One Sabbath, I headed out on my own to do outreach. After about five minutes of walking down the streets of Toronto, I noticed a homeless woman sitting cross-legged in the back corner of a store. She was young, had cropped red hair, and was wearing a faint white t-shirt that barely fit over her wide belly – It took a mere couple of seconds for me to figure out she was pregnant.
I felt an overwhelming impression to go sit beside her and talk. When I made my request, she shrugged (I took this as a yes). But when I made myself cozy, she was not amused. She informed me that my presence would make it harder for people to want to give her change. Nevertheless, she tolerated me.
I quickly learned that my witness was ineffective. She cringed every time I mentioned God’s name, and the sandwich I gave her seemed small, especially when held up to her growing list of needs (and special cravings – she had an inclination to have a watermelon-flavored drink from Booster Juice).
On her part, she had made countless attempts to find shelter. Despite her numerous calls to churches and shelters in the phone book, she was repeatedly turned away. Many didn’t respond at all. One pastor told her that before offering her space, he would need to consult his board.
I finished off the day completely dejected. She hadn’t even taken the book I had given her (The Great Controversy). As I made my way back home, I reflected on the day’s events. It seemed all of my efforts had been futile. I couldn’t seem to swallow the disappointment I felt in myself.
Seeing my own mother’s struggle has further impressed me with the urgency to reach those that have little. This was part of the motivation as to why I found myself out on the streets of Toronto that day. Her divorce to my dad made her a single mother in her 40’s with two grown kids. Since being let go from her steady career of eight years, things have become uncertain money-wise.
Today, she pulls herself together every day and heads out to work minimum-wage jobs that she hates. She has no “one job.” In fact, she has several. She spends weeks, and even months, waiting on small amounts of cash from private jobs, only to be able to pour it all away on bills. Once, she was almost evicted by a landlord. Now, she lives in another low-key basement apartment (this is probably apartment number 6, after the four of us lost our family home quite a few years back), and dreams of life beyond its limited space.
According to DoSomething.org, over three billion people (roughly half of the world’s population) live on less than $2.50 a day. The World Bank describes it this way: “Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.”
What I have experienced as a result of my parents’ divorce, and my period of unemployment, is a mild version of poverty compared to some others. I have never gone without shelter or food, no matter how broke I have been, because I still have two parents that can support me.
But every day there are people in Toronto, and elsewhere, who don’t have this kind of support. As a result, they go without food and shelter. We may be more familiar with the faces in the cities who stand on street corners, make park benches their resting place, and sit holding arresting signs on the sidewalks. I am ashamed to say that sometimes I can’t bear to look them in the eye. They look too much like me…and if I stare closer, I see the face of Jesus.
With many real issues confronting us on a daily basis, it calls into question the role of the church. We have to understand what it means to be relevant in a time of such chaos. We need to meet people where they are in the midst of their poverty and empathize with them, show them that we care. Walking away from those that need our help the most should not even be an option.
I think many of us are afraid of poverty, and everything that it entails. This is because we like the comfort and security that comes with our jobs and bank accounts. We see this as a way of exerting control over our lives. Not knowing how we will pay our bills, whether we will even have food to eat, or where we will end up, isn’t appealing to any of us. That is why our natural inclination is to stay away from situations that are vying for our attention, including conversations where others may relate their financial woes to us.
Yet the experience of poverty can also teach us many beautiful things. Like the Psalmist, we may say, “I have learned what it is to have little, yet have never seen the righteous forsaken nor his seed begging bread.” Despite all of what my mother has been through, she has never landed on the street. God has always provided.
Poverty has also taught me humility. It has taught me that I can’t rely on material objects to give me satisfaction. I have come to find more happiness in the things that money can’t buy: Spending time with loved ones, doing menial chores in service for others, and seeing value in work that goes beyond just the salary. Poverty is not something to be avoided, but rather embraced as we learn from the One who “…though he was rich, yet for [our] sakes became poor, that [we] through his poverty might be rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
God has a special place in his heart for the poor, which may be why there are more than 2,000 references in the Bible relating to poverty. As believers, it is our duty to reach out to this set of people; in fact, the Lord commands it. Ministering to the poor vindicates the character of our Lord, and is a working out of our faith. In Proverbs 31:8-9, we are told to “Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and the needy.”
Not only is this an act of advocacy and of righteousness, it is an act of justice. By likening ourselves to those of the poor, we receive the God-given ability to step into their shoes. Everywhere you look, there are people crying out for help. As in the case of my mother, they are often closer than we think. What are we doing to reach them?