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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

What is poverty?

The community "comfort station" in the mountain village of San Antonio, Belize

As many of you know, I’ve just returned from a week-long mission trip to Belize.

Twenty-one people under the age of 18 and fourteen adults made the trek to a remote mountain village near the Guatemalan border to build a playground for the young children there, and to refurbish and paint the Community Center.

We also took along several of our Parish Nurses and held a Wellness Clinic in the community center, visiting ten elderly people in their homes who couldn’t make the short journey to the clinic.

There are many, many lessons to be learned from this amazing trip which will unfold and be revealed and learned over the next weeks and months. I want to share one particularly important one.

As a former public health nurse, I took great delight in helping to do the work of the Wellness Clinic. I was overjoyed to have been invited to accompany the nurse and her assistants who were making home visits to the elderly and infirmed in the village.

As we were making the long walk from the road to the thatched-roof hut of one of the villagers, Russell, our guide, commented, “This is the poorest family in the entire village.”

Later, I asked him why he had made that distinction. “Is it because they had no electricity or running water? Is it because they are one of the few families to life in a thatched-roof hut? Is it because this man is dying in the darkness of that hut, alone, except for his daughter, and in the excruciating and unrelenting pain of apparent stomach cancer?”

“No,” said Russell. “It is not the absence or presence of material things that makes one poor,” he said. “Poverty, real poverty, is not about things. Real poverty is about not having any choices.”

“Help me understand what you mean by that,” I asked.

Russell paused for a few thoughtful moments before responding, “Poverty is about not having any choices. This family has no choice. They have no resources. No options. There is just his daughter and her brother who is too sick to work, and their young children. They help as much as they can. But, in the end, the only choice – the only option – they have is to ask for help, which is really no choice, no option at all, when you consider the consequences.”

Poverty is about not having any other choice – any other option – except to ask for help.

I’m still unpacking the weight of that statement – theologically, spiritually and politically, I’ve never had poverty described to me in this way. Come to think of it, neither have I had poverty defined for me by one who lives in the midst of it – on the borders of it – at the continual threat of it. I have come to believe that this particular perspective changes the definition of poverty.

What must it be like, I wonder, to have no choice other than the choice to ask for help? What a luxury even to be able to wonder about an answer to the question! How profound to consider the indignity of poverty, as well as the depth of its spirituality. What lessons might God have to teach us about such extreme poverty?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says in his first sermon now known as The Beatitudes, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:3).

Jesus was talking about deep, spiritual poverty – having no other choice, no other option, except to ask God for help.

Another translation by Eugene Peterson, says it this way: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule.”

I’m reminded that author Annie Lamont says that there are only two really authentic prayers. One is, “Please. Please. Please.” The other is “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

I suspect that may be closer to the truth about poverty – spiritual and/or material – than any of us cares to admit.

Still, the question haunts: What lessons might God have to teach us about such extreme poverty?

It is of such questions that mission trips are made – and deeply valued.


Jeffri said...

Really puts things in perspective. Like being in Ecuador and encountering the Episcopal Church primarily as a church of the poor--so different from how most of us experience it here in the United States.

Bill said...

It reminded me of the time I was in the Army and stationed in Korea back in 1967. When we drove through the towns I was speechless. The poverty was all around us. I grew up in a tenement in the Bronx but it was nothing like what I saw there.

Years later while on vacation in Antigua I encountered the same thing. The little hotel buses transported us safely from the airport to the gated resorts or into the city. But between those islands of prosperity you drove down old broken roads through some of the worst poverty I have ever seen. It was like navigating this terrible ocean and I was afraid that if the bus should break down I would somehow drown in that poverty. I admit to picking up my camera and then putting it down. Looking at the five hundred dollar camera and then out at the poverty I was too embarrassed to be seen holding it. I didn’t want to record their poverty. Some of that was motivated by my not wanting to invade their privacy but the other reason, and I hate to admit it, was a fear of getting too close to it. As if that closeness might somehow let the poverty rub off on me.

fs said...

Jesus was talking about deep, spiritual poverty – having no other choice, no other option, except to ask God for help.

Thank you for this thoughtful and provocative post, Reverend Kaeton.

When we are so poor, in whatever way, that our only choice is to ask for help, then "self" is finally not enough. Then the only source of hope is faith, at the deepest level. In his adult ministry, Jesus had no money, so his loving followers, esp. women, provided. When he sent his followers out to other towns, he told them to take nothing and live on what was given. This has got to be one of the hardest tests of faith there is.

No wonder he calls the poor blessed.

By aiding them, your group helped reinforce their faith, which sustains them. You make it easy to remember that Jesus would have to be there, among "the least" of that village.

Your Belize stories are very moving, Reverend Kaeton. Thank you for sharing them.