Learning to See the Poor
Whether we know it or not, most of us have invisible neighbors.
No, I don’t mean imaginary neighbors, or that mysterious house down the street that no one ever seems to come in or out of.
What I mean is that oftentimes in our communities the poor go unnoticed. They tend to exist in the margins of our lives, and most of us (myself included) have to learn how to see the poor around us. And I don’t mean to just passively notice with the old eyeballs. I mean to see them in the same way Hagar felt seen by the Lord when she was lost in the desert after fleeing from Abraham.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches us that the term “neighbor” also applies to people who live “on the other side of the tracks” — people who may differ from us religiously, ethnically, or socio-economically. When we talk about “loving our neighbor as ourselves,” we must be intentional to make sure this also includes our hidden, marginalized neighbors.
When it comes to the poor around us, sometimes it’s hard to know where and how to start. Here are a few ideas for being intentional in seeing AND engaging the poor around us.
START SEEING THE POOR
1. Know that poverty comes in two shapes and sizes.
There’s absolute poverty (e.g. people who are unable to meet their basic needs in life — food, clothing, shelter), and relative poverty (e.g. that which is measured against the standards of one’s community, such as being unable to afford a car or long-term housing). Particularly in the U.S., individuals experiencing poverty may have a job, but their wages are so low that they consistently struggle to pay their bills or buy groceries.
2. Understand that poverty is complicated.
Let me say that again. Poverty is complicated. Often, it is a cycle that people try very, very hard to break out of, but for one reason or another breakthrough doesn’t come. One single incident — like a car needing repairs, or an unexpected medical bill — can set people back for years. Things that are out of our control like mental illness, abuse, childhood neglect, or even severe trauma are sometimes contributing factors in this cycle.
3. Recognize that poverty is not just a lack of “things”.
Over time, for those stuck in continued poverty, it becomes something of a subculture or worldview. It changes how people view themselves, others, and their options. Bryant L. Myers defines poverty as:
- Deficit (e.g. a lack of things, knowledge, education)
- Broken relationships (e.g. abuse, neglect)
- Misused power (e.g. employers who don’t pay employees for hours worked)
- Fear (e.g. fear of an abusive spouse, losing a job, or place to live)
START ENGAGING THE POOR
I admit that engaging poverty can be daunting and overwhelming. But thankfully, being someone’s neighbor doesn’t require that you solve the issue of poverty! Here are few things to keep in mind as you take steps to engage the poor around you:
1. Remember to look for the image of God.
All humans, regardless of station, are made in the image of God —the imago dei. Poverty is a thief of human dignity, worth, and value, and as Christians we are called to help restore these things to others. As we engage with our marginalized neighbors, we need to ask, “Where do I see the image of God in this person?”
2. Be aware of your assumptions.
Everyone has their own story, and there is always more to that story than meets the eye. It can be easy to make assumptions about people based on external factors, and sometimes these assumptions limit our ability to engage someone in a neighborly fashion. Notice the assumptions you might be making about your poor neighbors, and look past those with the disciplines of curiosity and care.
3. Start with who you are.
Be a friend, prayer partner, mentor, or advocate. Partner with local organizations, churches, or nonprofits that work with the poor, and offer your area of expertise. Babysit for a single mom. Be a life-line for someone struggling with suicide or sobriety. Tutor or mentor kids. Volunteer to do job training. Start a game night. Make new friends, and have fun!
4. Just be your friendly self!
No one likes to feel patronized or like they’re someone’s project. Be genuine, ask open-ended questions, and find some common ground. When I lived in Denver and volunteered among the homeless, I frequently opened the conversation with how the Broncos were doing that season. I love football, as did many of the folks I worked with, and it was an easy way to find a bit of common ground. I’d like think it made them feel more human—like they really were more than their station or circumstances.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jamie Rosenberry lives in San Francisco, Calif. with InnerCHANGE. Her team intentionally lives and serves among the homeless youth in Golden Gate Park.