Friday, October 12, 2012

Responding to Poverty

This is the post I’ve been struggling all year to write. 

When we traveled to Ethiopia in January to meet our daughter and go to court, my life changed forever.  Yes, I got to meet my daughter, but that’s not the change I’m talking about.  I’m talking about poverty.  Suffocating, overwhelming, never-ending, poverty.  I thought I’d seen poverty before, but living in the US had not prepared me for poverty that was so rampant and ran so deep.  Please don’t misunderstand, Ethiopia is a beautiful country filled with exquisite people.  Their history is deep and rich, and I believe their future is getting brighter.  But there are lots of people – families –  who still have a long way to go.

While I was there, I just took it all in, detached – probably because I knew that once I began to respond emotionally, the feelings would overwhelm me.  And they did for a while.  For a long while, actually.  For months.  I remember talking to Rob about it one day, telling him that I felt like we were somehow responsible for what we’d seen – responsible to tell people, or do something, although I had no idea what to do.  It still felt very overwhelming.  I remember telling him that I didn’t think I could like myself very much if I didn’t respond in some way.  Not long after that I read Ann VosKamp’s post after she returned from Haiti.  She articulated what I was feeling so much better than I had:

I’m angry that I’ve seen and I’m ashamed that I am angry and I’m angry that I’ve seen and now I am responsible. More than respons-able – we’re response-bound. Once we have seen the poor, we are responsible — we will make a response. As long as your heart is beating, there’s no such thing as unresponsive. We all look into the face of the poor and it’s either Yes, I will help. Or no, I won’t.

There’s no getting off the hook.

Faith cannot have a non-response.

We’re either responding with indifference or with intercession, either with apathy or aid.

You can’t look into the face of the poor and just plead the fifth amendment. Your life is always your answer.

Yeah.  What she said.

Before we went to Ethiopia in January, we had been told by our agency to expect that people would ask us for food or money, so we took lots of granola bars with us.  And boy did people ask us for food and money.  Actually, it was mostly Rob they approached.  I’m not sure anybody asked me for anything at all.  I mostly stood back and tried to discreetly take pictures.  I just wanted to make sure I didn’t forget – forget their faces or their gratitude.  I have struggled with whether or not to post these pictures because the last thing I want to do is rob anyone of their dignity.  My hope is that by showing you what I’ve seen, you will at the very least have a better understanding of the events that have shaped me.

This woman approached our car, asking Rob for food.  She was so grateful for the granola bar he gave her.

At the top of Mt. Entoto.  I can only assume she lives here.

Also at the top of Mt. Entoto.  This woman was filled with gratitude for what she received.

Also at the top of Mt. Entoto.

All the way up and down Mt. Entoto, we saw women carrying upwards of 150 pounds of firewood on their backs to make the equivalent of a few US dollars.

This is outside Korah, the town dump.  Many people live here.  This large hill is actually trash.  

This boy wanted so badly to wash Rob's shoes, but he didn't have any money with him this afternoon.  Even in the midst of extreme poverty, there is still such unspeakable joy.

After praying about our response for the last several months, I think the Lord has finally begun to give us direction.  We’ve stepped out in faith to do the things we know He’s called us to do, but I think there’s still more to come.  I’ll be sharing more of that in the coming posts, but for now, let’s talk.  

Have you seen poverty outside of the US?  If so, how have you responded?


  1. I struggle with all of this too. Overwhelming is such the perfect word. I am also so torn about wanting to do something but wanting to make sure what I am doing is sustainable and will help in the long term. Have you read "When Helping Hurts"? I haven't but it is on my list. I read some good blogs by people who have lots of thoughts on this stuff. Have you heard of Sit A Spell blog or The Livesays in Haiti. They are linked on my sidebar. I always appreciate their perspective. I also don't know about you but I felt closer to God than I ever have before when we were in Ethiopia. That must mean something, right?

    1. Emily,
      All of this is so new to me - awareness of poverty and providing sustainable aid. I heard about When Helping Hurts a couple of weeks ago, then randomly, my husband bought the book last week. I've started it and so far it's REALLY GOOD! I have not heard of Sit a Spell, but have JUST heard of the Livesays - like just this week. I don't think it's coincidence that I keep hearing the same things from different people, so I will definitely check out those blogs and finish that book!