Thursday, June 12, 2008

Poverty and the Church in the USA

The issue of poverty is coming up more and more in church ministry discussions. As it should; any self-respecting group of Christians who claim to follow Jesus ought to care for the poor. But the question is often: what does it mean to care for the poor? The poor are not a monolithic group. You have white poor, black poor, hispanic poor, asian poor; northern poor and southern poor; single mother poor and widowed grandfather poor, disabled poor and uninsured poor, lazy poor and working poor. What connection is there between caring for the poor of our day and region and the poor of Jesus' day and region?

And where does caring for the poor require the church and the corporate world to work together? How can religion and economics partner rather than spar or succumb?

I'm a regular reader of Imprimis: a publication of Hillsdale College. The May 2008 edition included excerpts from a speech given by the president of the Club for Growth, Patrick Toomey. In talking about the "greatest story never told" - the greatest period of prosperity in human history - he lists too many statistics to prove how the world's economy is expanding. I was struck by the statistics he shared about American families who live below the poverty line. the early 1970's, less than 40 percent had a car, almost none had color televisions, and air conditioning was virtually unheard of; in 2004, 46 percent owned their own homes, almost 75 percent owned a car (indeed, 30 percent owned two or more cars), 97 percent had color TV's, and 67 percent had air conditioning. The poor in the U.S. have an average of 721 square feet of living space per person, as compared with 430 in Sweden and 92 in Mexico.

Who are the poor that the church is to care for? And what is the point of caring for the poor? Alleviating their causes of poverty? Lifting them out of poverty? Or caring for them whether they choose to stay in poverty or not?

What is the moral/religious obligation to end poverty? Does our spiritual call to care for the poor require economic saviness and sociological wisdom? How much of poverty in America is a moral problem, and how much of it is a sin problem, and how much of it is an economic reality? And what should the church do?


diannaburt said...

Tim, this topic is way too deep for a Friday! Kidding aside, it is very hard to deal with. I see it every day at my job. I work with co-workers that deal with this in their personal life. I've begun to try and look at it as a disease, (my al-anon background) and do my best, help where I can, but ultimately give it to God. It's a person by person decision to be compassionate, loving and use tough love as much as possible, because it does no one any good to deal with this with a self-pitying attitude. I do not feel sorry for anyone, and try to keep that attitude directed to me also. I do not know what God has in store for someone else, their path is His decision, but when I feel led to help, then I do what I can.

Fresh Dirt said...

Good post Tim. One of the observations I made while reading your post was that our definition of poverty is very, very important. As I have been working in neighborhoods and families that are classified as impoverished, what I continually discover is that there is often not a lack for "stuff" or "things." Most have cars and random pieces of technology (like an ipod). However, they lack a whole lot of stuff that those above the poverty line do not. Things such as an orderly and clean home. Refrigerators and cabinets full of healthy food. A parent who takes responsibility for good discipline, help with homework, and providing a good meal. Things such as appropriate hours for play and rules for daily life are often lacking in these poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Thus, I think there is a religious obligation as such.

Tim Hallman said...

So would you say that poverty is primarily about a mindset? Maybe more an attitude than a circumstance?

I understand that some people get stuck in an employment situation where they are underpaid and overworked. But what does that kind of experience have to do with keeping a tidy home, dressing tactfully, and helping your kid with homework?

How much is mental illness a primary cause for living in poverty? If it is a mindset more than a case of possessions, then what does that mean for ministry?

Fresh Dirt said...

I think a lot of it is mindset (although there are legitimate poor people due to circumstances as well). I think this mindset can become community-wide or even nation-wide. As such it becomes generational and often seems to get worse.
This is where I think a Wesleyan bent in theology can be very helpful (I say this even though I rarely am a fan of Wesleyan theology). The continuous improvement of self or sanctification ala Wesley seems to be a very helpful spiritual track. Also, I think we must begin to learn how to provide spiritual formation communally rather than just individualy (a short-fall of Wesleyan theology that I think might be better fulfilled with Catholic spirituality). Since it tends to be culture-wide and generational, I think we must begin to think our progress over decades rather than the short-term results that so many churches and leaders want. One of the things that most impressed me about you Tim was your 30 year vision for Anchor that you presented back at the beginning. I think we must think of our communities in that way. It took decades for them to become impoverished; it will take decades for them to be successful. Although a Pentecostal theology might give us hope that change can be occur in an instant.