by Miriam Smith
If I give all I possess to the poor…but have not love, I gain nothing.” —1 Corinthians 13:3
My life in Africa has always been a mix of stunning contrasts. Toddlers, fingering sewage-covered stones, exist in tin shacks backed up to tree-lined lawns encircling marble presidential palaces. Guns, graves, and graffiti multiply in proportion to soul-rending African worship.
I was raised in one of the poorest countries on the continent: Chad. By American standards, I experienced a very poor childhood. Only three hours of electricity a day; cement floors; charcoal stoves; a kerosene fridge; a one-room schoolhouse; a small, single cab; a non-four-wheel drive, pickup truck to cross dirt roads tortured and twisted by heavy rains. By Chadian standards, I lived in luxury: eating three meals a day; sleeping between clean sheets under a secure tin roof; and riding, rather than walking, to town.
Josephine, my Chadian friend, suffered daily the indignity of being told that she was a bother and a burden to her parents and would only be worth something to the family if she could marry well and produce many boys. In contrast, my parents used to tell me, “With God’s help, you can be and do anything.”
A month after getting married, my husband and I landed in Somaliland. When we arrived, our honeymoon suite was outfitted with a kerosene lamp, a bucket of clean water, a long drop, and an AK-47. For four hundred miles around us, the sea of humanity was in spiritual darkness so great that you could feel the oppression and shadows. Yet, every morning we four lone believers worshiped Jesus together, flickering light into the darkness that threatened to take over our lives.
Over the last thirty years in Africa, one of the most difficult ongoing struggles I have faced is knowing how to live in the midst of Africa’s incomparable beauty and abject poverty, inescapable death yet constant growth. Living in the shadow of such stark contrasts has forced me to face the sometimes ugly truth of who I am and what I really want from life.
I have come face to face with the dark parts of my heart revealed in greed, selfishness, pride, and fear. My cultural blindness to the concept of sharing and living in community has been revealed. I have been humbled to realize that although I am wealthier physically, I have much to learn from the spiritual, relational, and emotional depth of my African brothers and sisters.
Rubbing shoulders with poverty has caused me to challenge my Western ideals about money and money-making, and consider what biblical truths would impact me most if I personally lived on a garbage heap in a desperate search for food and shelter. I have faced my pride in assuming I would make better decisions than people in poverty, not realizing how many more options wealth has given me. I have had to confess that I have even used scriptures such as “The poor will always be among you” to rationalize their inevitable state and to allow myself off the hook (see Deut. 15:11).
Many times I have asked myself, “How do I experience abundant life, yet die to self in ministry to those in poverty?”
Abandon and Obedience to Jesus is the only way I have found of dealing with life’s constant intersections with poverty. If I try to give myself or my stuff to those in poverty, I will get overwhelmed and burned out, or I might allow myself to use those I interact with as an opportunity to make myself a hero, a kind of human messiah, seeking men and women’s praise.
I must recognize that I am, like my less physically wealthy neighbors, a weak, poor vessel myself, unable to give or do enough to alleviate poverty. Only when I set out to obey Christ, purely motivated by his command, can I truly become a channel of Jesus’ love and riches to others (Matt 7: 21-23). We all need more of Jesus’ touch and we receive that touch through one another, allowing Jesus to be the one who alleviates poverty through us.
It is easier to become calloused and immune to those in poverty and the suffering masses than to ignore a poor and suffering friend. “The poor” are people, potential friends: men, women, and children made in the image of God, who is the source of human dignity. Poor people have dreams, ideas, pain, and joy—just like everyone else.
Those in poverty are not objects, but individuals with names and identities. Personal friendship is the key to compassion. Compassion means to “suffer with,” and touching “the poor” becomes doable when we intentionally seek out relationships among the poor. Beware, however, for these relationships are dangerous to our pre-conceived notions about poverty.
Is it arduous to live within the tension of these contrasts, knowing they often cast too bright a light on parts of our heart we wish to hide? Absolutely. But with the Holy Spirit’s help, we can allow the reality of poverty to humble us, revealing our true hearts, and give the Spirit the opportunity to shape us into more Christ-like servants of the King. Facing our own greed, pride, and selfishness is painful, but dying to sin is the only way to life.
Raised as a missionary kid in Chad, Miriam Smith has spent her life in Africa. Called as a young teenager into missions, she and her husband, Kevin, have served God through holistic ministry in the Horn of Africa and Kenya.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 264-265. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.