An Unfolding Perspective on Poverty
Editorial Note: David Stein, Ph.D., former pastor of Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, is a past president of the Daystar Association and is currently working with “Food for the Poor.” After returning from the Dominican Republic, he is on his way to Kenya. His is the third article on the theme: “Doing Theology in Our Christian Callings.”
“We need always to be thinking and writing about poverty, for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us. We must talk about poverty because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.” This Dorothy Day citation appeared in Context 37:4 (April 2005, Part A), Martin E. Marty’s commentary on religion and culture. It has been a prologue to any number of homilies I have delivered by invitation addressing issues of worldwide abject poverty.
At a time in the journey of life when retirement seemed appropriate, I was anxious about the daily agenda. A second cup of coffee, time to read the daily newspaper before attacking a less demanding schedule, days of complete freedom — was this to become the pathway to a fruitful and meaningful change of life? It did not happen that way.
Weeks into what granddaughter Rebecca described as “rewirement,” I was invited to join the Speakers Bureau of Food for the Poor, Inc., of Deerfield Beach, Florida, an international charity focused on issues of abject poverty in the Western Hemisphere, serving the poorest of the poor in sixteen island and Latin and Central American nations. Orientation, training, first-hand observation and exposure to the peoples of poverty have only begun to reshape and recast my understanding of the profound needs millions of people live with every hour of every day, people who have helped me see Jesus in the eyes of the poor.
For me, and I suspect for many, poverty was and continues to be an academic reality, sociologically and anthropologically. The world is populated by millions who survive on the raw edge of poverty, lacking food, clothing and some vestige of health care, people who search for potable water, who beg for dignity and struggle to find any employment at all.
Comparisons helped me understand the differences that exist among the haves and the have-nots of this world. Any computer literate elementary school child can enter the cyberspace of our modern technology and read all about American poverty by consulting the United States Census Bureau. I had to ask myself, when invited to join the agency, do I have any real sense or understanding of this Christian calling to live and work with and for the very poorest of the world?
As I studied the data available through the United States Census Bureau, I began my journey to Haiti, Jamaica, Guatemala and other Western Hemisphere areas of the globe vicariously. Did you know, the average home of a poor person in the United States has three bedrooms with one and a half baths and at least one air conditioner and that only six percent of these homes have overcrowding? Are you aware that three-fourths of poor households in the United States own one car and that thirty percent own two or more automobiles? Ninty-seven percent own a television. Most of our readers are certainly aware that our federal government provides food stamps for certain of the poor in our nation. That’s all so academic and informational. You can read about poverty in manuals, population studies, health-care journals and every available weekly published by syndicated sources of public information.
As I pen this article to meet a publication deadline, I am reflecting on my recent pilgrimage to the Dominican Republic and the experiences of confrontation and embrace, meetings with the poorest of the poor in the mountainous areas of western Dominican Republic and being held in arms of joy and gratitude by families who had received new houses. Fifty-four impoverished families (essentially indentured slaves for hundreds of years) received fifty-four new houses from the legacy of a woman, Jeanette C. Rowe, who added to this new village a chapel and community center and latrines for health and sanitation.
To contrast the old with the new is to describe hovels and shanties of cardboard and corrugated metal replaced by houses of sturdy walls and firm foundations. Dignity, privacy, spaces for intimacy and protection from the elements of island living define these new facilities. But it was not the material that awed this pilgrim. The songs of the church, the liturgy of the Mass, the choirs of voices singing with the joy of Jesus in their hearts and souls stirred my growing understanding of the poorest of the poor. They were not poor in spirit; there was fascination and faith and freedom and hope replacing the prison of personal poverty. They danced and celebrated the love of God that had appeared in the gracious and generous support and donations of Christian people who cared to journey afar and eat and drink from the cup of God’s blessings.
Dear reader, the DAYSTAR JOURNAL is a new confession of our daily dependence on a God of love and mercy. I have discovered that my Christian calling — and yours, I pray, also — comes with daily surprises and dividends beyond calculation. “Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, that we through his poverty might become rich.” I needed to disengage from the poverty of my wealth to discover the wealth of the poorest — they see Jesus as the daily sojourner until theirs is the blessing of a mansion for eternity. Heaven help us to see the poor as the blessed of God!