Do We Really Love the Poor, or Just the Idea of Helping Them? 

I love a good memoir. I’ve always been an avid reader, and my bookshelf is diverse– almost confusingly so. But hand me someone’s carefully crafted life story laid out in pages, and I’ll have it finished within days, barely stopping to come up for air. One of the best I’ve read in a long time is a New York Times Bestseller titled “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive” by Stephanie Land. You won’t find it in the Christian section of the bookstore, next to study bibles or titles by our current favorite megachurch pastor. Yet it convicted me. 

Set in the Pacific Northwest and the basis for a Netflix series of the same name, Maid details the complex, yet eerily common set of circumstances that led the author to the titular profession. An unplanned pregnancy and an abusive partner led her to a homeless shelter, and then government assistance. It turns out that poverty is expensive, and low wages, stigma, and other systemic issues kept anything more than mere survival just out of her reach. 

The gut-punch to those of us in middle-class America, though, is that Stephanie Land wasn’t born into this debilitating poverty– she found herself there through a series of events largely out of her control, and that could, theoretically, happen to any of us. The gut punch to me, as a Christian, though, came at the beginning of chapter 3:

“As a teenager, I spent some afternoons in downtown Anchorage handing out bagged lunches to homeless people. We were there to ‘witness’ and share the gospel with them. In exchange for their listening ears, we fed them apples and sandwiches. I’d say Jesus loves you, though one man smiled at me and said, ‘He seems to love you a little more.’ I washed cars to fund-raise for our travel to orphanages in Baja Mexico or to do Bible camps for children in Chicago. Looking back on those efforts and the place I was now, scrambling to find work and safe housing, those efforts, though noble, were charity and Band-Aid work that made poor people into caricatures– anonymous paper angels on a tree… Now I’d be the one opening the door, accepting charity. Accepting that I couldn’t provide for my family. Accepting their small token– a new pair of gloves, a toy– in their impulse to feel good. But there wasn’t any way to put “health care” or “child care” on a list.” (Land, 2020).

I’ve been the child excited to choose a paper angel off the tree in the church lobby, eager to handpick gifts for a nameless child. I’ve been the zealous teenager fundraising for mission trips, proud and intoxicated on the feeling of helping. Are those things wrong? No. In fact, I think those experiences were valuable in cultivating a heart for others and an understanding of Christ’s call to love the “least of these.” So what’s the issue?

The call to help the poor and the orphan is too pervasive in scripture to ignore completely, no matter how badly we sometimes would like to. And for those of us blessed with more than enough, giving a few dollars to overseas missions requires little of us. We can drop it in a plate and never miss or think about that money again. We can buy a few gifts for “underprivileged” children and leave them wrapped neatly in the church building. If we really need a holiday warm and fuzzies fix, we can even hand deliver them, like little Stephanie and her mother. We can spend a few hours around Thanksgiving at the soup kitchen, feeling good about serving a singular warm meal to people who we will probably never think about again. Box checked. Duty done. God is smiling on our altruism, and our own lives stay neat and tidy, disentangled from the mess that comes with poverty. 

But what about the Stephanie Lands in our communities, living maybe a few miles from us but so removed from our daily routines? What about the family paying for groceries with an EBT card, the ones whom your family members (or even you) complain about, judging the items in their cart or the clothes their children wear? What about the housing project you’re afraid to venture too close to? What do they need from us? And what did Christ have in mind when He commanded us to help them? 

I think the caricatures Land mentioned above are not scriptural, but our own creation, manufactured for our comfort and safety. Those people are not safe. Not clean. They take advantage of the system, and the taxpayer. They can’t get dependent on handouts or they’ll never learn to stand on their own two feet. They trash spaces and bring mess and complexity with them everywhere they go. 

TL;DR: They need too much, and loving them requires too much of me. It’s easier not to look them in the eye or invite them to my table. Making the mindset shift from “project” to “person” raises uncomfortable feelings and questions. It’s easier to look the other way. The church’s outreach programs, ironically, make it easier to do that. 

I ache writing this, nearly sick. This isn’t just a “church, do better” post. This is a “Madison, do better” post. Jesus’s command was not to create better outreach programs. I don’t even mean to insinuate that I have medicine for the wound I have spent nearly 1,000 words unwrapping. 

But here’s what God is showing me: His command is not to put more money in the plate. It’s not to build better outreach programs. It is to help and to love the poor, because spiritually, we are all poor. He did not include a descriptor of what type of person is deserving and what type is not; He asked us to see His image in each of them, no matter how distorted it has been. He did not command us to provide for their physical needs only in exchange for the opportunity to “pitch” the gospel. He did not call us to thoroughly and intentionally separate our lives from those socioeconomically unlike us– the early church was certainly diverse in this manner.  

What would it look like if we built longer tables and invited these real people– not their caricatures– to eat, drink, pray, and live alongside us? What if we crossed the fences and community gates we spent so long building? What if we just shared what we had and lived life alongside people in their mess? What if sacrifice didn’t scare us so much, in light of what Christ has sacrificed for us? 

I’ll be pondering all of this prayerfully. I hope you will too. 

2 responses to “Do We Really Love the Poor, or Just the Idea of Helping Them? ”

  1. This is powerful, Madison. Lots of food for thought here, and a well written story.

    I remember one Christmas when some folks from a local church showed up at my elementary school handing out gobs of candy to the kids. Many of our students lived in poverty and lacked basic things—like coats, hats, and gloves. Our school also needed supplies, like pencils, paper, scissors, and glue. It dawned on me that these church folks were doling out bags of hard candy and fruit to make themselves feel better—not the kids. It didn’t cross their mind to ask what the kids/school truly needed. It wasn’t more sugary candy.

    Your writing has gone up a notch, or two or three, Madison. Keep going! God Bless.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. So much truth here. I’m thankful you wrote this. It’s a wake up call to all of us!

    Liked by 3 people

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