we need?” instead of asking “How are we going to make money to buy what we need?” They have decided that the white man is the new jungle!
Africa: When someone asks me for money I always ask them to come back in an hour or so. I need to check with other nationals about this particular need. I always try to first get counsel from the nationals I know. And at times I have sent the person with the need to our national pastor to let him decide.
Many heads were nodding in agreement at this point. This idea turned out to be the most recommended strategy.
WOTH: Do you work together with co-workers on this issue?
South America: Very emphatically yes! It is good to find out what has usually been done in your area to help the poor. What is considered normal now? Talking to trusted nationals or a group of more experienced global workers is the first step. How do they handle it? What do they recommend?
Africa: We need to agree with our co-workers that we don’t want to foster dependence on us by giving too readily to the nationals. We have had co-workers who would give to everyone without any questions. My husband and I weren’t that well off financially, and we didn’t agree with our co-workers’ strategy of “no questions asked.” This made it very hard on us and we looked really bad to the nationals. It can be hard, but it is necessary to work out a balance. One of our frustrations is that in our work (translation) we require incredible concentration to be able to do our ministry properly. It just didn’t work for us to have our day filled with numerous interruptions and requests for help.
There was a consensus at the table on working out a plan with your co-workers on doing what was appropriate in your area and ministries.
WOTH: Those of you who have domestic help: did you talk to your more experienced teammates about employing nationals?
Caribbean: Oh yes! Especially when it comes to figuring out what to pay them for their work. (Much nodding around the table.) Too much or too little can really cause havoc.
Africa: We really feel guilty when our househelp asks for our chicken bones to take home for her family. She sees us eating meat every day.
Caribbean: If household help (or anyone) asks for a loan you need to make it a gift. That way if the money doesn’t get paid back there are no hard feelings—it was a gift.
Africa: We don’t loan money. We give it away, within a certain limit our family has predetermined.
Caribbean: Another idea (with their permission) is to keep your houseworker’s wages for her. She only takes her money when she needs it. This is a big help to our househelp. Before, when she went home on payday, everyone, especially relatives, would show up for a loan or a gift, leaving her with very little.
WOTH: How do you handle the guilt of having more money and things than the people around you?
Africa: Often I find myself (and I assume other global workers do too) giving to people out of guilt and not with the idea of what is best for this individual.
Africa: It is good to learn that “no” can be an acceptable answer at times.
Africa: We need to be praying, “Lord, is this the one you would like for me to help today?” And then not feel guilty if the Lord leads you to say “no.”
Africa: Everyone deserves to be heard. Even if you are not led to help them then, don’t ignore them. At least let them know that you see them.
Africa: Another way of giving is to be a friend. You give them the present of your friendship.
Africa: I try to give to people spiritually and physically. I try to help some in a spiritual way every time I help in a financial way.
One of the women (from Africa) who had been fairly quiet up to that point broke into the conversation: “As for giving and guilt, I feel guilty for another reason. We have been robbed and mugged, and frankly I don’t feel like giving any more. I try not to harden my heart but it is difficult. I know I do need towork at keeping my heart soft.”
Caribbean: Yes. Bracing ourselves against the constant barrage of requests but not hardening our hearts!
WOTH: Whether we feel rich or not, we know that we appear rich to most nationals. But our “riches” have limitations. How do you get this across in a practical way to the people at your door? For example, a global worker I met from Haiti told me that she and her husband have a small box hidden in their home that holds a preset amount each month for giving to the poor. So every month when their paycheck comes in they refill their box. Then when people ask, they give it away. But when it is empty they can show the empty box and tell the asker that they have given all they are going to give for that month. She said the people seemed to understand an empty box they could see with their own eyes.
Asia: We have rules in our mission allowing us to give only a certain amount each month. When it is gone, it is gone. We explain that to our people.
Africa: If you don’t have a lot to give away, you can still be openhanded in sharing your possessions with the people you came to reach. We need to be as generous as can be with what God has blessed us with. Invite people in. Let them sit on your carpet if you have one. I heard of two global workers. One was known by the locals to be stingy with her possessions, and while she was on furlough her house was ransacked. Another global worker woman was known for her generosity with her home. While she was gone, her house was well cared for.
As the women were sharing their ideas, I thought of two Scriptures that might also be helpful in a practical way in answering whom to help. Galatians 6:10 encourages us “that as we have opportunity let us do good to all, especially to those who belong to the family of God.” And 2 Corinthians 9:12 and 13 talks of supplying the need of God’s people and everyone else.
As the lunchtime hour was drawing to a close, the timeframe seemed inadequate to wrestle with such a desperately important, at-your-doorstep issue for these women.
As global worker women, we need to be in daily prayer for a balance of compassion and a realistic evaluation of the facts. Just as Christ did not help all the sick and poor near Him, neither can we. What is within our power to do is to live a life full of the Holy Spirit so that our hearts will stay soft and we will have the wisdom to know whom to help and how best to help them.