There are a lot of strange things about being unemployed. The first is the estrangement I often feel because of it. I try to muster up as much courage as I can as I enter new conversations, which are like stepping into battlefields, unknowingly. When probed about work, I give a sheepish shrug and try to evade the topic. On other occasions, when connecting with long-lost friends who inquire about my past work placements, I then must awkwardly update them on recent events: I am no longer working.
When you are poor, you find your circles gradually shrinking. Not many can relate to situations like mine, especially if they have been working their own life. They can’t understand what it is like to discover six dollars in your bank account, no savings, and a truckload of bills. Calls from creditors are reliable and I spend my days thinking of new ways to dodge them, like Becky Bloomwood from Confessions of a Shopaholic. Except she at least looks cute while doing it. I have watched BuzzFeed’s “10 Awkward Moments When You’re Unemployed” more than once and I laugh to keep from crying.
I liken poverty to a spiralling vortex that keeps sucking me back into its trap. And no matter how hard I try — applying for jobs, browsing for loans and grants, trying to start a new business — I find myself getting sucked back in over and over again. Even worse, is that I am not the only victim. The vortex has a voracious appetite; it is taking my family along for the ride too.
If anything, it has been my mother’s pain that has been my motivation to keep trying to climb out of the vortex. Her divorce to my dad made her a single mother in her early 40s with two grown kids. Now, she pulls herself together every morning and heads out to work minimum-wage jobs that she hates. She has no “one job”, in fact, she has several. She spends weeks and even months, waiting on small amounts of cash from private jobs only so that she can pour it all away on bills.
Once, she was almost evicted by a landlord who at first reminded her of her mother. Now, she lives in a basic basement apartment (number 6, after the four of us lost our house a few years back) with dreams beyond its limited space. Yet, she is simply doing all she can to survive.
The days are ticking away until Christmas and with this is the loud pressure to buy, buy, buy. Yet, I don’t even know if I will find enough work to take care of my year-end bills. There will be no big, fancy family dinner, our Christmas tree cannot offer any expensive gifts, and we cannot afford to visit any exotic place. Yes, this is a Christmas unlike any other.
But if we go back to the roots, we will be reminded of what Christmas is really about. There, we will find Someone special at the centre; One who is meek and humble. For Him, it wasn’t about the glitzy gifts and tinsel lights. His birth was celebrated in a lowly manger among stable animals and He had poor upbringings (Luke 2:22-24, Leviticus 12:6-8). During his childhood, he worked with his hands alongside his father to earn a living and during the beginning of His earthly ministry, He relied on the hospitality of strangers for shelter (Mark 6:3, Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:58). Jesus Christ understood poverty.
According to DoSomething.org, more than three billion people or half of the world’s population live on less than $2.50 a day. The World Bank describes it this way: “Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.”
“That night, I walked away, disappointed in myself. I knew what needed to be done and what was right, but I was incapable of doing anything in my own strength.”
What I have experienced as a result of my parents’ divorce and my recent unemployment, is a mild version of poverty compared to some others. I have never gone without shelter or food no matter how broke I have been because I still have two parents that can support me. But every day there are people in Toronto and elsewhere, who don’t have this kind of support. As a result, they go without food and shelter. We may be more familiar with the faces in the cities who stand on street corners, make park benches their resting place, and sit holding arresting signs on the sidewalks. I am ashamed to say, that sometimes I can’t bear to look them in the eye. They look too much like me…and if I stare closer, I see the face of Jesus.
On one Sabbath outreach, I noticed a homeless woman sitting cross-legged in the back corner of a store. She was young, had cropped red hair, and was wearing a white t-shirt that barely fit over her wide belly – It took a mere two seconds more for me to figure out she was pregnant. Although I made myself cozy beside her, she was not amused. She informed me that my presence would make it harder for people to want to give her change. Nevertheless, she tolerated me.
I learned quickly that my witness was ineffective. She cringed every time I mentioned God’s name, and the sandwich I gave her seemed small, especially when held up to her growing list of needs and special cravings — she had an inclination to have a watermelon flavoured drink from Booster Juice. Despite making countless attempts to find shelter, she still found herself on the street most nights. She had called quite a few churches in the phone book, only to be turned away. Many didn’t respond at all. One pastor told her that before offering her space, he would need to consult his board.
That night, I walked away, disappointed in myself. I knew what needed to be done and what was right, but I was incapable of doing anything in my own strength.
The thing is, many of us are afraid of poverty and everything that it entails. This is because we like the comfort and security that comes with our jobs and bank accounts. We see this as a way of exerting control over our lives. Not knowing how we will pay our bills, whether we will even have food to eat or where we will end up, isn’t appealing to any of us. That is why our natural inclination is to stay away from conversations where others may relate to us their financial woes.
With many real issues confronting us on a daily basis, it calls into question the role of the church. We have to understand what it means to be relevant in a time of such chaos. We need to meet people where they are in the midst of their poverty and empathize with them; show them that we care. Walking away from those that need our help the most should not even be an option.
Though poverty is not the most inviting of topics, the experience can teach us many beautiful things. Like the Psalmist, “I was young and now am old, yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread.” (Psalm 37:25) Despite all of what my mother has been through, she has never landed on the street. God has always provided.
Poverty has also taught me humility and that I can’t rely on material objects to give me satisfaction. I have come to find more happiness in the things that money can’t buy: Spending time with loved ones, doing menial chores in service for others, and seeing value in work that goes beyond just the salary.
Poverty is not something to be avoided, but rather embraced as we learn from the One who “…though he was rich, yet for [our] sakes became poor, that [we] through his poverty might be rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) God has a special place in his heart for the poor, which may be why there are more than 2,000 references in the Bible relating to poverty. As believers, it is our duty to reach out to this set of people; in fact, the Lord commands it. Ministering to the poor vindicates the character of our Lord, and is a working out of our faith. In Proverbs 31:8-9, we are told to “Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and the needy.”
Not only is this an act of advocacy and of righteousness, it is an act of justice. By likening ourselves to those who are poor, we receive the God-given ability to step into their shoes. And everywhere you look, there are people crying out for help. As in the case of my mother, they are often closer than we think. What are we doing to reach them?
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