lenten journal: what if . . .


My church is on a roll.

Not too many weeks ago, we spent three Sunday nights together for “Forgetting But Not Forgotten: Alzheimer’s and Faith,” which attracted over eighty people each week. On Tuesday of this week, we began a four week Lenten series, “Poverty in Durham: A Faith Perspective.” Twenty-seven percent of our children live in poverty. Though poverty is not unique to our town, I think the level of determination to figure out how to end poverty in our lifetime is not the standard discussion in most places.

And that’s what we are going to be talking about — not only how to get aid and support and food and care to those in need, but also how to offer that care in a way that treats the recipient as an equal and doesn’t make them pay for the gift by having to accept our condescension along with it. We are also going to be talking about systemic change — in our town, in our lives, and in our nation and world.

This week’s focus was “The Challenge of Poverty in Durham” and we looked at the challenge in faith, in fact, and in person. I don’t plan to recount the entire evening, but I do want to mention part of one speech that has hung with me. Mel Williams, who just retired as pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church and is now working with End Poverty Durham, was the one who talked about the challenge in faith. He began by saying,

At Watts Street, whenever we looked at a mission opportunity, we asked three questions:

is it good news?
does it seem impossible?
is it likely to fail?

If the answer to all three questions is yes, there’s a good chance the Spirit of God is at work in it.

From there, he moved through several Bible passages from the Hebrew prophets to Jesus pointing out God’s continual call to not only care for but to identify with the those in poverty. And then he asked:

What if God is leading us to the poor and the poor to us for the cause of our salvation?

The last speaker for the evening was a woman named Kimberly Crowe who spoke about poverty from a first hand experience. She recounted her difficult life, which included living in her car while she was six months into a high risk pregnancy, struggling to pay bills and find adequate housing, and also what life was like now that she was working two jobs and trying to raise her child who has some serious medical issues. In the question and answer time that followed, she brought her story into the present tense, saying she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to keep her fifteen dollar an hour job because they would not take her family needs into consideration for scheduling; the “needs of the business” were all that mattered. She anticipated she would have to let that job go so she could take her son to the doctor and keep the eight dollar an hour job to at least bring in some money.

At the close of the program, several people descended on her with offers of rides and other tangible support. Her needs were ones we could meet. As we did, Mel’s question came ringing back in my mind:

What if God is leading us to the poor and the poor to us for the cause of our salvation?

Our state legislature and our governor have decided to “fix” the tax system here in North Carolina. I think they mean “fix” as in make it work again; I hear it as “fix” as in setting the game up so the winners and losers are predetermined. The proposal discussed today was to do away with our state income tax and raise sales tax on food and also adding it to several services, which means ending a tax that distributes the burden of bill paying over all of society and beginning one that burdens those who have less at every turn. Taxing food and clothing punishes the poor, period. At the very same time, our legislators are considering ending the corporate income tax. We are not just turning our backs on the poor, we are knocking them down and driving over them.

And our state is by no means unique. Much of the rhetoric on the national level centers around blaming the poor for ruining our economy since they get things like food stamps. We even call the programs “entitlements,” as though it was some sort of privilege to have to stand in line for hours to get economic assistance, or that a welfare check was some kind of golden ticket. Too often, poor is used as a euphemism for lazy or stupid. Neither is true. Poverty is not a disease, or a life choice, or even a consequence, or a judgment; it is not having enough to live like a human being. And Jesus called us to do all we can to let people know they are uniquely and wonderfully created in the image of God and worthy to be loved.

What if God is leading us to the poor and the poor to us for the cause of our salvation?

i hope the question haunts me long past Lent and on beyond Easter. It’s hard and messy because it means we have to talk about the strata of our society that involve race and class and education. It means we have to look at those who stand with signs along the side of the road and figure out what to do for that one person and we have to think about how to change our social systems that thrive on the backs of the poor. Our elected officials are not going to lead us because in the polished halls of wealth and power where they live, they can see only as far as their arrogance and fear allow. This one’s on us.

What if God is leading us to the poor and the poor to us for the cause of our salvation?

Discuss . . .



  1. Yes, this one’s on us.
    There is a beautiful poem by the New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter,
    ” Song to the Holy Spirit ” , and the line
    ” He is singing his song in the hearts of the poor “

  2. I don’t have much to contribute but did want to add a thought about the poor. Sometimes all it takes is one bad decision…or one bad SEASON…to start a crazy ball rolling that’s almost impossible to stop. I had a friend, once, who lost his job for legitimate reasons and fell behind on his child support before he could find another one. Now, I truly don’t know how much oweness he had in the situation that followed; maybe he should’ve gone immediately to court to say he’d lost his job. But, at any rate, he never caught up, again. Tons of late fees…court fees…garnishments. He worked his tail off (two jobs) and didn’t have enough to meet his basic, living expenses. Inevitably, there were some poor decisions in there, but it was CERTAINLY not a question of laziness or poor work ethic or slacker parenthood.

    Another thought: we should be doing SO MUCH MORE to educate our young people in terms of how to save and spend money. We focus all our efforts on teaching them how to MAKE money, and we’re shooting ourselves in the foot in this way b/c a person can do infinitely more (including in the realms of charity) w/ a little than w/ a lot if (s)he knows how to save and spend. No one ever taught me. When this husband got a hold of me, I had two degrees and perfect credit but little else. I’d love to see education happening on the front end instead of (in addition to?) damage control on the back end. B/c the damage runs deeper than finances, by the time someone steps in to help.

    • Brandee,

      All of what you are saying points to the complex nature of the issue. I think you are right on about education, which leads to the systemic issue of in inequity in our schools. The way things are now, those who are born into poverty are taught how to stay there. Thanks.


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