I recently travelled for a work-related conference. Arriving early at the venue, I went out for a walk to see my surroundings and get some fresh air. In the mid-afternoon, I was astonished to see clear drunkenness among both men and women across a range of ages and from what appeared to be diverse socio-economic status. In many doorways slept homeless people, and outside many shops there were beggars. I was stunned by the vulgar language used and the aggressive tones which were used, particularly by younger women. There seemed to be no joy, just anger, alcohol, and angst.
This was the city of my birth.
Recently, a visitor to our home in east Africa was clearly shocked by the poverty which she saw around us. Children in ragged clothes would play football barefoot outside our gate. People lived in much more basic housing and had fewer possessions, and live on what can sound like an impossibly low amount per day. She kept sighing and commenting on how difficult it was, and how she would find it hard to 'live among such hardship'.
What has struck me is that poverty is everywhere. Deuteronomy 15:11 reminds us that 'There will always be poor people in the land'. In three out of four gospels, Jesus is recorded as stating, 'The poor you will always have with you'. Poverty is always among us, but perhaps when we are in our own familiar environment, we don't notice what is staring us in the face. In a country where there is better social welfare and universal access to healthcare and education, the disparities might be less obvious. Indeed in some places, it is those who are 'poor' who seem to have the most disposable income, or at least who spend in a way which is more externally apparent. It can seem paradoxical. But my recent observations reminded me that there are as many social problems in a UK city as there are in a developing world context. I think it is helpful to consider what poverty actually is. Is it purely related to the amount a person lives on per day, or does the definition extend beyond being materially poor? A very helpful resource is the book 'When Helping Hurts', and the associated Chalmers Centre. This really helped me understand what poverty meant, and why simply providing 'aid' was not the answer. It also made me appreciate that people become trapped and disempowered and so unable to lift themselves out of their situation. This is seen across cultures and in all environments.
Many of my friends and colleagues in Africa think that Europe and America are places with the streets paved with gold. Their view often comes from films, books or seeing the computers and cameras that people tend to come across with. They struggle to believe that life can be hard, that the cost of living is much higher so money might not go far, and that there are as many, albeit different, social problems. However for me, returning briefly after many years to the place where I was born, I found myself more shocked by what I saw than by the more obvious material poverty in my neighbourhood in east Africa.
What is my point here?
1) The words of Christ are eternal. As long as we live in this world, there will be poverty among us.
2) In every society and context, there are opportunities for us to love and serve.
3) We must take care not to become numb to that which surrounds us daily, but prayerfully seek to see the situation and see how God can use us in it
4) We must not feel that people living in other places have a more 'spiritual' role; I know sometimes people can see their overseas workers or missionaries as being somehow on a pedestal. My argument is that there is every bit as much work to do where you are. Working amongst angry, hopeless people in a cold European city may not seem as 'glamorous' or 'special' as working with HIV-positive women in an African city, but I would encourage you that there are every bit as many opportunities.
5) Get involved and seek to love and serve those around you.