I Still Have No Answer and I Never Will

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Yesterday, I had lunch with two of my favorite people on the planet.

They are smart, funny, and happily married. They are tremendous parents. They have raised two children of their own and also raised her much younger brother as their own while her mother lived in Costa Rica for many years. Her mother lived in Costa Rica to earn more money for the family.

They live week to week, sometimes day to day.

God has put us in their lives, which also means we have the opportunity to help them. But the help we give them alleviates only a little of their stress. At times we’ve been able to make a real difference. Yet what I want is to change their situation, and that seems out of my reach.

I’m coming back to talk about this again, even though there is no answer, even though the topic makes some people uncomfortable. It makes me wildly uncomfortable, but I think my coldest days are the days I forget to notice or it doesn’t bother me so much.

Why are Juan Ramon and Amada poor and we are rich?

First, yes, we are rich. Not wealthy billionaires, but rich. Top ninety-something percent rich. You have to be insane if you don’t see that as rich. If I can lift more weight than all but the top ten–or five–percent of people in the world, I’m strong. If I’m better at ultimate than 95% of the population, then yes, world-wide, I’m good. (Hmm.) We own two cars that both run. We own a house. We never, ever wonder if we’re going to be able to feed our children today or tomorrow or next year. Our children have all that they need and much that they want.

It is so easy–and I would say encouraged by those who want us to spend our money–to pay attention to the people who have more. In fact, this saturates US culture such that we barely notice it. From direct advertising to constant news about celebrities, the wealthy, and the powerful, to all the coverage of professional sports (people making boodles of money playing games), we’re so soaked in reminders that Other. People. Have. More. Than. You!

It’s true. Some do. Not many. But some. That means what?

What does it do to our hearts to be soaked in reminders that we could–should–have more, and then to get these tiny glimpses of how badly some other people live? What does it do to our understanding of how things should be, for us and for others?

I’ve heard many theological explanations why some are poor and others rich. I’ve been told that it’s God’s decision and not mine to worry about, and I think that’s pretty freaking convenient when I’m the one who is rich. I’ve heard that it’s people’s own fault they are poor. I know this is true in certain cases, but for worldwide poverty, it’s a ludicrous argument. You and I would be living in poverty if we had been born in certain countries. Why weren’t we? Does God love us better? That’s an atrocious theology. It’s been used as the basis for imperialism worldwide. So no.

Then I hear explanations that they are “blessed differently,” that people living in poverty have benefits and experiences of God that we rich will never know. That may be true. People forced to have faith in and dependence on God for daily survival may experience God’s presence and daily providence more powerfully than I do. I will tell you that every Nicaraguan I have spoken with in depth during this visit has ended the description of how horrible the economy is, prices for essentials (e.g. tortillas, beans, cheese, cooking oil) have skyrocketed, businesses have gone under, and people have no money for non-essentials with the declarations “Dios es mi fuerza!” “Confiamos en Dios.”

I want to say very clearly, I believe God is with them, Jesus is their strength, and they have learned to trust in God in ways, and at a depth, I have not. But I see very few lining up to join them. We’re not so convinced that those blessings are better than our wealth. We’re okay that they got the blessing of trusting God and we got the blessing of more stuff.

Sorry, I find this very painful and sarcasm comes out more easily than saying it straight. Yesterday, Juan Ramon described the increased cost of living and the discrepancy between that and what most people here earn, those who are employed, which is now less than fifty percent. The gap sounds beyond impossible to leap. In this context, he said, “Somehow, we are surviving, thank God.” Juan Ramon has tremendously strong faith, much stronger than mine (as best I can measure these things). They are frugal people; they rarely buy anything they can’t afford. As Aria and I ate the lunch Amada made for us–our first comida autentica of our visit, which was marvelous–I hit the iceberg (okay, bad imagery for a Nicaragua metaphor, try again) I hit the wall. Again.

I. Don’t. Understand. I don’t understand why they are poor. I don’t understand why we have so much more than they do–“we” my family and “we” all of us who are rich–or why we get to make decisions about what we do and don’t share of our abundance. We’ve been able to share significantly with them, both from our own and from support we received as missionaries in our previous chapter of life. I feel good about what we’ve shared. I know it’s helped. We’re not having a discussion here about how charity can be disempowering, which is true in some circumstances, nor how giving might create dependency. We’re talking about beloved friends, people who helped make our time in Nicaragua possible, living in a downward spiral economy, trying to provide for their children. There’s nothing abstract in this for me. I just don’t get it.

This is the part of the post where I’m supposed to draw some insightful conclusion. I’ve written about this topic before, of course, and I still believe we have a responsibility to share. Absolutely. I say that as a Jesus follower. I believe all people have the responsibility to share with those in need (Juan Ramon and Amada share at a level that might put many of us to shame). Jesus followers have the clearest instructions I know of to give.

But the only real insight I can provide here is that I am not okay with this discrepancy and never will be. I love being in Nicaragua so much. I love the people here. I jokingly tell most of my Nicaraguan friends “Soy Nicaragüense!” “I am Nicaraguan!” We laugh, because my accent belies my claim. But they also know I’m telling them that I love their country and their people so much I identify myself with them, remedial Spanish, wrong skin tone, and different passport notwithstanding. When people debate our “border crisis,” I don’t see nameless brown-skinned people. I picture Juan Ramon and Amada fleeing the violence and hunger crashing over their home. I see their little Annalise, whom they named after our Miracle Girl, locked in a bare cell. No, I’m not suddenly getting political or switching subjects. The fruit of living in Nicaragua for me is that this will always be personal. Poverty is personal, including for those of us who are not poor. If you’ve read this and it still sounds like an abstract question, I’m failing in my communication.

Why are some people poor and other people rich? Why are Juan Ramon and Amada and most Nicaraguans living on $200 a month while we can spend $200 without having it affect us much?

I have no answer.

But I do have my next question.

Now what?

7 thoughts on “I Still Have No Answer and I Never Will

  1. Jessie Bonilla

    This is an article that hits really close to home (pun intended) and as a Nicaraguan my perspective is very similar. My life has been filled with so much grace that it almost doesn’t seem fair. I break down in tears when I don’t do well in school thinking that I am wasting the chance a Nicaraguan rarely gets. I am the one Nicaraguan in my graduating class since UR takes just one per year. I wonder why me? I know I have worked hard, but I know I am not the one that has worked the hardest. My mother has always told me that we, her children, are special (duh she is our mom) and that God loves us in a very special way but then that also feels kind of wrong to feel. When I interact with people in similar living conditions as your friends and the question of what do I do or where do I live comes accompanied with a nauseating feeling because I am about to reveal of a world that is basically unreachable to them which I don’t deserve. Who am I to have had all of the opportunities I have? and even a more scary follow up: having been granted these opportunities, what does He want me to do with them?

    • Jessie, I responded–and then the internet went out and I lost my response! Ever experience that here?

      I have seen how hard you work and no one should ever say otherwise. And it’s still true that you and I have both won some invisible lottery. The theology for a mother to tell her children they are special is unassailable; the theology that some of us have more wealth or opportunities because God loves us more is directly contrary to what Jesus says.

      That word “deserve” is so loaded, isn’t it? I get really frustrated when people want to debate that they deserve all that they have. You know this better than I do, how incredibly hard people work here just to survive. I think people have a hard time separating “I work hard” from “I’m incredibly fortunate,” as if the hard work caused the good fortune. But we don’t choose where we’re born; it’s that simple. I deeply appreciate that you get the both/and of this. I don’t think people “deserve” to be born into poverty or into wealth. And here we all are.

      I agree about your scary follow up question. I can totally see how it would feel overwhelming to live up to the opportunity you’ve been given. You know me and that grace word. Of course we stumble around and flounder, but I know God has grace for this. We’re trying to be faithful to what we’ve received.
      I think it’s even scarier when people won’t ask this follow up question, at least in some form.

      And Jessie? You’re doing awesome!

  2. Jim Allyn

    That’s an easy question, Mike, and I’m surprised that you don’t already know the answer. They are poor BECAUSE we are rich.

  3. Jim, I had to reread this to make certain I had asked the question I thought I had asked.
    I’m not asking “Why is there poverty in the world?”
    I’m asking, “Why is this specific person born into poverty while that specific person is born into wealth?”

    I agree that we need to address the systemic causes behind poverty. I think those are identifiable. I’m wrestling with “Why this way and not vice-versa.” I hope everyone is troubled by this question. If people can see that it just as easily could have been me fleeing for my life with my children and seeking asylum, for example, it may change how they respond to the situation.

    • Jim Allyn

      The first question you asked was, “Why are Juan Ramon and Amada poor and we are rich?” And that is the question I answered. As to the answer to “Why is this specific person born into poverty while that specific person is born into wealth?” I think the answer is there is no answer. Luck of the draw, maybe. Random chance.

  4. Colleen

    Mike, beautiful writing and perspective. Thanks for giving me a bigger window on the world, and a closer view of people’s lives in other countries . Their poverty breaks my heart. Will pray and look for God’s next steps.

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