Beyond Helping the Poor

“Mercy is a voluntary sorrow that joins itself to the suffering of another.”  –Gregory of Nyssa, 4th Century

Octavia Hill was an evangelical poverty-fighter who lived in the slums ofLondonin the 1800s.  She was well-known for chastising the Church for being “too willing to help the poor, and not willing to know them.”  We, too, can often be charged similarly.  After all, helping poor people is easier and less messy and inconveniencing than knowing them.  We can help at arms-length, from the opposite side of the soup kitchen line.  Our interaction is clinical, sterile, safe, distanced.  To befriend the poor – now that takes time and emotional energy!  Yet God calls us to entangle our lives with the lives of the poor in relational, wholistic ministries (ministries that address the needs of the whole person – physical, emotional, and spiritual).  He calls us to the true mercy Gregory of Nyssa defined:  the willingness to “suffer with.”

Even when we do not have the opportunity to engage in long-term relational ministry with a poor person, we are to attempt to “know” him or her as much as possible.  In large measure, this means acknowledging the image of God in them.  It means treating them with dignity, even in fleeting interactions.  We can be tempted by our fears or even repulsions to not acknowledge the poor, but rather see them as faceless.  I fell into this temptation inIndia.  I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of dirty, impoverished residents and the filth that lined every dusty road.  I was repulsed by the garish Hindu temples, the piles of animal waste, the odors.  I was ashamed of my feelings, but found myself shrinking from having contact with “the masses.”  It was difficult for me to see in them the image of God.

After praying, I realized that I needed somehow to “connect” with an individual person and so overcome my fear and prejudice.  So I hired a bicycle rickshaw with a driver named Ragju and asked him to take me to various markets.  As we rode, we conversed as much as possible (with his broken English and my “sign” language) about his life and family.  After a short while, I asked him if I could visit his home and meet his family.  He was surprised – Western tourists hadn’t asked him that before – but very amenable.  We arrived at his home.  He lived on a rooftop in a densely crowded slum.  He invited me in for a cup of tea.  I met his wife, two children and his father-in-law.  Sitting there in the “kitchen,” with his daughter beside me and several curious neighbors looking on, I was able to see Ragju as an individual created by God.  This brief encounter allowed me to see past the “desperate masses” into one man’s eyes, face and life.  And Ragju had the chance to serve as host, when normally he was simply a faceless, nameless lackey for rich tourists.  I learned from this experience that if we cannot “know” someone from a distance, then we must get close enough to be able to overcome our own prejudicial blindness and perceive the image Deo in him.

For Further Thought…

  1. The apostle Paul wanted to “know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10). How could this dynamic – knowing Christ’s power and Christ’s sufferings – help us to live out a mercy that truly is a “voluntary sorrow that joins itself to the suffering of another?”
  2.  Would you agree that helping people from a distance typically brings less blessing than helping them face-to-face? Why?

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