Serving the poor: simpler than you might think, harder than you could imagine

It’s hip these days to talk about ministry to the poor. (In fact, it’s far hipper – that’s a word now – to serve the poor than it is to use the word “hip.”)

Ironically, we tend to see ministry among impoverished peoples as an elite endeavor. Serving the needy is complicated, painful and surprisingly expensive. This high degree of difficulty lends a certain aura to those who do it well. It seems to require a special kind of selflessness, as if those who engage the poor must just be better than the rest of us: “up there” somewhere with Mother Teresa and Bono.

What does it take to serve the poor in a meaningful way? Is it something we mere mortals can even do?

Having done it myself – and I have no particularly angelic qualities – I promise that it is possible, if you take an incarnational approach to serving others.

“Incarnation” is the theological term for when Jesus, the eternal God, took on human flesh and lived like a stranger in the strange land of Earth. Despite having known eternal glory, Jesus emptied himself and took on the likeness of a man. He became like we are, lived our lives, felt our pain and died our death (Philippians 2:1-11).

Incarnational ministry follows that pattern. As Jesus did, we also go to desperate people in strange lands (or just strange parts of town), adopt strange customs, speak strange languages and by all possible means try to see others saved. Paul talked of becoming like a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks.

A truly incarnational life is about emptying yourself of your identity and immersing yourself in the world of others: even in their desperation and need.

Emptying

My wife Deb and I were missionaries for nearly a decade.

Our first four years in Argentina, we served a neighborhood called Bosques on the south side of Buenos Aires. We arrived just after an economic crisis devastated the country. Unemployment in our neighborhood spiked to nearly 50%.

The streets reflected the people’s misery. Trash lay everywhere. Stray dogs dotted the corners. Open zanjas (ditches) filled with dirty runoff and sludge ran along the side of the mud roads. Muggings and violence were common.

But we were young. To be honest, right up until my final weeks there, I never realized just how bleak the reality was. I blinded myself. I numbed myself. I made myself ignore the truth that life in Bosques was fundamentally and completely broken.

By choosing to naively think that my drop in the bucket could fill the ocean, I failed to understand the most important part of the reality of the poor. For the truly destitute, there is no hope in this life. Their problems are effectively insurmountable. Crisis-poverty of this level is thankfully rare in the United States; but even so, it still usually takes a generation or more to see a family move out of extreme poverty. In our situation, we had to accept that we were unlikely to see any significant improvement in the overall state of poor families in our time there.

I could write another post about multigenerational relief strategies, but the important point for now is that you aren’t going to “fix” poverty in a short time. You can help mitigate the suffering of some and provide some short-term stability for others, but those don’t look very grand.

You can be so full of optimism and good intentions that you have no room to be filled up with God's Spirit.

To truly touch and change lives, you have to first empty yourself of any self-importance or ambition. If you approach ministry to the poor as a path to self-actualization, professional or emotional, you'll become just one more predator, feeding on the broken heart of society.

Strange as it sounds, “you” must be poured out of you to serve the poor. But if you’re rooted in God, he’s there to fill you with himself as the “you” is poured out. His springs are inexhaustible. His water quenches every thirst, including and especially your own.

Immersing

Whenever a new missionary would get off the plane in Buenos Aires, I would tell him or her, "For as long as you are here, your favorite food is asado, your favorite drink is mate and your favorite sport is futbol. It just is." Any type of cross-cultural immersion, be it international, ethnic or socio-economic requires you adapt your behavior in order to gain acceptance from the other culture.

This is true for work among the poor as well. Because poverty affects the way people think so deeply, serving them is not a simple as just showing up and offering help. There is a deeper relational commitment required before one can even know what help to give.

Incarnational living means becoming like the people you live among. We adopted Argentine language and customs. We took Argentine names. We ate in their homes, shopped in their garage-front stores, and rode their trains, sharing our children, our meals and our tears with them.

In doing so, we gained credibility, trust and a deep understanding of our friends and neighbors there. Even though we were different – we could have left anytime we wanted – we gained ground with our neighbors.

Practically, immersion is the process of submerging yourself. Think about a trip to the beach. In the sea, immersion happens gradually. You go in as deep as you can without being sucked away by the riptides. When you get tired, you have to come ashore.

You don't have to dive into the middle of the Atlantic on your first day, but you should be seeking greater depths with the people you serve. You'll never attain them from the shoreline. Wade in and see what happens.

Dying

You won't get ahead in this world by serving the poor.

You won't get rich.

You won't gain power.

You'll deal with a lot of heartache and loss. There will be tears.

Each time someone chooses self-destruction over life, your heart will break.

Each injustice you witness will burn off a piece of you.

Every time you end a day exhausted only to find your phone ringing, hot with another need too impossible for you to meet, you will feel crushed.

Sometimes there will be real threats to your life and safety.

Becoming like Christ necessarily results in your death. As Oswald Chambers once said, God won't crucify you with his own hands. The very people you try to help may turn on you, accuse you and condemn you. Your thanks for your efforts may look more like blame.

First you’re emptied; then you’re immersed; then you die. Welcome to incarnational ministry.

Of course, we know that Christ's death wasn't the end of the story. There is resurrection after the grave, and you will experience it. That same Spirit is alive and at work.

So, are those who serve the poor just more full of power than the rest of us? Are they really superhuman after all?

Obviously not. But you'll find that those who endure are full of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit that filled Jesus and allowed him to take on human flesh is the Spirit that empowers us to empty ourselves and dwell among those who are in need. Brothers and sisters who live among and dedicate their lives to the poor are not filled with higher-quality DNA. In fact, they’re not full at all.  They have emptied themselves, died to themselves and been filled up with God’s Spirit, the Spirit of resurrection.