MARION, Va. (Sept. 2, 2015) – On the first day, 50 participants in a “Poverty Summit” put their hands to work. They chose from seven service projects (community garden, woodcutting, construction, food pantry, thrift store, elementary school, food preparation) and dispersed across Smyth County to make a difference.
On the second day, the original 50 plus 25 additional United Methodists from east Tennessee and southwest Virginia put their heads to work. They gathered for plenary sessions and then workshops to learn more about implementing the ministries they had worked in the previous day.
The Aug. 28-29 gathering was sponsored by Holston Conference Outreach/Advocacy Ministry and held at First United Methodist Church of Marion. The Saturday-morning plenaries were led by Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, resident bishop of the West Virginia Conference, and the Rev. Don Edwards, Church and Community Worker at Shalom Zone: Grace Ministries in Roanoke, Va.
Here are lessons that emerged from messages shared by Bishop Ball and Rev. Edwards: 4 misconceptions that church members sometimes have about poverty.
1. We assume we know everything.
Bishop Ball asked participants to share what their congregants believe about poverty. “My church thinks that we don’t have any poor people,” said one pastor. Another pastor said his church members (erroneously) believe they’re the poor ones -- because they don’t have everything they want. A mission leader said she encounters people who “always think they know the next step” necessary for an impoverished person to improve his situation.
“Sometimes we discuss poverty as an easily identifiable thing … Sometimes the church thinks it already knows everything,” Bishop Ball agreed. “There’s a right answer, there’s a fix, and if they just do what we tell them to do, or if they just get their GED, then the poverty will be fixed.”
Edwards made a similar point, when he spoke of how growing up in a middle-class environment didn’t qualify or educate him to make assumptions about a person who is not middle class. “When we talk about poverty, do we actually see that we are part of the problem? We assume that our understanding of it is the same for everybody.”
Christians are called to “lift our blinds” to see the people we don’t want to see, to get educated about poverty existing in our communities, Ball said. She told the story of a United Methodist pastor who felt called to develop friendships in a homeless encampment (“tent city”) near her church in Charleston, W.Va.
“We must leave our desks and our pantries and enter our own ‘tent city’ with eyes and ears open,” Ball said. “We can try to understand what it means to stand in their shoes – not assume we know – but to stand in their shoes.”
2. We treat people like transactions.
The key word is relationships, Ball said. Christians sometimes busy themselves with forms and rules and supporting assistance programs that already exist. “As a church, we often believe that because it’s there, they will come. Then we treat it like a transaction,” Ball said.
“Jesus was all about people,” she said. “Jesus most especially walked with people that society tends not to see.”
Developing relationships requires personal investment that’s not easy but valuable, she said. “If we see our neighbor as a stranger or an object, we can’t win their trust and we can’t share the good news. We cut ourselves off from the very people who need hope.”
Once friendship has developed, ministry workers are positioned to hear the stories of their new friends, learn about needs and assets, and work for justice on their behalf, Ball said.
“With relationships, we create dialogue,” Edwards said. “Real dialogue is not telling you what to do. Real dialogue is accepting that what you say has worth.”
3. We don’t speak out to policymakers.
Charity eliminates symptoms, but it doesn’t create long-term change, Ball said. Christians need to advocate for change in a political system that is “sometimes anything but helpful. We step aside instead of speaking Christ’s voice to it and within it … There is no shortcut to political will, and Christ needs to be in it.”
One way to do that is to “advocate for a living wage,” Edwards said. Until people are able to earn a wage that is high enough to maintain a normal standard of living, American taxpayers will have one of two choices, he said. “You can supplement them with welfare, or you can let them starve.”
4. We give up because the problem is too big.
Poverty can involve mental illness, health problems, abuse and addictions. Our communities are challenged by economic poverty as well as educational, emotional and spiritual poverty, Ball said.
The problem is often defined as the elephant in the room: “It’s too big to eat so we do nothing,” Ball said. Congregants are prone to say, “Oh, it’s too much. We can’t be part of this. We don’t have the resources. Let somebody else do that.’”
“We get sucked into a culture that says, ‘We can’t,’” Ball said. “The words of Jesus are, ‘We can, we can, we can.’ When we think we can’t do something, then we have a spiritual poverty. We have the power of Christ, and we must use it.”
The church can serve as innovator, providing ground-level ideas and leaders, Ball said. “What if the church set a goal of reducing poverty by 50 percent in a community by a set deadline?” An endeavor like that would win attention and raise hope. Church leaders can also help their communities set priorities: “Where should we start? We can eat the elephant one piece at a time.”
“Jesus is not here, except as you are,” Edwards said. “You are the body of Christ. We are Jesus in the world.”
"Conference works to break cycle of poverty" (Grow Appalachia, 9/1/15)
"War on poverty is 'morphing into war on poor'" (The Call, 3/5/13)
"Four Areas of Focus: Ministering with the poor" (UMC.org)
"Ministry with the poor: Guiding principles & foundations" (UMC.org)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.