We met Stu in the Mojave Desert.
Hed been a middle-class defense worker in Palmdale, California.
Hed had a family, home, new car, and camper. Life was good. Then government budget
cuts struck. Contracts were cancelled. 14,000 workers, including Stu, were laid off.
11,000 of them lost their homes (not including renters who were evicted.) When Stu lost
his, his wife left him.
Six months later, his unemployment payments ran out. But there were
still no jobs. He had no income, and no house. So he slept in his camper out in the
desert, where parking was free.
Then his license plates expired. He didnt have money to renew
them, and the police seized his vehicle. After that, Stu slept under bridges or wherever
there was shelter from the weather.
He told us that at least 18 of his co-workers committed suicide after
Finally a "Good Samaritan" got Stu a job at a store 100 miles
away. He worked hard. When we knew him, hed become an assistant manager.
The Bibles teachings about "loving our neighbors" are
like a symphony. And the most dominant refrain is that those neighbors include the poor.
Stus experience, and our own, showed us that poverty doesnt strike only the
uneducated, lazy, alcoholics, or addicts. Sickness, recessions, natural disasters,
divorces, and many other events can force anyone at all into poverty. And it can be very
hard to get back out.
Poverty is worldwide. Paradoxically, developments which were supposed
to help such as globalization and policies required by the International Monetary
Fund (IMF) have turned out to be among the largest causes of worldwide poverty.
Barry Goldwater, a former US Senator from Arizona nicknamed "Mr.
Conservative," said in his book "The Conscience of a Conservative" that
being conservative means "learning from the past and keeping whats worked
well." The IMFs well-intentioned principles seemed sound in theory, but badly
failed Goldwaters test.
According to Siddharth Kara in "Sex Trafficking; Inside the
Business of Modern Slavery" (Columbia University Press, 1909, pp. 24-30), the
real-world results included disastrous increases in poverty levels (resulting in sharp
increases in slavery and sex trafficking), the economic collapse of many countries
(especially in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia); massive inflation, the nearly complete
loss of personal savings, defaults on loans, widespread bank foreclosures, and the worst
worldwide economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The gap
between rich and poor widened. Existing help for many who already were poor was lost. Many
more families had to live on $1 to $2 per day.
Even in the relatively wealthy US, over 46 million people lived in
poverty in 2011 (US Census Bureau).
What does God think of the poor?
Many of us look down on them. We call them "trailer trash" or
worse. But God sympathizes with the poor and is angry at whats happened to them.
"He will take care of the helpless and poor when they cry to him;
for they have no one else to defend them. He feels pity for the weak and needy and will
rescue them. He will save them from oppression and from violence, for their lives are
precious to him" (Ps. 72:12-14).
More Scriptures: Job 5:10-11; 5:15-16; Ps.10:12-14; 12:5;
14:6; 22:26; 35:10; 69:33; 102:17; 107:35-38; 109:31; 113:5-9; 132:15; 140:12; Prov.
22:22-23; Isa. 14:30-32; 25:4; 26:6; 29:19; 41:17-20; Luke 4:18-19.
What causes poverty?
Unfortunately, the best way to learn is to experience it.
Mark Twains The Prince and the Pauper told what the king-to-be of
England learned about the poor when he and a poverty-stricken look-alike boy changed
My family saw poverty first-hand when God led us through a
six-year-long homeless odyssey that began when my job, and 13,000 others, were lost in one
defense plant thanks to government cutbacks. The result? We lived in over 40 campgrounds,
and met hundreds of other families who were there for similar reasons. We learned their
stories. That changed my outlook on poverty forever.
My beliefs about poverty had been simple. All the poor were lazy,
alcoholics, or drug addicts. They were the unkempt men we see at intersections holding
crude cardboard signs saying they need work, but who refuse most jobs, accept only
donations, and wave us off whenever we point out places that would help them. (Ive
seen two whose signs read "Why lie? I want beer!")
I never stopped to wonder why, if all the poor were really like that,
God would be so angry when we didnt help them!
But living in all those campgrounds with a wife and two teen-agers
taught me that my thinking on poverty had been just about as accurate as the logic a
friends small son once used during a picnic in the mountains east of San Diego.
As our car wound along the twisting gravel road below the Cuyamaca
Peaks, Bobbys mother told him we were going to the "Devils
Punchbowl." Bobby was instantly, completely, genuinely terrified! He didnt want
to be anywhere the devil was! And if Satan wasnt there, why would it be called that?
I assured him it was only a name. He wasnt convinced. His mother
tried: "Dont worry, Bobby, the devil lives in Los Angeles!" It didnt
help. No amount of persuasion eased his fears.
Devil or not, we were soon there. Bobby emerged from the car
hesitantly, as if fully convinced Satan was lurking behind some nearby rock or tree, ready
to spring the moment his back was turned.
But, after the two-hour drive, his five-year-old bladder needed relief.
He asked me where the bathrooms were. I could have simply taken him. But perhaps
that devil was influencing me! I was curious just how frightened he really was. So
I merely pointed to the trail leading up one side of the little valley, and waited to see
if hed go up it alone.
Bobby hesitated, but finally started up the hill. Moments later he was
back. "The doors stuck. Will you help me?"
I took his hand and walked up the slope with him. At the top I reached
out and touched the door very gently with the tip of one finger. It swung open, freely and
I still waited, to see if hed be brave enough to go into the
Forest Service two-holer alone. He wasnt. "Will you come with me?" So I
Afterwards, as Bobby pulled up his pants and buckled his belt, he
leaned over and peered down into the dark hole.
"Huh!" he said. "So thats how the devil gets down
OK, Bobbys theory was just a bit off. But so was mine. Almost
none of the "poor" families we met in those campgrounds fit my stereotypes. They
were honest, hardworking former middle class families well-off enough to own
RVs - whod suffered layoff, sickness, or divorce. Theyd lost their homes
and been thrust deep into the lower class. They werent lazy. Most had no alcohol or
drug problems. None of them begged on street corners. Some had low-paying work again, but
none had homes.
We met those people in every campground we lived in. And during our
whole first year, we met just one family that was abusing the system!
We met many who earned too much to qualify for welfare or food stamps,
but not enough to pay apartment rent, food, car expenses, insurance, or doctor bills. Yet
they were fortunate. They were among the few who had some sort of RV. Many more families
became like Stu. They lived in cars, under bridges, or in shelters.
Those campground residents were a brand new side of America to us. One
Christian magazine editor rejected a story on our experiences by saying shed
"never heard of such things." We wondered: shouldnt we be ashamed of
knowing so little about the suffering, hungry, homeless, and sick around us?
We learned that "looks" mean little in judging poverty. I
suspect many shabby-looking "con artists" live quite comfortably. In contrast,
wed lost our home but neither our clothes nor our pride. We dressed neatly. We did
plenty of praying for work and money, but never begged.
We learned that we cant know our flocks needs by reading
books, watching TV specials, or listening to talk shows or politicians. We have to see
those sheep for ourselves
What we saw did fit the Bibles portrait of poverty well. Yes, it
can be caused by bad habits. But many poor are honest and hardworking. Their poverty comes
from circumstances like sickness, injury, layoffs, divorce, age, or others greed or
dishonesty. And Scripture tells us in no uncertain terms to help such people!
Many people worldwide are worse off than those we saw. Ash Barker
describes Asian workers literally chained to sewing machines, earning $1 a day. Blogs by
David Kuo, Anne Jackson, Pete Wilson, Shaun Groves, and others describe intense poverty
theyve seen during trips to Africa, India, Haiti, and elsewhere. And those people
are among the "neighbors" Jesus tells us to love.
Poverty exists in surprising places. Of all countries, the US has the
highest poverty rate, and the greatest gap between rich and poor, of eighteen developed
nations. (Mark Rank, One Nation, Underprivileged, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 33).
Too many cant feed or dress their children adequately, or are homeless.
Jesus did not say "its OK if you dont feed or clothe
your citys neighbors, because other people are even poorer." He did say
"When you refused to help ... these my brothers, you were refusing help to me"
He teaches us to love and help our "neighbors" next door AND
around the world.
More Scriptures: Job 24:14; 34:27-28; Ps. 10:9-15; 107:39; Prov.
22:16; 28:8; Isa. 58:4-12; Ezek. 18:10-17; Amos 2:6-7; 4:12; 5:7; 8:4-7; Zech. 7:8-10.
Whats it like to be poor?
Job described it: "even the donkeys of the poor and
fatherless are taken. Poor widows must surrender the little they have as a pledge to get a
loan ... the poor must spend all their time just getting barely enough to keep soul and
body together. They are sent into the desert to search for food for their children. They
eat what they find that grows wild, and must even glean the vineyards of the wicked. All
night they lie naked in the cold, without clothing or covering. They are wet with the
showers of the mountains and live in caves for want of a home.
"The wicked snatch fatherless children from their mothers
breasts, and take a poor mans baby as a pledge before they will loan him any money
or grain. That is why they must go about naked, without clothing, and are forced to carry
food while they are starving. They are forced to press out the olive oil without tasting
it and to tread out the grape juice as they suffer from thirst (Job 24:2-11).
Solomon noted: "There was a small city with only a few people
living in it, and a great king came with his army and besieged it. There was in the city a
wise man, very poor, and he knew what to do to save the city, and so it was rescued. But
afterwards no one thought any more about him. Then I realized that ... if the wise man is
poor, he will be despised, and what he says will not be appreciated" (Eccl. 9:14-17;
compare 2 Sam. 20:14-22).
More Verses: Prov. 18:23; 19:17; 28:3; 28:15; 29:7; 30:11-14; 1
Does God teach us to help the poor?
"There is still one thing you lack, Jesus said.
Sell all you have and give the money to the poor - it will become treasure for you
in heaven - and come, follow me" (Luke 18:22).
More Scriptures: Lev. 23:22; 25:35-37; Ps. 72:1-5; Prov. 19:17; 21:13;
31:8-9; Isa. 1:16-17; Matt. 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-21; Rom. 12:13; 2 Cor. 9:1-2; 9:9-14;
Gal. 2:10; Eph. 4:28.
What kinds of help do the poor need? Many. We met one laid-off engineer
in his fifties whod given up looking for work because no one would hire men his age.
He needed real job leads. Retraining can help some people, but, truthfully, too few. A
retrained fifty-year-old is still a fifty-year-old. Most companies wont even
Widely varied passages show that the early Church "loved" the poor.
"But Judas Iscariot ... said, That perfume was worth a
fortune. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor" (John
Also read: Matt. 26:6-11; John 13:29.
Who were some Bible characters who helped the poor?
"In the city of Joppa there was a woman named Dorcas (Gazelle), a believer who was
always doing kind things for others, especially for the poor" (Acts 9:36).
"Mordecai ... wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and
giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor" (Esther 9:20-22, NIV).
Today, Jews celebrate Mordecai and Esthers victory over Haman by helping others
during the feast of Purim. Lisa Katz tells us that Jewish children and adults, in costume,
walk through their neighborhoods giving family, friends and neighbors treats like
hamantashen ("Hamans ears"). Everyone is taught to give gifts of food or
money to at least two people in need.
More examples: Neh. 8:9-12; Prov. 31:19-20; Luke 19:8-10; Acts
2:44-45; 4:32-27; 6:1-6; 10:1-4; 10:31; 20:35; 24:17; Rom. 15:25-32; 2 Cor. 8:1-15; Rev.
Can Christians be poor?
Its popular to believe the Bible promises Christians riches.
Long ago, Jobs culture firmly believed godliness meant youd
His friend Bildad the Shuhite claimed: "If you were pure and good,
he would hear your prayer and ... though you started with little, you would end with
much" (Job 8:6-7). "The truth remains that if you do not prosper, it is because
you are wicked" (Job 18:5).
In Job 36:7-11, Elihu maintains: "He does not ignore the good men
... If troubles come ... he takes the trouble to point out to them the reason ... If they
listen and obey him, then they will be blessed with prosperity throughout their
Also read: Job 4:6-11; Eccl. 5:19-20; 1 Thess 3:2-4.
Yet Job teaches that the godly may still endure poverty, sickness, and
The Old and New Testaments agree. They stress giving wealth away, not
getting it. They promise blessing, but often not till heaven. Even the king was warned not
to "be excessively rich" (Deut. 17:17). In this life, the New Testament
emphazises facing persecution (in some 20 chapters in Acts alone). Note Rom. 8:17:
"since we are his children, we will share his treasures ... But if we are to share
his glory, we must also share his suffering."
King David warned "Let their good food and other blessings trap
them into thinking all is well between them and God. Let these good things boomerang on
them and fall back upon their heads" (Rom. 11:9).
Solomon said: "Enjoy prosperity whenever you can, and when hard
times strike, realize that God gives one as well as the other so that everyone will
realize that nothing is certain in this life" (Eccl. 7:14; also 1 Sam. 2:6-8, Prov.
23:4-5; Eccl. 6:1-2; 7:11; 8:14; 9:11; Isa. 45:7).
And in Isa. 43:2-4 he tells Israel: "When you go
through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of
difficulty, you will not drown! When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not
be burned up the flames will not consume you ... you are precious to me and
honored, and I love you."
Did you notice? God didnt say "if" those he loved went
through trouble. He said "when!" But God does promise to walk through the
difficult times with us! And thats been my familys experience.
Oh, yes, the Lord blesses the godly:
"Oh, put God to the test and see how kind he is! See for
yourself the way his mercies shower down on all who trust in him. If you belong to the
Lord, reverence him; for everyone who does this has everything he needs. Even strong young
lions sometimes go hungry, but those of us who reverence the Lord will never lack any good
thing" (Ps. 34:8-10).
More Scriptures: Job 20:10; Ps. 22:26-27; 34:17-19; 37:3; 37:25-26;
68:10; 106:5; 107:41; Prov. 10:3; Isa. 1:19; 26:4-7; 54:13; Jer. 20:13; Mal. 3:10-12.
But not always with money:
"O Lord ... Why are the wicked so prosperous? ... But as for me Lord,
you know my heart you know how much it longs for you. (And I am poor, O
Lord!)" (Jer. 12:1-3).
"Notice among yourselves, dear brothers, that few of you who follow Christ have
big names or power or wealth" (1 Cor. 1:26).
More Scriptures: Ps. 10:9-11; 74:20-21; 94:5-7; Prov. 11:28; Eccl.. 4:1; Isa. 10:1-2;
Matt. 19:21-24; 1 Thess 1:6.