Poverty – Part 1: Why should I be concerned?

This past July, as my family and journeyed to Alberta for our annual pilgrimage to visit family and friends, we past a single vehicle rollover on Highway # 1 west of Salmon Arm.  Always when I encountered such a scene, the question that runs through my mind is, “Should I stop to help?”  We slowed down and while we could see that the emergency response vehicles and personnel had not arrived on scene, we also noticed that there were about a dozen vehicles lining the sides of the road and several people were already ministering to the people involved in the accident.  Reasonably certain that the needed care was being provided and that there was little more that we could do, we continued on our journey, though not without some second-guessing of that decision.

The Christian Church finds itself in a similar predicament at times.  The early Church was not only concerned with spreading the Good News of forgiveness and a new, eternal and abundant life with Jesus Christ.  They also lived out that life by caring for the needs of those around them.

A family in the Anapra neighbourhood of Juarez, Mexico
A family in the Anapra neighbourhood of Juarez, Mexico

Acts chapter 2 records the response of the people to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon them:    42And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47) There’s no dichotomy here between Gospel and social ministry.

Over time, the main areas of societal concern for Christians—education, health care and caring for the weak and poor—became areas of concern for the societies in which they lived, and in countries such as Canada, the United States and several in Europe, responsibility for these areas were taken over by the public and/or private sector, thus developing the dichotomy that we have today.  Why should we stop to help if the needs are already being met by others?

But the reality is that while much is being done—and we can thank God for the wonderful health care, education system and social safety net that we have in this country—not all the needs of Canadians are being met.  While Canada’s public programs have helped to keep 674,700 children from living in poverty, one in nine (760,000) children are still living in families with incomes below the poverty line.[1] Food bank use has risen 86% from 1989 to 2007, and 39% of those 720,230 of those Food Bank clients were children.  (That is 280,900 children)  The cost of housing has risen beyond the reach of many of our nation’s poor resulting in large numbers of people of people living on the streets. (A recent estimate placed the number of homeless people in Canada at 300,000.)   And the incidence of poverty is unequally distributed across various segments of society. One in three mother-led, single-parent families live in poverty, as do 49% of children of recent immigrants and 49% of Aboriginal children.  The problem of poverty is not explained by slothfulness.  A full time job in Canada at minimum wage will not provide enough funds to lift a family above the poverty line.  Two in five children living in poverty have at least one parent working full-time in year round employment.  Three in five children living in poverty live in families where the parents must cobble together various part-time and seasonal employment opportunities to support the family.[2]

And beyond our borders there are many countries in the world where the situation is much worse than here in Canada.  As of the end of 2008, there were 963 million people in the world suffering from chronic malnutrition.  Nearly 30,000 children die each day around the world due to extreme poverty.  1.1 billion people do not have access to water that is safe to drink, a situation that results in the death of 5 million people per year (1.8 million of these are children) from water-related diseases.  The estimated cost of providing clean drinking water to everyone in the world is 12 to 35 billion dollars per year—expensive, indeed, but affordable when compared to the $20 billion spent each year in America on ice cream or the $1.3 trillion spent annually around the world on military resources.[3] There are still wounded strangers at the side of the road who are not receiving the care that they need.

As we read the account of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), there are several characters whose place we could take.  We could be the learned lawyer who knew all the right information and wanted to show himself to be right before Jesus.[4] We could be the religious folk, the priest and the Levite, who avoid helping the beaten man in Jesus’ story.  But we most definitely are the bruised and naked person lying at the side of the road.  In spite of all of our material wealth (and most of us are very wealthy in comparison to the rest of the world), or perhaps because of it, our spiritual poverty is vast and deep.  We tend to exchange the true and lasting joy of life with God for the false and fleeting pleasure of desiring and gathering up wealth for ourselves.  And there is no life in that.  But this stranger knelt down beside, just when we were at our moment of deepest need and greatest weakness.  He scooped us up, carried us to a place of rest and paid in advance for our healing.  Jesus’ compassion for the whole world, shown to us most clearly on the cross, is what gives us hope when, on the one hand, we are confronted with the enormity of our own sinful self-centredness and when, on the other hand, we are confronted with the enormity of the challenge of trying to do something about poverty in our world, our country or in our community.  Jesus is the one who takes away all of our sin, including our sin of failing to love our poor neighbours.  Jesus is the one who gives us a full, rich life with him that lasts forever.  And Jesus is the one who enriches our lives by giving us opportunities to serve others with the Gospel and provide for their social needs as well.  And he even gives us the money to do it.  For, as forgiven followers of Jesus Christ, we are the innkeeper too. And as we care for the poor, we not only extend love and care to others for whom Christ died, we do it to Jesus, the one beaten and bloodied for us (cf. Mt. 25:40).

The need is great, and while we work alongside others with concern for the poor, only the Christian Church can bring to the poor the hope that does not disappoint (cf. Romans 5:5).  And hope is no small thing.  World Vision Canada identifies hope as one of the four key elements necessary for a child to develop their full God-given potential.[5] And the hope that we share is not for this life alone, but for all eternity.  So we not only have an opportunity and the resources to help people in need, we give, along with our loving service, the Saviour of the world, Jesus Christ, and that is the best gift anyone could ever receive!

[1] The figure often used as the unofficial poverty line is Statistic Canada’s Low Income Cut-Off (LICO) which is the income level at which a family spends 20% more than the average Canadian family on basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter.  In 1959, Statistics Canada determined that the average Canadian family spends about 50% of family income on those three items, so the LICO has been established as the point at which a family spends 70% of its income on necessities.  (Source:  Working Definitions of Poverty, Canadian Council on Social Development (Internet; available at:  http://www.ccsd.ca/pubs/2000/fbpov00/chapter2.pdf; downloaded: 26 August 2009))

[2] 2008 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Canada, Campaign 2000 (Internet; available at:  http://www.campaign2000.ca/rc/C2000%20Report%20Card%20FINAL%20Nov%2010th08.pdf; downloaded 26 August 2009).

[3] The Hard Facts, World Vision Canada (Internet; available at:  http://www.worldvision.ca/EDUCATION-AND-JUSTICE/ADVOCACY-IN-ACTION/Pages/the-hard-facts.aspx; downloaded 26 August 2009).

[4] The lawyer in this passage is not an expert in the secular law, as we would understand a lawyer today to be.  He is an expert in religious law.

[5] Living Below the Line:  Canadian Children in Poverty (2009), World Vision Canada, p. 8 (The other three are Education, Health and Safety.)

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