Mark Lutz, the author of UnPoverty: Rich Lessons form the Working Poor, has written an eye-opening book for Compassion International's publishing arm. Mark shares jaw-dropping stories of both horror and hope, and suggests solutions involving what he calls "the miracle of capitalism."

Mark sat down with us to educate us on real poverty, real wealth, and really living out the Christian mission around the world. 

Crosswalk.com: Mark, can you start off by telling us what you mean by the term "UnPoverty?" What are you trying to get at in the book?

Mark Lutz: Yes. "UnPoverty," as you know, is not a word, usually. It is the idea that we want to eradicate extreme poverty in the world during our lifetime. It sounds audacious, especially when Jesus himself said you will always have the poor with you. Right?

CW: Right.

ML: But there are about 1.3 billion people living on a dollar a day. And that is not necessary. It is not just. It is not humane. It certainly is not what God had in mind. And so the idea is to remove that layer of poverty from the planet.

CW: So, obviously, we are not really talking about your basic American who just finds themselves underpaid at work?

ML: Correct.

CW: We are talking about on a global scale what people can do. You have lived among the extreme poor for several years. In South Africa and elsewhere?

ML: Yes. My parents were missionaries. So from the time I was a year old until I came back to the States to go to Wheaton College, I lived in South Africa.

CW: And how did your experiences inform what you wrote in the book?

ML: Well, the whole matter of injustice, living under the apartheid system during that time and recognizing that this is not just and that the poor are not poor because they are lazy. The poor are poor because of latitude and longitude. It is where they are born. So, we can do something about that.

CW: What can we do? The Church was obviously given a vast mission and an example by Christ to serve the poor, to help the poor. Where have we dropped the ball and why? And how can we get back to work?  

ML: Well, I think Rich Stearns from World Vision is living out the gospel. He is really shining the light on the fact that many of us, who are followers of Jesus, certainly have neglected that element of the gospel. And we know that when Jesus walked into the temple there the very first time in Luke 4 and he asked for the scroll and he read, his mission statement was to free the oppressed. Obviously, you have to read on to find the full message of the gospel, but the gospel is clearly saturated with freeing the oppressed and dealing with the poor.

And, yet, I grew up in a very, very evangelical Christian home on the mission field. As long as they go to heaven when they die, we have really accomplished something… They would never come out and say that. That would never have been their mantra, but that was clearly the message, that saving people from eternal damnation is what the gospel is about.

And yet Jesus lived radically differently than that. So I think the Church is coming to the point of recognizing that we have a much broader and current message than that. We must treat people today, while alive, from oppression, among other things, and from poverty.

CW: Will you share some of your personal experiences with us? You used the term "true heroes" in the book. Can you give us an example of one?

ML: Monika. Monika is a woman I met in India. I went to her home, which was no bigger than this room.

Eight people were living in there - her mother, her two elder sisters, herself, and then her brother, his wife, and their two children. So these eight people are living in this room, which was divided in half, the family of four on the one side and then the other four on the other side. He lost his job. He was the only breadwinner in the family. He was the only one who had any kind of income. He worked in a sweatshop basically and lost that. Now, there was no income. The two older sisters doused each other with kerosene and lit the match.

CW: [Gasps]. 

ML: The younger sister, Monika, then decided that she needed to provide for the family, and she approached this organization to receive a microloan. I was visiting with the loan officer who gave that loan, who said that on the first day when she walked in, her self-esteem was so low she could not even look him in the eye. She just looked at the ground. That is all her poverty would allow her to do.

The day that I met her, she was the representative of this group of 30 women. They each had received a microloan - we are talking maybe $100. With her money, she had bought a wet grinder. The other women in the community would bring their rice to her every day, and she would grind their rice and return it back to them. They would pay her either with rupees or with rice. She did not care, either one. She needed to eat. And she was now the representative for this whole group. And this same guy into whose eye she would not look less than two years ago, she was now badgering back with him.

And I talk about it in the book, the discussion that goes, "We would all like more loans today. We would like to, now that we have finished our…"

And he said, "Now you know the rules. Two of you have not paid off your loan, and nobody gets new credit until it is all paid back."

And she said, "Well, you know what happened. One of them bought a milk cow, and with the sale of the milk she was to pay back her loan. The cow died." 

He said, "Well that is too bad, but you know that the deal is that they were encouraged to take out an insurance policy." 

She replied, "Well, she did not. Now how should she pay back this loan?" 

This went on for about 15 minutes. And here she was debating on behalf of the others for more credit. I say that is transformation, that somebody‘s self-esteem can change from downcast and downtrodden to standing up for others.

CW: Wow. We have so much in this country. What does it take? What can one person do? What sorts of things will change the situation around the world?

ML: That is a very great question, because it is counterintuitive. I can just make a few dollars donation to somewhere. I mean that is like spitting in the ocean and waiting for the water table to rise. It is not going to happen. But if we all recognize that the poor are rich, they have assets, and all we have to do is empower them, we do not have to feed everybody. 

Monika now is creating capital in her community, and someone else now is making food. Someone else is making sandals, and they all buy from each other. And the miracle of capitalism takes place, and it grows. So we do not have to give the money out to everybody. We create a system within these communities.

And then the other part of it is that I recognize that microfinance is not the silver bullet that is going to solve poverty, but it is one element. And it is a root of people's need. Because when people grow from one dollar a day to two dollars a day, one of the first things they do is put their kids in school.

CW: Wow.

ML: Because that twenty dollar annual fee [for school] is the tie-breaker, and if you have got three kids and only one of them is a boy and you can only afford one, it is always the boy who gets to go to school. So what I do in the book is, in the back of the book, I have this epilogue with eight pages, one for each of eight different ministries. Each one is addressing a different element of poverty. Compassion International deals with education. Habitat for Humanity deals with housing. Living Water deals with drilling wells for the poor. And then you have got International Justice Mission, and more. Each of these groups is bringing their expertise to bear on one element of poverty.

CW: Do I understand it correctly that all of the royalties from the book are going towards those charities?

ML: Yes. All my royalties are going into these people and these other organizations. I direct the reader to them. I am not here to promote me or my organization. I am here to shine the spotlight on the worth and the value of the poor.

CW: That is a great insight, and it kind of touches on the last question I had for you here. In all of your experiences through being with the extreme poor and the working poor and contrasting that with folks in this country, can you maybe sum up some of the ways you have noticed regarding how the poor are rich and how the wealthy are very impoverished that you might have observed?

ML: That is precisely what the book does. There are eleven chapters. Each chapter is a different lesson that I have learned from them, and each lesson is illustrated by their stories. It is a book of stories. For instance, in the chapter on gratitude, these people are so grateful for what little they have. I have so much, and I find myself complaining and grumbling in contrast. Their faith is so deep because they do not have a gazillion back-ups like I do. So when you depend on God, he tends to show up, okay? And I find that.

God shows up in these people's lives in miraculous ways that I do not experience, because I have so taken care of myself. They are all different lessons, and each one is powerful, that they are just so rich in ways that I have much to learn from.

Mark Lutz is the Senior Vice President, Global Philanthropy of Opportunity International, Oak Brook, Illinois. Growing up in South Africa with missionary parents shaped Mark to become an advocate for justice and the poor. For the past 25 years he has traveled the world to visit with people who live in cardboard huts, hiked dusty paths to visit African villages, and tiptoed across putrid open sewers on makeshift bridges, returning home to tell unforgettable stories about unforgettable people -- people who are desperately poor, yet abundantly rich.

Publication date: August 13, 2010