If we haven’t met, you need to know that first of all, we are poor. We love the poor. We identify with the poor. Poverty and the Scriptures are our daily conversation. Our church is poor and most of our friends are poor. Some of our friends experience regular homelessness. Our lives include the realities of greens and cornbread, where meat is a spice. It also includes the joys of children adopted into the church family when biological mothers were unable to care for them.

We often say that God has given us the abundant life, a life together, where we experience the depths of sorrow as well as the heights of joy. We know poverty in the valley of want. We also know poverty on the hill top of spiritual reward that is gained by faith.

You might think that we would boast another qualification for writing. If poverty is a qualification for writing, the oceans would be drained to make ink. Poverty, however, is the first qualification for true life. Truly living people first of all recognize that they are destitute. Without recognizing this one fact, no one can have a real relationship with God. No one has anything to offer God. Even our good works, done apart from God, only compare to filthy rags. So, truly we are all poor when it comes to our souls.

Yet some are also poor when it comes to their material standing. This group, who according to the James 2:5 is rich in faith, has something to say to our affluent brothers and sisters.

Economic poverty seems to be at the forefront in the early church so much so that when Paul went back to Jerusalem to discuss theological issues with the other Apostles, he said in Galatians 2:10-21, “They changed nothing of my gospel except to remind me to care for the poor which we were already doing.” If the Apostles wanted to remind Paul of this one thing, then we need to know who the poor are. 

Who - and Where - Are the Poor?

In the larger world this is easy. Look on your computer. The poverty in the world is easily seen in international headlines. But in your hometown or nearby, it can be much more difficult. American poverty is a strange animal. It is hard to identify. You might be able to spot some of the homeless. But your neighbor who has some means will do every thing in his power to avoid being found not having heat for his house. Warm houses, hot water, and other necessities are required for children. Without these his children are at risk of being taken by the Department of Child Services. The standards are different in America than the rest of the world.

Standards that the authors use to determine poverty are first matters of the heart. It begins with the feeling of powerless that most people living in poverty have. These feelings provide a platform of hopelessness. The poor feel that they are unable to change their circumstance. 

As an example, just this month our local news paper, the Indianapolis Star, reported that our city was named on a national survey as the 45th of 50 cities regarding health. Thank God for Detroit, number 46, and a few other unhealthy cities, but the poor are unlikely to avail themselves of the too few golf courses anyway.  Build more and our over all health indexes will go up, but the destitute won’t golf more.

Since the poor don’t believe that they have the means to change their situations, they are left with few options. When a family finds itself in a desperate school system where can they go? The poor are those who live in the highest crime rate areas in our cities, those who have little health care options. They are those whose diets are killing them because of lack of understanding or opportunity. Some are working in conditions that expose them to extraordinary risk. They are unprotected.

The poor are those who are taken into the foster system or those who should have been. The poor are the fatherless and the widow whose single defense is the generosity of others or the state. The poor are those disabled people who can find help only in the comfort of someone who considers them family. The least of these are often hidden in the shadows of affluence; resource is all around in this, the wealthiest country on earth. Like the homeless man who is left window shopping, access to resource is unavailable to the poor.

Those of us who see God’s demands on the church to care for the poor are frustrated as we look at American cities. In our cities we have mixed the criminal and foolish elements of society with those who are truly destitute. The places the more noble poor can afford to live are the same places that one getting out of prison or those getting back into the drug life can afford to start out. These are the neglected places. Where crime is managed and not solved.  Where the rules of the majority culture are overlooked until the property becomes valuable enough to displace those who have survived the troubles.

When any of us look out to see where we need to help, the poor are often obscured by those who seem undeserving of help. Many ask for help, but no one should be assisted in their self destruction.  This mixing of the poor and the criminal confuses everyone as to who the poor truly are. It seems to have so confused the American Church that few venture to live with or near the needy.

Who Are the Rich?

1 Timothy 6:18 says to “tell those who are rich in this world’s goods to be generous and share.” Anyone who has traveled to needy sections of our planet can tell you the disparity between American poor and the poor of any other country. We are willing to speak of American poverty but also wealth and will try to define it and its responsibilities.

The affluent are those who enjoy the best America has to offer. They have choices. If some one has ever lived in the best systems and they weren’t thrown out, they are the affluent. These systems include cities named by Forbes.com, the best places in the country to raise a family—Carmel, Ind; Lancaster, Pa; and so forth. They have the best healthcare systems in the country, opportunities to go to the best schools and the best banking institutions. If someone buys the best car in its class, they are affluent. If they have access to the best doctors or dentists, or even if they go to the best stores and have bought the best chocolates or best perfumes, then yes, that person is affluent. 

There are certainly richer people than these who occasionally indulge themselves, but you must admit that most Americans live at the pinnacle of human comforts and freedom. In America it is much harder to find the truly poor than those who have access to wealth. Access itself prevents the hopelessness that helps define the poor.

The Church and the Poor

If the church is responsible in any way for those who suffer in poverty, then we believe that the Church is wrong when it hoists Christian expectations on a lost world. Yes, Christians  are to pray for peace. We are to pray that our Father’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. But until God changes hearts we must expect that those who do not know God will not act like Him.

We think that just as John the Baptist and prophets before him spoke warning to the rich and powerful, it is the church’s job to be the witness in the world.  We are not to be afraid to call unrighteousness sin.  We must point out societal injustice. However, our message is empty if it does not first call the people of God to righteous action. Righteous words are only winsome and powerful if the righteous acts of the saints of God are available to be seen.  

God speaks comfort to all who will attempt to care. In the book of Philippians 1:6 He tells us that, “He who began a good work in us will complete it in the day of Christ Jesus” (1: 6).  And in 1 Corinthians when the Apostle asks, “Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” he responds, “But thanks to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57). God Himself will help us if we let Him, if we take our responsibility seriously to love our neighbor as ourselves.

As I Timothy teaches, those who are rich are commanded to be generous and to share.  All Christians are responsible, but those who have access to this world’s resources are more equipped to help. Just as at a scene of an accident, all who see are morally responsible to do what they can, but if doctors or nurses are among the observers they are more equipped, more responsible. 

The church must be instructed. The American church and particularly the individuals who make it up must learn to use resource as God commands. All must be responsible to love his neighbor and share.The dividends of theses choices will produce more joy than one could have imagined. It will give life, true life. 

Jim and Debbie Strietelmeier are Moody Bible Institute graduates who were high school sweethearts that met at a camp for inner-city kids.  For 15 years they have ministered with Neighborhood Fellowship, an Indianapolis East Side church that is sensitive to those in need.  They have seven children, 4 biological, 2 adopted, and one foster, four daughters and three sons all along with two dogs, Sugar and Splenda. The Strietelmeiers love food, have a 10 burner stove and fill any room with the loudest laughter.