Relationships and generational poverty

Kyle Bushre

What do your local cold weather shelter, clothing drive, soup kitchen, and Christmas gift baskets all have in common? If you said they all serve the less fortunate in your community, you would be right. But you would also be right if you said they tend to harm the poor by perpetuating incapacity. You would be correct if you answered that none of these activities actually solve any problems in the long term, and that there is a sense in which the provision of these services may actually contribute to the perpetuation of poverty. You would be correct if you said none of these ministries require volunteers to actually meet, know, and befriend the poor. And you would be spot-on if you noted that because they do not require relationships, none of these ministries necessarily creates opportunities to talk about Jesus. The fact is that there are all sorts of needs in the community, and well-meaning Christians have crafted thousands of ministries that attempt to meet those needs at arm’s length; ministry done for the poor, but not with the poor.

It surprised me to learn a few years ago that the problem of generational poverty is not primarily material; it is relational. Those who are poor feel disempowered, voiceless, and regarded as unimportant. There are many things they would like to learn from those who live sustainably. But there are also many things they would like to contribute. They have expertise, opinions, humor, skills, and nuanced perspectives on life they would like to share within the context of mutually beneficial relationships. I asked my friend Roberta what she would tell middle-class people about the generationally poor if she had the chance, and she said, “If you don’t know how to do something, just ask me. I might know how to do it and can show you.” This is a woman who recently took her furnace apart, fixed it, and reassembled it, so her offer is legitimate. My homeless friend Dustin recently saw me in a coffee shop and announced it was my lucky day because he got a good deal on children’s books and wanted to give me one for my kids. To assume the poor must merely be the recipients of middle-class mercy is demeaning and leads to undignified forms of ministry. But worse, it further spreads the chasm that keeps the middle class and the poor from growing together in diverse relationships. As Robert Lupton notes, “Wherever there [is] sustained one-way giving, unwholesome dynamics and pathologies [fester] under the cover of kindheartedness,”

Pastor Thomas Chalmers saw the depth of this chasm. In 1819, he took a job at a church in St. John, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Glasgow, Scotland. Because he was a popular preacher, his church was filled every week, but not by the people of St. John. Rich people traveled from all over Glasgow and filled the seats, preventing the poor of the community from having the chance to attend if they had any inclination to do so. Chalmers was moved for his neighbors, not simply because they were materially poor, but because he had the riches of the gospel to share and could see so many people among the poor in need of Christ.

I suppose at this point–were Chalmers pastoring in a church today–he might decide that the rich were his target audience, that churches cannot reach everyone, and must choose to whom they will cater their programs. But that is not what Chalmers did. Instead, he did the seemingly impossible. He appealed to the local government and had all public assistance shut down in St. John. He then turned to his congregation and called them to take on the burdens of the people. An elder and a deacon were assigned to each of 25 districts. These leaders built relationships with the people, shared the gospel, showed concern, and helped find solutions to financial and employment-related problems. The only funding available was the money put in the plate on Sunday, but by building relationships, solutions were discovered that did not require one-way handouts. Poor Law Commissioner Edward Tufnell was assigned by the city to observe the results and he was amazed:

This system has been attended by the most triumphant success. This personal attention of the rich to the poor seems to be one of the most efficient means of preventing pauperism. It is a subject of perpetual complaint that the poor do not receive the charities of the rich with gratitude. The reason of this appears to be, that the donation of a few shillings from a rich man to a poor man is no subtraction from the giver’s comfort, and consequently is no proof of his interest in the other’s welfare. If the rich give their time to the poor, they part with a commodity which the poor see is valuable to the givers, and consequently esteem the attention the more, as it implies an interest in their prosperity, and a feeling seems to be engendered in their minds of unwillingness to press on the kindness of those who thus prove themselves willing to sympathize with them in distress, and to do their utmost to relieve it. This feeling acts as a spur to the exertions of the poor; their efforts to depend on their own resources is greater, and consequently the chance of their becoming dependent on the bounty of others less.

One-way giving is no proof of interest in another person’s welfare. Relationships are real compassion. Suffering with our poor brothers and sisters through life together is the only real solution to end the cycle of generational poverty.

Chalmers’ church grew. He added a Sunday afternoon service to accommodate all the people from the neighborhood who wanted to come. The poor do not want middle-class stuff; they want friendship and dignity in mutually beneficial relationships. They want to know their presence in the church community is welcome and just as vital as anyone else’s.

How do we build these relationships? We build them on the common ground of mutually beneficial social capital.

Kyle Bushre is the Pastor of Outreach at King Street Church in Chambersburg, Pa. He’s an alumnus of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a Kern Scholar. Bushre is pursuing a doctor of ministry degree and exploring more effective ways for the church to show compassion. 


For Reflection:

  1. How does one-way giving rob the poor of dignity? How does reciprocal giving build dignity?
  2. What would the reaction be in your church if you committed to only engaging in ministries that fostered healthy relationships?

Read the previous posts in this series, Generational Poverty and Engaging the Culture.

From the Kern Pastors Network. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

About Made to Flourish

Made to Flourish: A Pastors’ Network for the Common Good is dedicated to growing the numbers and influence of pastors and churches actively integrating faith, work, and economics for ministry that produces human flourishing.

  • Art Nicol

    Awakening in his listeners the reality that the kingdom of God was radically different from the realms of men was the heart of Jesus’ ministry and still is. In his prayer recorded in John 17, Jesus revealed his mission statement: that all believers would know oneness with the Father as he knew it then and knows it now. Eternity’s power broke through into Time and Space in and through Jesus. He promised that his followers can do likewise and even greater things we can do – especially if we gather in his name and nature. Yet we have been taught by the Church to cower from our power. Instead we’ve been misled to substitute watered down alternatives more palatable to the egos of men and women who prefer to render unto Caesar what is God’s so as to not ruffle the feathers of those with social power who prefer to maintain the status quo – including most particularly its income/wealth/opportunity/power disparities.
    Jesus spoke through John about what he thinks of lukewarm believers. But lukewarmness has drifted generation by generation into cold-heartedness ever since Constantine declared Christianity to be the religion of the Roman Empire in order to please his wife. He did not become a true believer. He compromised (as an artisan of politics). He became a politician who adopted Christianity for all the wrong reasons and then insisted that Christianity get on his band wagon and trumpet his cause instead of Jesus’ cause.
    Do we need radical followers today – followers who hear Jesus rebuking Peter for putting his mind upon the things of man and not upon the things of God? Yes, more than ever if we’re going to undo the harm inflicted upon the Truth by the Church in the centuries since Constantine’s overthrow of Jesus as head of the Church. What must we do? Humble ourselves. Practice true humility until we overcome the ego’s grip on our hearts and minds and rise free.
    The tokenism and results reflected in charity today manifest the ego. In 12-step programs, it is called “co-dependency.” The charity efforts described in this article are symptoms. The diagnosis is still “powerlessness.” The First Step of the 12-step program applies. How do we gain power as Jesus teaches we can have power? Humility! “Oh mortal, what does God require of you? To do justice, love mercy and [. . . What? Oh,] walk ‘humbly’ with God.” It is still true today that if “God’s people who are called by My name will [What?] humble themselves and . . . I [God] will heal your land.”
    We are in need of healing. The symptoms of ego’s plague abound and many first, second and subsequent sons and daughters are struck down by ego generation upon generation, reduced to merely struggling to survive under the diversity of Pharaohs who abound today. We must stop tinkering with the controls on the TV or upgrading our computers and Internet providers to get a clearer picture as we sit at home in comfort surfing channels in hopes of being distracted from awareness of our deep-seated feelings of powerlessness. We are called to exit our comfort zones, humble ourselves, emerge beyond ego and love God and our neighbors.
    We are called to be radical lovers, not fearful of loss of our conveniences and comforts. The ego survives on fear. The children of the Most High God thrive on love and live with dignity and honor even when not rich or famous. There is no need to confuse the two realms nor to compromise love with fear, for “perfect love casts out all fear.” How much fear does love cast out? We’ll never know until we try it.
    Only when we dare to love radically do we discover all the fears that were once holding us back in the tiny lives we’ve been living and learn to let them go as irrelevant to Jesus and our Father and discover that they were illusory obstacles to experiencing our hearts desire to be truly helpful servants, not mere handwringers. Only in practicing the Most Excellent Way of humility in service under God’s authority according to our Divine Calling will we ever truly know what it means to love God with all our hearts, minds, bodies and souls. In that oneness, there are no “others” but only God’s family of sisters and brothers.
    It is time to grow beyond being 12-year-old believers talking eruditely in the temple and be about our Father’s business, maturing in wisdom and stature in the eyes of man and God – with our hearts set on God when man’s opinions of us no longer support such radical followership. Who we are in God’s eyes matters most in the long run.


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