I’m riding my bike to work on a frosty morning this winter when I encounter a couple, dressed in poverty, arguing intensely on a street corner. Their words do violence to each other until he finally storms away, hurt and raging, while she’s left crying, waiting for the light to the change. Both of them are dressed poorly; tattered sweatshirts (hood up on this cold morning), inadequate shoes, denim. They have bags, small backpacks.
As we go our different ways, I ponder the reality that my children have places they could go, if needed, in order to find shelter. They have us, their parents, with extra rooms, heat, and gobs of love. They have very good friends. They have access to connections that can be of great value if/when they need to look for work. They are, in other words, well connected – not with the super rich and powerful, but with people who love them fiercely.
I wondered as I saw the couple; to whom will she turn in the midst of this, another setback, in her life? Where will he be going as they part? I was reminded of a phrase I heard for the first time years ago, as the ministry of Agros was gearing up: All poverty is relational. Years later, after countless conversations on the subject, wide reading (including the especially helpful, “When Helping Hurts”), and a trip to Rwanda and Uganda, I think I’m starting to understand.
Scratch around the culture of poverty, and you’ll find sea of broken relationships, rooted in all sorts of maladies ranging from prodigal like rebellion to victims of abuse, whether physical, emotional, sexual, or all the above. Though not the same, it reminds me of those national geographic specials, where a weak member of the herd is driven to isolation by the wolves where, cut off from his/her protective culture, he/she becomes a victim.
World Relief is the group with which our church works in Rwanda, and they are addressing the relational bankruptcy head on as they create church partnerships between the west and developing nations in order to build a foundation of relationship. This same commitment permeates their in-country work as they create youth groups to address ethical issues, savings clubs for adults (which became a form of insurance, investment, and financial education all rolled into one), and HIV/AIDS groups that build relational support and provide a base for economic empowerment. Everything, it seems, begins with relationship.
In this political year, I fear that a commitment to strong relational networks is the elephant that should be in the room but isn’t. It’s the conversation we should be having, but aren’t. As we speak of unemployment, the arguments seem to broadly fall into the categories of continue to print or borrow money for infrastructure projects, or deregulate industries and lower their taxes in hopes that purer capitalism will fix what ails us. Absent, or sorely lacking, is the discussion about how vital it is that families function well, and how functional families and solid relational networks are endangered species. A few sociologists have been talking about this problem for over a decade, as far back as the famous, “Bowling Alone” book. But it’s a fringe conversation in today’s political environment.
I’m increasingly convinced that this subject is overlooked because this is the hardest subject of all. Sin is, at the core, a severing of relationship. In a culture where the very notion of sin is dismissed as archaic, fundamentalist hogwash, it’s no surprise that we’re largely ignoring all the isolating forces. We’ll hear speeches about the economy for the next six months until we’re sick of the subject.
As for me, I’m sensing that the patriotic thing to do might have less to do with shopping, and more to do with nurturing environments where relationships can thrive. Strengthen marriages. Cross social barriers to bless and serve. Teach parents how to love their children. Show people how sexuality must be tied to strong covenant relationships if its to be the blessing God intends. This is why I’m preparing to teach a series on relationships this spring.
It’s easy to blame poverty on the system, like the left does. It’s easy to blame poverty on the laziness of people, like the right does. It’s harder, much harder, to listen, build relationships, and serve, creating a context of love and safety where transformation can occur. That takes time. That’s messy. And that is a big part of what it means to be church – not the Sunday show – but the building of community.