Army examines ways to help the poor

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Note: the following is excerpted from “Searching for a Meaningful Way to Help the Poor,” a main paper written for The Salvation Army’s International Summit on Poverty, for Theme 2: The Experience of Poverty. Author Glenn J. Schwartz is executive director of World Mission Associates.

Jesus had a special concern for the poor

To say that Jesus had a special concern for the poor would be an understatement. What is amply demonstrated in the New Testament is that deliverance was made available to those who had all manner of illnesses; and such things as freedom for those in prison were not only demonstrated, but taken for granted (Acts 12:17).

One can only conclude that it is quite in order to pray that people will be set free from bondage. It would be a merciful thing for those in poverty to be delivered just as we earnestly pray for someone to be delivered from an illness or from wrongful imprisonment. Our God delights in delivering people from bondage, whatever the nature may be.

Some time ago I was in Maputo, Mozambique where I conducted a seminar on issues of dependency and self-reliance. Time was given for anyone who wanted to testify to the grace of God among the poor. One pastor told about the church in his community. He said because of the depressed economy, many were unemployed. They had several options: one was to appeal to the government for assistance. Another was to appeal to aid agencies for whatever might be available from overseas. He testified they decided on a different plan of action.

The congregation decided to begin a prayer meeting for the unemployed at 5:00 pm three days a week–Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He said it was not long before people became productive in their various areas of employment–particularly the fields in which their crops were grown. These efforts were so blessed of the Lord that they soon had more produce than they could use locally. They then began to pray about ways to get the produce to markets in the capital city many kilometers away. The church put legs to their own prayers, and businessmen with big trucks donated their services to carry the extra produce to the city. How many times have we thought of a prayer meeting three times a week as a solution to the problem of poverty?

Causes of poverty are many and varied

Sometimes a society is so unmotivated about helping itself that people simply turn to alcohol and crime as an alternative to productive work. Such was the case in Almalongo, Guatemala. Things were so desperate that the three town jails could not hold all the people the police were arresting. Spiritism had taken over the town; poverty, alcoholism and crime were evident everywhere.

At a point of desperation people turned to prayer, inviting various churches to join in unified prayer. Imagine their surprise when a total transformation of society began to occur. Alcoholics were delivered from years of bondage. Prisons began to clear out and eventually every jail was closed! There was no need for a place to incarcerate even one prisoner.

But something else also happened. The poverty of the community was exchanged for prosperity unlike anything they had ever known. Even the soil seemed to be ‘converted’ and began to produce far more than it had ever done before. Vegetables grew in proportions never seen before. One man was seen holding a carrot the size of another man’s arm. Again the problem of marketing the excess produce became an issue. So much progress was made that farmers began to buy huge Mercedes Benz trucks–with cash–to haul the produce to markets at a distance. This move from poverty, crime and alcoholism resulted from churches laying down their denominational differences and joining in concerted prayer. Prayer as an antidote to poverty might not fit the average five-year plan of an aid agency, but it is not unlike our Lord to respond to a crisis when people come humbly before him.

What could the poor use most?

The poor often don’t enjoy the margin which is taken for granted by those who are much better off economically. It is margin which makes life tolerable; otherwise, life is reduced to mere survival.

I recently tried to help a family that lives in a constant state of hand-to-mouth existence. Every issue that confronted them was enough to put them over the edge. With five children in the house, there never seemed to be enough food. An illness meant that there was no reserve–financial or otherwise–with which to respond. Hence, that margin which healthy families count on–having enough to pay a doctor or hospital–was out of the question for this family.

Why is margin in such short supply when it is so essential and longed for? The surest way for anyone to build margin is to learn about and practice the principles which God has laid down for mankind; in finding and following those principles we discover the margin that would make it possible to move away from poverty, sickness, demon possession and depression.

Growth comes from living God’s principles

I recently learned about a growing segment of the Christian movement in an Asian country where believers are a tiny minority. The philosophy of the leaders is that if one wants to identify with the Christian faith, he or she will need to learn God’s principles and live by them. This means doing at least four things: First, everyone must pay his or her debts. Christians are honorable people who pay what they owe. Second, Christians must pay their taxes. Christians are to show nonbelievers in government that they are law-abiding citizens. Third, believers are taught from day one that they should tithe. No excuses are tolerated, such as being too poor to give back to God. It is a recognition that everything we have comes from God. Fourth, believers are taught that they should put some of what they earn into savings. This helps them to be prepared for the time when the harvest is lean and also gives them a way to help those less fortunate when a crisis arises; it builds a little margin into one’s life as a believer.

This group is growing rapidly in a country where the government and nearly 100 percent of the population are not believers in the Christian way. It also makes one wonder why the Christian movement in other parts of the world is in such economic difficulty. Could it be that we have a generation of believers in many parts of the world who came into the kingdom so easily that they have not been required to follow God’s principles?

Maybe all of this has something to do with the assumptions we begin with as Christians–assumptions which are quite different from the four mentioned above.

Assumptions as Christians

One assumption is that the poor do not have anything to give back to God. This may be related to a second assumption, which is that since those living in poverty don’t have much money, they have little or nothing to give to God. This could well explain why in some churches the collection is taken in a velvet bag with a small hole in a wooden handle at the top. The only thing it is designed to receive is money–something the poor don’t have in abundance. As one man in Africa said, you can’t even put in a banana, let alone a cow or bag of maize. Churches that have broken dependency on outside resources have learned that a new kind of giving must be found if they are to get on their feet financially.

I learned about a church in Rwanda that invited its members to bring whatever they had without emphasis on money. So many kinds of produce were brought that the church had to assign a previously unemployed person to collect and sell the produce. They also found in the process that a side benefit emerged: they were able to help some truly needy people in the community from the produce given to the church. Imagine getting two benefits from one changed assumption. The church not only had increased income for its operation, but was able to minister to those who were truly needy in their midst. In addition to the produce stand from which they sold the things members were bringing, they eventually created a cattle corral in which to put animals that were given to the church.

True help for the poor

Anything short of giving God complete ownership and following the laws he has laid down, will not be truly good news for the poor. The question is how to encourage those who need this message to actually begin implementing it and benefiting from it.

Perhaps, a healthy dose of the good old-fashioned virtue of hope is a place to begin. People who want to find true margin in their lives must begin with the hope or belief that it is possible. Those who have margin know what hope is–especially if they have come from a previous state of hopelessness. What would happen if the church mobilized its members who have margin–or hope–to spend time in communities where people suffer from a lack of teaching on scriptural principles about life and how to cope with the world around us? Nothing would speak more effectively than for someone to hear from a fellow sufferer that this sickness can be overcome through the message “I did it and so can you,” or “God helped me and he will help you, too.”

Several cautions are in order . . .

One caution is to make sure that those who know about margin in their lives do not make the goal look so high that no one can imagine attaining it. Hope is not hope if it is continually beyond reach.

Second, care must be taken so that margin does not become an end in itself. One of the problems with economic development is that sometimes spiritual transformation is looked upon almost as a side benefit–not the primary issue. When people improve economically and not spiritually, then we end up with nonbelievers who simply have a higher standard of living. When that happens the root causes of poverty are glossed over and such things as violence, hatred, greed, corruption, depression and many other societal ills go unresolved.

Third, as I continue to draw attention to issues of dependency and the need for healthy Spirit-led self-reliance in the Christian movement, there is one thing that frequently concerns me. I sometimes fear that someone will misunderstand what I am saying and use it as an excuse to hold on to what they have and not be concerned about the poor. Jesus reserved some of his harshest criticism for those who offended the poor. I also fear that some will think that I am promoting giving with the view to getting something in return. None of us should be found promoting health and wealth for its own sake. We should all – the poor included – give in gratitude for what God has done for us, and not for what we might get in return.

With all that I say about breaking dependency, we must recognize that our world is a very needy place. There are people whose families have been living on the edge – some in survival mode – for generations. Jesus commands us to help, and as Christians we must do what we can. Our challenge is to find a way that preserves dignity and does not create or perpetuate dependency.

Note: The conference can be accessed at: or through SA Lotus Notes database: poverty:nsf

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