For many years I sat in a pew on Sundays, listening to occasional sermons about the poor, giving to special offerings and looking appropriately sympathetic and concerned about poverty. But I did not truly—in evangelical speak—have a heart for the poor.
For much of the rest of the week I was consumed with not being poor. I was working to build my business, increase profits, and move up the wealth ladder. I reasoned that the more money I made, the more I could help my church and other worthy organizations. While I heard Christian concern expressed about poverty, the stronger message was that I was rewarded for accumulating wealth. The farther I moved away from poverty, the more I was asked to join church committees and nonprofit boards. The poor may be "blessed," but the wealthy are popular, especially in Christian circles.
As a woman business owner, I was sometimes asked to speak about my experience. I usually gave a nod to good timing, luck, and being blessed. But I mostly talked about hard work, determination, and focus. My upbeat message was aimed at helping others realize that they, too, could succeed. In retrospect, the subtext was a not so subtle "God helps those who help themselves" theme.
My worldview began to change when I joined the World Vision board and traveled to the developing world. There I met men and women who were remarkably hard working, determined, and focused. I spent time with women who cared for their families and also worked at other jobs from before sun up until dark. I encountered people who were intelligent, entrepreneurial, and absolutely ingenious at overcoming obstacles. And despite all of these attributes, they were still numbingly poor.
For the first time in my life, I actually knew desperately poor people. The more I listened to their stories the more it became obvious to me that if there was a difference between us it was that they worked even harder than I ever had. I remember standing next to a woman in a Haitian slum, watching her cook with one hand, care for her baby with the other, and occasionally use her cooking spoon to defend her one room shack from the dogs and young men who threatened to take the little food she had. With stunning clarity, I realized that I could never survive in such circumstances, let alone succeed.
These realizations led me to study poverty from a slightly different point of view. This month, many organizations are honoring January as Poverty Awareness Month. For my part, instead of asking why others were poor, I had to ask why I wasn't. If hard work and determination didn't really set me apart, what did? Much of what I had taken for granted in my life took on new meaning when I compared myself to some of the people I had met and noted our differences. My list included:
I had access to a good education. I attended public schools that prepared me well for college. Unlike many young women in the world, I did not have to beg my parents to let me go to school instead of doing family chores or caring for younger siblings. I did not fear that I would be married off or sent to live with a male relative or that I would have to find someone to pay for my school fees in exchange for work or sexual favors. I did not have to walk miles to the closest school or fear being assaulted on the way. My school expected as much from girls as boys.