You know those fundraising commercials they used to play on TV of families in utter poverty? Plastered across the screen sat children in torn clothes, unbathed and in the dirt among trash under a crumbling roof of rusty, corrugated tin. The scenes were purposely chosen to be gut-wrenching and donation provoking.
As a viewer, I believed such places and people existed, but it felt surreal from the vantage point of my sofa in the prosperous bubble of the USA. I couldn’t fully grasp the reality of those distant, impoverished places.
But they have since met me face to face. Now I’ve walked through the neighborhoods, splashed through those sewerage flooded streets when it rained, almost thrown up a few times from the putrid smells of years of rotting excreta.
Travel brought me there, stuck me in the middle of it and taught me to smile.
Often my mom, sister, and I were the only foreigners in those dilapidated slums for miles around. Sometimes we could truly tell that visitors were about as common as new sheets or a shingled roof. It was important to smile to show we wanted to be there, that their lives mattered, to say hello and be inviting in expression.
We were visitors walking practically through their living rooms, as homes lacked decent doors or privacy. I smiled because, sure as the sun was shining, every person was bound to turn and stare at us. What impression did I want to give?
I wasn’t left long to ponder how to act, nor did I need to. I smiled because they smiled. As elderly women with wasting skin paused from scrubbing, straightening up over a half done, hand-washed bucket of laundry, while a teenage girl rode her bike, a mother washed dishes, as a boy stopped drumming his basketball, or after a crowd of tricycle drivers turned their heads, they looked at us and smiled.
Maybe they were inwardly laughing at the 50lb backpacks on our slouched shoulders, giving us the look of straddled donkeys. Maybe they thought it queer we were walking, that rare activity hardly practiced in Southeast Asia. Maybe they were excited to witness pink-toned, freckle-skinned Americans in the flesh- their very own cultural show parading past. Maybe they realized the effort it took to cross oceans and get us there.
Perhaps they smiled just because.
It really could have been anything. But what kept those encounters friendly and sweet flowed from people who thought in the least complicated ways. They were the giggles and ogling eyes, the whispers growing louder with the boldness to yell hello.
Connections sprung from the little ones, children with enough imagination to find weird looking strangers totally worth talking to. If they could still laugh in their surroundings and have fun with absolutely nothing, I’d say they were wired for adventure. They enjoyed a mindset perfect for building bridges between us and them.
While the adults hung back, the young girls who called out hello ducked under baskets and a table, one by one peeking out, unable to restrain their curiosity for our response. We waved and yelled hello back. They lit up with wide smiles and popped out again to say good bye.
It was waving at the baby in his mother’s arm to crack her grin when at first she didn’t know what to think of us.
It was saying, “Good!” after a group of boys had yelled out the only English phrase they knew: “How are you?” And asking them “how are you?” as well. It was finding that they lacked the words to answer and initiating an impromptu English class. My mom threw up her thumb and said “good!” then pointed her thumb down and said “bad!” They caught on, quickly stuck up their thumbs and yelled “good!” as their answer, chortling together over the lesson.
The fathers watching near by seemed pleased by the interaction. Their indifferent expressions then, too, turned up at the edges.
My views on poverty have changed dramatically from these benign encounters. That’s not to say anyone can paint poverty in pretty colors. It is impossible to be reconciled with such a shrewd existence. As long as you have the compass of conscience, you have enough instinct to cringe at its stink. You’ll hate the rotting boards people live under and detest the cockroaches running through the cracks. The sights and smells burden you with oppressive weight.
But it does one thing more that’s infinitely important. Poverty lets our minds cut straight to the core of what it means to be human; it’s a survey of existence without fluff and airs. It peels back every divide, every mask, every thing you think defines you. Peering into an empty hand, a child’s swollen belly, we remember that we enter life with nothing and leave in the same way.
C.S. Lewis wrote that there’s no time like war time to get people focused on what’s serious in life, on eternity. There are no mere mortals on the battlefield, and there are no mere mortals in indigence.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations- these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit- immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
~C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
I’ve found poverty to be less scary when I see the connections the impoverished have in a community, the interactions they get without constant technology and instant gratification of their desires. Sometimes impoverished areas still have everything they need, although their belongings are basic. You see the joy they have from working or playing outside and pity instead the children who are lonely in a big house or detached from too many hours of video games.
Yet poverty seems starker after witnessing its prevalence and seeing up close what it entails. I saw the hardness of teenagers, the resentment, absence of love and care, lack of choice, direction or freedom of opportunity. They form gangs and miss the world of knowledge, slaved to perilous ignorance.
Four year old boys light up cigarettes, parents send out kids to beg with the script, “give me peso, just one peso for eat.” Eight year olds in a circle count and fight over chump change that possibly equals a dollar, their arms the total width of three fingers. Girls hustle to sell souvenirs, hardened to the depths of their core, brazen and bitter, taught that there’s a chasm they can’t cross to having the plush lives of their favorite TV shows.
There’s deep suffering. Yet many of them smile. I find it to be a beautiful testament to the strength of their humanity and ability to connect with others.
Jesus said we would always have the poor with us on this earth. As long as sin remains, there will be suffering, injustice, greed, etc. No one was ever meant to live the lives that pauperized populations do. My prayer for the poor is much the same as for everyone else, that they would come to know the power, love, and salvation of Jesus who longs to and is able to lift them up.
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.
The rich and the poor meet together; the Lord is the maker of them all.
But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.
Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways.
But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them.
When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the Lord will answer them; I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. …
The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.
More on what the Bible has to say about the poor and poverty here.