I was raised American poor. I call it American poor because the brand of poverty I lived through pales in comparison to some of the 3rd world poverty I’ve seen firsthand in India, Colombia and El Salvador. But, by United States standards, my family was poor.

Although we qualified for food stamps my mom refused to take advantage of them. She felt in some weird way that this would be admitting defeat and stealing from the government. Although she should have gotten alimony from at least one of the four marriages she had experienced in her relatively young life, she didn’t get any.

Our family experience was filled with deadbeat dads (whom we never saw), hard work and pressing bills. To add insult to a high possibility of injury my mom, brother and I lived in one of the highest crime rate areas of our city.

Mom scraped and scrapped to put food on the table, clothes on our backs and some shred of dignity for our souls. She was determined to raise us as well as she possibly could. But sometimes the pressure was too overwhelming for her.

She would often cry herself to sleep at night. My brother and I could hear her through the paper thin walls of our tiny apartment. Mom told us many times that she was worried that we would turn out to be just like her. To be honest I didn’t know what she meant when she said that. To me, my mom was everything. She was strong, hard-working and surprisingly generous.

But she felt like a loser. She felt like a loser because she couldn’t keep a relationship. She felt like a loser because she couldn’t get ahead of the relentless bills. She felt like a loser because of the sins she had committed. And every month when bills came due those feelings were magnified.

As a kid I was a collector of pennies. In sidewalk cracks and underneath couch cushions I looked for those shiny copper coins everywhere I went. By the time I was eight I had amassed a fortune ($50 worth!) I’ll never forget the look of shame my mom had when she asked to borrow the money from me so that she could buy groceries for us that week. I agreed and she promised to pay me back when she could.

Mom worked long hours at her job and did what it took to make sure her boys had enough to survive. But when she felt the pressure of unpaid bills and an inability to change the situation she would sometimes crack. I remember once she took out her anger on Paul, one of the guys she had married. After all he had left us high and dry with bills to pay. Then one day out of the blue he showed up in a new car in front of our place. I’ll never forget when she took a baseball bat to his car and then turned it on him. By the time he drove off the car was trashed and he was covered in blood. We never saw him again. The only thing he left behind were his unpaid bills.

I know American poverty. I was raised in it and reared by it. To me poverty is not a theoretical subject for the seminary classroom, but the shaper of many of my childhood memories. Yes, we had people that helped us along the way, including my grandparents. But mom paid back every loan she ever got from them and the stress of it all took a huge toll on her. I think that’s why one of the only luxuries she allowed herself was two packs of smokes per day.

But in the midst of all this Jesus came walking in and changed everything. Through a variety of crazy circumstances my entire family ended up coming to Christ over a few short years.

My toughest uncle was reached with the good news first and the rest began to fall like dominos. Uncles, aunts, cousins eventually all put their faith in Jesus. For the first time real and lasting hope entered my family and I was a firsthand witness to it all (that’s a big part of why I’m so passionate about the power of the gospel to change lives!)