I spent this summer in Oklahoma working in the inner city. Most people don’t connect Oklahoma and the inner city, but Tulsa actually deals all of the problems – poverty, violence, gangs, prostitution, high school drop-out rates, teenage pregnancies and more – that occur in major metropolises. More than anything else, I learned this summer that helping the poor matters. It matters because God cares about the poor. He punished Israel because they ignored the poor:
For three transgressions of Israel and for four I will not revoke its punishment, because they sell the righteous for money and the needy for a pair of sandals. These who pant after the very dust of the earth on the head of the helpless and turn aside the way of the humble… (Amos 2.6,7).
We probably don’t think of ourselves as “trampling” the poor, but how often do forget “the needy” as we buy ourselves a new “pair of sandals”? When confronted with this, we tend to respond that people in America are needy because they don’t work. In other words, they deserve to be poor. I have two responses that I believe should temper this mentality: 1) God chooses to love us even when we are spiritually impoverished because of our own sin. He keeps loving us even when He knows that we will misuse His grace 2) In the Bible God doesn’t put qualifications on what kind of poor we should help. It says in Psalm 113:7 that “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” It does not say that “He raises the poor who are poor despite their hard work and ingenuity from the dust and lifts the needy who fell into need even though they were responsible and disciplined from the ash heap.” I’m not espousing charity without wisdom, but I want to see Christians develop a compassionate heart that breaks when they see poverty, knowing that God loves these people.
So, what should helping the poor look like? Is it promoting soup kitchens, canned food drives, free health and hygiene clinics, etc…? While there might be a place for this sort of thing in a certain context, welfare does not work. I saw firsthand this summer the destructive nature of welfare systems. On an economic level, welfare discourages productivity by giving people an incentive to stop seeking jobs – often they cannot afford to maintain their standard of living with the kind of job they would get instead of their welfare checks. Perhaps more harmful though is the attitude that welfare cultivates. Without parents and other role-models who have good work habits, children don’t learn how to work. They quit trying in school and drop out. They don’t hold down jobs. A member of the church that I worked at told me about his experience with one of the teenagers who has been touched by the ministry: “I love ****, but I gave him a job, and the fact is he doesn’t do well.” The teenager was not a cost-effective employee. These victims of welfare also fail to understand social relationships appropriately. The students in our tutoring program constantly asked for things, complained when we would not acquiesce, and had no concept of gratefulness for what they did receive. These patterns in children turn into cycles of poverty that affect entire communities of adults. Even worse, this sense of entitlement translates into how they think about God. They think they merit God’s blessing on earth and in heaven – they do not deserve suffering or punishment.
Unless the Gospel changes people, pulling them out of poverty will only manage to change the kinds of sin they deal with. However, Christian education programs can make real progress in improving the physical and spiritual conditions of the poor. Education programs are fundamentally different from welfare because they give something and demand something. With a new realization of responsibility, the students begin to grasp the consequences they deserve as sinners before a just God. Christians should be able to see the value of outreach that educates the poor – especially with an emphasis on literacy. It allows people to read God’s Word! This can happen on small levels. You don’t have to go all “Freedom Writers” on us. You don’t have to write and pass a piece of legislation to increase after school programs. You can find a child that needs to be tutored in reading!
These thoughts may not profound, but I write because this summer gave me hope for the poor. In the past, my thoughts on poverty have been mainly frustrated diatribes about what the government should not be doing. Finally, I have begun thinking soberly about what Christians can and should be doing. For more information on the amazing program in Tulsa, Oklahoma and how to support it, please visit One Hope Ministry.