Beholding Poverty to Become Whole

The questions I’ve been asking lately are: how can we even recognize the need for justice unless we pay attention enough to really listen? Are we truly hearing the heart-song of those around us? Do we really see poverty for what it is?

Recently I led a vision trip to Rwanda and, as per usual, participants were eager to bring busloads of soccer balls, one thousand pencils, and used clothing to help the poor in this starving African country. We are so quick to band-aid the pain we see, not so much to seek solutions but to ease our own consciences. “We have so much and they have so little!” is a common phrase I hear when we consider those who are economically disadvantaged – until we begin to really see and hear their stories.

While in Rwanda, our team had the privilege of visiting the Azizi Life Village where we spent the day engaging with a collective of artisan women. These women have joined forces and are using their skills to earn an income and support one another in their community.

As we arrived at the host’s dirt-floored home, we were greeted with smiling semi-toothed faces and dancing women who ushered us into the dimly lit living room, lined with a simple long bench and a few wooden chairs. There we were introduced, one-by-one, to a widow with children, a few grandmothers, a young wife and mother, and more. I recognized many of their faces and showed them photos from the previous year. Their eyes beamed as they laughed and chattered amongst themselves.

If we are to actually do something about the poverty we see... we must first address the poverty in ourselves. Click To Tweet

After a morning of hauling water alongside the women, preparing cassava for lunch, and peeling bananas for juice, it was easy to see that these were strong, capable, hard-working women. They are strong because they have overcome incredible obstacles. They are capable because they know the resources available to them and are providing for themselves and their loved ones. What left the biggest impression was their wealth of connection with one another.

At the outset, I might have pitied these women for only having one pair of shoes, or having to work so hard to get clean water to their homes, or having a simple diet of cassava, beans, and potatoes. But I marvelled at the vibrant joy that spilled over when they danced with us. I was humbled by their evident faith as they boldly prayed for our team. And I am deeply thankful for the way they opened their hearts and extended friendship to us through their ready smiles and patient support as they quietly taught us the Rwandan way of life.

After years of clouded vision, I’ve finally come to see that poverty is both universal and inherently relational. When Adam and Eve doubted God and disobeyed His instructions, they broke relationship with Him, the other, their own self, and the rest of creation. Since humankind fell from that place of intimacy, all poverty has stemmed from brokenness in relationships. Fear of “the other,” attitudes of superiority, economic disadvantage, and all forms of injustice are relational at their core. Whether it’s in our relationship with our self, God, others, or creation, we have all experienced brokenness. And these broken relationships distort how we view the brokenness in the world.

And so, if we are to actually do something about the poverty we see in others, we must first address the poverty in ourselves. We must listen to our own brokenness if we are ever to hear the brokenness in the world for what it truly is.

While the Azizi women may experience significant economic disadvantage compared to North American standards, a new understanding of poverty reveals that they are rich in community with one another, intimacy with God, and the dignity they hold within themselves. By merely giving a handout, we would have marred the dignity of these women and missed making deep connections in doing life alongside them. By offering these women the position of teacher, we were invited to see and hear their unfolding stories. And I believe that we are all a little more whole because of the day we spent working and dancing together.