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Poverty is Fear

While reading through “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself” by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, there are “initial thoughts” questions at the beginning of each chapter. Before chapter two, the reader is asked to make a list of words associated with poverty. When Helping HurtsI took some serious time to think through this question and came up with many words: immobility, unemployment, separation, disadvantaged, disowned, misled, unwanted and so on. The chapter then opens with actual quotes from poor people around the world describing what it means to be poor. Some were expected and fit well within what I thought I knew about poverty. For example, someone from Cameroon said that to be poor was “a feeling of powerlessness and an inability to make themselves heard.” But I quickly realized that I don’t know anything about what it really means to be poor. “For a poor person, everything is terrible—illness, humiliation, shame. We are cripples; we are afraid of everything,” said someone from Moldova. “I feel ashamed standing before my children when I have nothing to help feed the family,” said one parent in Guinea-Bissau. I was surprised to hear the constant theme of fear, shame and depression. Yet these dynamics run right through the ways the poor all over the world describe themselves. Closer to home, Cornel West describes the problems plaguing inner city ghettos in this country as “the psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair.” Sure, I’ve been afraid. Just recently, I had to find street parking near friend’s building in Northeast Washington, D.C. Street parking can be difficult to come by, and the neighborhood in which I had to leave my vehicle was significantly rougher than my friend’s neighborhood just a few blocks away. While walking through that neighborhood, I realized that I was being watched from several houses, I was yelled at from someone’s porch, and disturbingly, I realized I was briefly followed. In that moment, I was afraid. But it was different. In my case, I had friends waiting for me, and graciously, one of my imposing male friends walked me back to my car. For those materially poor who make that neighborhood their home, they live in different kinds of fear on a more permanent basis. All around the world, people made in the image of God are making their home in fear every day. One of the core ideas of Fikkert and Corbett’s book is that helping the poor must alleviate this fear, not feed it. It must free people from shame, not entrap them in it. As previously discussed, central to the Chalmers Center’s model is the conviction that poverty results primarily from broken relationships. Fear and shame is a result of broken relationships with God, with self and with others:
For the economically poor, these broken relationships often include shame, a marred identity, social isolation, and a lack of a sense of vocation that contribute to a lack of income. For the economically rich, these broken relationships manifest themselves in pride, selfishness, workaholic tendencies, materialism, etc. that lead to all sorts of individual and social ills. Unfortunately, when the economically rich interact with the economically poor, they tend to do so in such a way that exacerbates the shame that the economically poor feel, while also exacerbating the pride of the economically rich. Central to poverty alleviation is embracing our own mutual brokenness so that we can truly help others without hurting them and ourselves.
We know that Christ came to open prison doors and set the captives free, and it is this call to freedom and liberty that we must keep in mind when we work through our call to help the poor.