A few weeks ago, I preached a message at our church from James 2:14-18 (see below) in which I made the following statement: “James the Apostle understood that the poor, needy, and under-resourced are fertile ground for the good news we call the gospel message. They are often broken people who are keenly aware of their need.”
One of my homeless friends named Joe, who is a member of the Bible study I lead each week for homeless/nearly homeless men, was in attendance and found my statement puzzling. In fact, I am quite sure it offended him.
Now, if I could use only one word to describe Joe, it would be thorough. Joe is always paying attention and, unlike many people in our churches, he remembers every word spoken from the platform. He often goes to the library after our Bible Study or after church to check out books about what we discuss so he can learn more. He asks deep and thoughtful questions, many of which are very hard to answer. After my message on James 2, Joe asked me, “Do you really think a person is completely broken just because he is homeless? Does that mean the rest of you all at First Baptist who aren’t homeless have it all together?”
My first reaction was, of course, “That is NOT what I was trying to say!” Interestingly, however, my wife had expressed concern over my statement before my conversation with Joe. She was afraid someone might have heard it the way Joe had — and she was right. The more I thought about my statements the more I wondered if I had been guilty of something James said earlier in chapter 2: “You have dishonored the poor man.” My feelings were not hurt, but I needed to think this thing through.
Eventually, this scenario was a good reminder of a few things I would like to share.
- No matter how carefully we choose our words, sometimes we still can’t quite hear them the way they will actually be interpreted. This is a problem that cross-cultural missionaries have faced for centuries; and it can be problematic in our own culture as well.
- Not all poverty is created equal. Poverty has its effects on multiple levels. I have grown accustomed to using these two categories to describe poverty in North America:
- Shallow poverty – People in this category toe the line between being below the poverty line or being just above it. Shallow poverty is not final and many people dip in and out of it throughout their lives. This category represents the vast majority who are considered under-resourced in our culture.
- Deep poverty – This condition is much more severe and can be life-threatening. Deep poverty has also been called “absolute poverty,” and is “a term used to describe poverty when people have an absolute insufficiency to meet their basic needs – food, clothing, housing.” These are the kind of conditions that close to 1/3 of the people on planet Earth face. Very few people in the United States truly live in deep poverty, but there are some. And many of them are a part of the homeless communities in our cities.
- The word broken can be understood from several different angles. Three types of brokenness that would seem all-encompassing, though, are physical, emotional, and spiritual.
- Brokenness is no respecter of persons or status. With the exception of the physical type, no amount of money can fix brokenness. The person who lives in the nicest neighborhood is no less susceptible to emotional and spiritual damage than is the person who will sleep in an alleyway tonight. In many cases, people who are situated in deep poverty have an advantage over others because, as I said in my message, those who are suffering physically and socially are often more aware of their brokenness and need.
In the last near-decade of working with the poor in one capacity or another, I have realized that deep poverty is real in the US. The deep poverty we observe can be so severe that it eventually breaks people on all three levels – physical, emotional, and spiritual. I work with these folks nearly every day, and they face extreme brokenness. And, as I said above, most of them know it. They are keenly aware of their brokenness and desperate for good news.
At the same time, I never want to be guilty of narrowing down my homeless and under-resourced friends into simple categories. I never want to offend someone like Joe or discourage him in the midst of his current struggles. As a brilliant social worker named Ruby Barcelona has said: “The poor are not primarily a class or a statistic; the poor are people.”
Joe and I are still very good friends. Through the power of the gospel working in our ministry, Joe is on his way out of deep poverty. He still faces some brokenness, but it is unbelievably captivating to continue watching him be put back together in Christ.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.
Viv Grigg, “Church of the Poor,” in Discipling the City, 2nd ed., ed. Roger S. Greenway (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992), 42.