All Poverty is Relational: What does that mean?

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.





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  • Jordan

    I have a question I posed while in Rwanda, or rather two questions. We were talking about poverty as defined in When Helping Hurts, which is a break in relationship between you and God, the environment, yourself, and/or your community. My first question was, given this definition, was Jesus poor? The general consensus, and I’m not saying we were right, was no. The follow-up was then, did Jesus have money?

    What are your thoughts?

  • Richard Dahlstrom

    very interesting question… I’d suggest that, according to Philippians 2, Jesus spent his life emptying himself so that by the very end he was, literally, alone, on the cross. So I’d suggest he WAS poor. “He who was rich, for our sakes, became poor…” is verse about Jesus.

  • To look closer at practical steps for addressing the broken relationships that impact material poverty, I wanted to let you all know that the authors of When Helping Hurts are coming to Seattle June 23rd to help churches and practitioners think about practical next steps. Sign up to join us at

  • Ken

    You would appreciate the message of true Justice Ken Wytsma outlined on Sunday. It was basically that Justice flows from right relationship first with God and thereby to others and everything else. Until we understand that fundamental issue we are destined to continued frustration in all our endeavours.

  • renee g

    “It’s easy to blame poverty on the laziness of people, like the right does.”

    Indeed, I would blame it on the laziness of people, myself. But not on the poor.

    I find that Christians (myself included) are very enthusiastic to write checks, go on short term missions, serve at church, and watch TV in the evenings. Here in DC where I live, they also make decent livings working for NGOs (designing websites, collecting research… etc). Of course, I think all these things are great!! But none of them a) require much sacrifice or b) actually foster relationships like you describe.

    I believe Americans – especially Christians – are called to give of their time to volunteer for a cause on a regular basis. Until we are willing to pack healthy lunches or lead after-school programs for the children around us living in poverty, I support the government filling in the gap. But that’s only a Band Aid for the problem.

  • Excellent post – Thank you!

    In the end if God is Trinity and thus Love in relationship – thus His Life (heaven) is relationship.
    My experience over the years with Immensely Rich and Immensely Poor and most shades in between is that there is a significant correlation between material poverty and relational riches expressed in some form or other. I know that for example of the many many wedding celebrations I have attended as a Christian minister, those of people on lower incomes were ALWAYS MUCH MORE FUN!! 🙂

    Put another way if we have nothing else to be distracted by, we only have one another and there by Grace we might find our true wealth. I mean, with no Creation, with NOTHING to attend to throughout most of eternity were the Father, Son and Holy Spirit Poor???? Surely the Gospel is an invitation to THEIR life – which is 100% relationship

    (apologies for all the caps – I’m just back from a party 🙂 )

  • Interesting thoughts, and I agree, poverty is more than meets the eye. My favorite book on the subject, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” by Ruby Payne.