Is Poverty Good?
Picture yourself a missionary in Panama, or another developing nation. You are receiving a short term team. They arrive at the airport, wide-eyed, ready to serve, taking everything in.
undoubtedly, poverty is one of the first things they will notice. They will see houses that are simple shacks, barefoot children playing in the street, street dogs that are all skin and bones. They will visit a village and observe the children crafting toys from garbage, or playing all morning in the river, not a toy in sight.
Without a doubt, someone will comment, "They seem so happy!"
Who are "they"? Those others. Those different from me, those with little, while I have much. I never realized that I was rich, now it is obvious that I have lived a life of privilege.
But somehow the picture of children smiling and laughing doesn't fit the picture they have in their minds of poverty. Shouldn't they be miserable? They think, "I'm unhappy with my own lack. I worry about bills, and car payments and insurance and rent and a thousand other things. They have none of that, and yet they are happy?!"
And so having less becomes the new idea of "content". Many visitors have told me wistfully, "I wish I could switch lives with these people." or "this life is so much simpler, I envy them."
I get what they are saying. The visitor is here, probably taking some vacation time. They are getting away for a while from bills and worries and school and all the rest. They are in a rainforest village, getting to know Indigenous people who live on homegrown bananas and fish they catch themselves. They are on a natural high of a new experience.
I love to see things through their eyes, get energized by their excitement and see the familiar again with new eyes.
But the truth of the matter is, they DON'T want to switch places with those people. To that visitor who idealizes their life style, I would ask...
Would you want to have a family member sick, and no way to get them downriver to a doctor, because you didn't have the money to put gas in the outboard motor, much less pay the doctor?
Would you want to send your children to a school, only to find out if your nation has the lowest quality education in the whole region, and that it's even worse in rural areas?
Would you want to raise your children in a society that marginalizes them and tells them they are less because of their heritage?
Would you want to deal with mud in the rainy season and dust in the dry season? Musty clothes that never really smell clean because you don't have a dryer?
Would you want to face the worry of not knowing if your kids would eat today?
Because that is the true face of poverty. It's not the 10 day window you observe. It's the day in, day out struggle that many of our neighbors faced. It's the worry, the drudgery, the fear, the inability to plan for the future.
It's not good. These people don't live in a worriless paradise. Their worries may be different, but they are very real.
Is there good in the midst of that? Of course! There are happy children who don't know they are poor. There are good parents who do their best to give their kids a good childhood. There are ordinary people who find joy in the little things.
So to that visitor I would say, yes, rejoice in the good and enjoy it. Praise their ability to find joy in every day, the laughter of children, the simplicity you wish you could find in your own life.
But SEE them. See their realities, and find out how you can do something. Maybe you can help one person, pray for one sick person, encourage one struggling mother, and bless one small church. Each person matters and it will make a difference to them.