BY CARISSA YOUSSEF
Food for the Hungry’s (FH) mission is to end physical and spiritual poverty by serving the most vulnerable around the world through long-term community development. Since 1994, FH Canada has seen 69 communities graduate as self-sustaining and is actively working in 77 communities in eight countries. FH’s model for ending poverty is through community transformation. We partner with communities to form a 10-year plan to get from stuck to thriving, focusing activities in the areas of education, health, livelihoods, and leadership training. Working on all four fronts at the same time makes each program even more effective.But before we can seek transformational solutions to a community’s poverty, we must first define the problem – what is poverty?
“Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” - Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor
According to Bryant Myers’ reading of the Christian scriptures, humans were created into four primary relationships. Poverty occurs whenever one (or more) of those relationships is broken.
Relationship 1: Human with God
The book of Genesis tells us that God walked with Adam and Eve on a daily basis and talked with them to the extent that they recognized his voice. He had a relationship with them in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:27-31; 2:19-20).
Relationship 2: Human with Humans
We also see that a social relationship existed in the husband-wife bond between Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:18, 20-24). Social relationships were part of God’s plan from the beginning, and they were good, harmonious, and just.
Relationship 3: Human with Self
Humans were created in God’s image which gives each of us inherent dignity and worth (Genesis 1:26-27). Having the image of our creator allows us to live with a healthy self-image and sense of purpose.
Relationship 4: Human with Creation
Humans were also given a relationship with creation, what can be referred to as the physical relationship (Genesis 1:28-30). God positioned Adam and Eve to be caretakers of the earth, establishing a relationship between humanity and his physical creation.
If you dig into injustices around you, if you seek out the root causes of any expression of poverty, very likely you will find one or more of these broken relationships at the centre. That is why the reconciliation of these four relationships is the heart of justice and the necessary starting place for FH’s mission to ending poverty.
In scripture, we find two Hebrew definitions of justice: “mishpat” – do justice, and “tzedeqah” – being just. Mishpat is an active verb and is most often associated with taking action against an exploitation. Tzedeqah, on the other hand, is almost always expressed as "being righteous", and refers to a way of living in shalom. FH focuses primarily on tzedeqah through our work in reconciliation - long-term relationship repair to overcome the injustice of poverty.
When we reflect on our own lives, most of us will discover an area of personal brokenness that needs to be reconciled in order to live in and offer shalom to others. Poverty, as defined by broken relationships, impacts each of us. To live justly, then, I believe we must always keep in the front of our minds our posture and God’s provision.
Most of us struggle with holding a biblical posture in our efforts to live justly. We often talk about the poor and vulnerable, but we do not often engage with the poor and vulnerable. It’s rarely intentional, but by not actively pursuing a posture that honours the vulnerability and value of those we seek to serve, we create a very real danger of building an “us” and “them” mentality. This is exactly what happened on my first visit to a developing community.
I was 14 years old and my church youth group drove to Mexico on big yellow school buses to spent 10 days building houses for families experiencing material poverty. When I look back, I am saddened to realize that while I recall having fun with my friends and learning how to pound nails more efficiently, I don’t remember the names, faces or stories of the people I was there to help. I’m ashamed to admit I never even tried to use my weak Spanish to learn from the family.
I share this anecdote to remind myself that we must ensure our greatest effort when working with the vulnerable is to maintain and enhance their dignity and maintain and enhance their roles. The way we view the people we want to help will directly affect our response to their needs. Likewise, the way we view our role – our posture – impacts how we treat “the other.”
Serving from a posture of a healthy awareness of our own vulnerability helps us keep the right perspective.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” ― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
It’s critical that we understand our own vulnerability and that we serve from a posture of vulnerability. In this place God will grow our hearts and minds and ability to care for the marginalized, for the voiceless, for the poor, and for the oppressed. Because now it is not us and them…now it is just us.
In addition to keeping the right posture toward ourselves and others as we seek justice, we must also remember God’s provision.
When I was young my dad was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and given three months to live. We were living in the States and unfortunately my dad was also between jobs meaning we had no health insurance; a terrifying prospect when facing such a daunting medical journey. Miraculously, God gave our family two incredible years together while my dad fought this terrible disease. I experienced more of God’s faithfulness and provision in this period of my life than any other. Part of that provision came through the support of our community and the families in our church.
I remember Christmas time when our family experienced great generosity from friends and family. One way people chose to bless us was by showing up at our home with extravagant gifts for me and my siblings. Naturally, we were delighted, but I’ll never forget looking up and noticing my dad’s face as he watched us receive gifts he couldn’t give us.
Then there was the giving tree in the foyer of our church with my name swaying on a golden card; suggestions for gift giving penned in cursive. Walking past that tree on a Sunday morning as a 15-year-old I felt extremely vulnerable; not poor - that never occurred to me - but vulnerable and ashamed of my very visible “need.”
Contrast these approaches with the families who discretely gave my parents money and told them to enjoy buying gifts for their children; perhaps they might know best what would delight us? I know without a doubt the families who gave gifts were acting out of love and compassion, but that doesn’t change how their actions made me feel.
We have to remember that we are in God’s story. He is the provider, not us. I’ve always been someone who wants to change the world. But I’m learning instead that what I really want is to walk alongside the God who loves the world so much that he made a plan to change the world and invites us to be a part of it.
“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” - Colossians 1:19-20
God has a plan. God is now at work reconciling all things, including our relationships. God will complete the work he has begun. We get to be part of God’s plan of reconciliation, to invite back wholeness, bring in justice, and live with joy and hope in the tension between the Garden and Kingdom come (2 Cor 5). That’s so much bigger and greater and better and scarier and more meaningful than what I thought I wanted to be part of when I was a teenager.
“Consider the story of Moses, when God called him to speak to Pharaoh. Moses felt inhibited by his weaknesses. He didn’t feel capable of speaking to Pharaoh or of leading the Israelites out of Egypt because he only saw his disqualifications. And how did God respond to Moses’s doubt? He didn’t give a self-help pep talk. He didn’t affirm Moses’s leadership or his talents or gifts. He didn’t hug him and cheer for him and speak encouraging words over him. God didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he changed the subject. God affirmed his own strength, his own leadership, his own self because the outcome never hinged upon Moses. This story was not about Moses’s strengths. Moses was never meant to be the hero. Only God could deliver the Israelites out of Egypt, so he directed Moses’s focus back to himself.” – Sharon Hodde Miller
Living justly and serving the vulnerable is an incredible calling God makes to each and every one of us. And it only works when we act out of a space that recognizes our vulnerabilities while valuing and upholding the inherent dignity – the image of God – of those we serve. We have to stay courageously surrendered to God’s abundant provision. His plan is in motion and it is through living relationally reconciled lives that we can participate with him in changing the world.
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
– Sister Ruth Marlene Fox
View slides from the original presentation here:
Watch the community of Bukiende's story of going from stuck to thriving here: