What Poverty Looks Like: Some Examples


We’re at Selva Negra this weekend. Selva Negra is a coffee farm/tourist resort above Matagalpa. We’re in the mountains. Selva Negra has some of the best hiking trails I’ve found in Nicaragua. It has a beautiful chapel. The kids love being up here and for about two days and two glorious nights, we don’t sweat every moment. It’s cool. Sometimes, to our bodies that have adapted to tropical heat, it’s nearly cold.

This morning, I got up early, prayed, then hiked (and prayed some more while hiking). When I got back, Kim, our friend Kelly, and I did a brief yoga routine. Then I prayed earnestly for a hot shower. Selva Negra has solar heated showers, meaning the sun heats up the water with a solar panel and a big water tank. The “Welcome, Guest!” pamphlet suggests that 2PM is the best time for a shower, i.e. the time most likely to provide hot water. But I was cooled down after my hike and yoga and a bit chilled and the thought of a cold shower made me cringe, while a hot shower—which I rarely ever desire in Managua—sounded delightful. Like putting on warmer clothes when you’re cool or drinking a hot beverage to warm up, taking a hot shower after cooling down from exercise is a pleasure we left in the Pacific Northwest when we moved to the tropics. Except today, except here.

And…YES! Hot water! Instant happiness delivered from a shower head. Then I had to exhort myself not to stay in very long in case Kim also wanted a shower, because hogging all the hot water is one of those gain-the-whole-world-but-lose-your-soul acts in marriage. That might be a little strong, but you know what I mean.

Invariably, I feel refreshed and encouraged when we visit here. I also remember how this experience is an extravagance that most of our neighbors in our barrio never have. I suspect that we should always carry, somewhere in our minds, the reality of what we can do that others cannot. If we’re going to live lives of justice and seek to love our neighbors, I think we have to make that commitment. I mean all of us. Where we live now, this comparison is rarely out of our immediate line of vision. This weekend is a break, in that sense, too, a change to be refreshed and recharge our batteries.

I prefer to resist the label “the poor” when speaking of people who live in poverty, because it reduces human beings to their living conditions. It’s an easy shorthand, but we see a wide variety of people in our little sphere, and though most of them suffer the same economic level—more poor than you or I will ever be—they have differing personalities, struggles, responses to their life situations, faith, etc. When we’re talking about world population statistics, I understand why we have such general labels for the people trying to survive on less than two dollars a day. When we have them as neighbors, calling them “the poor” feels disrespectful and diminishing.



Our neighbor, who is also one of the women who runs our preschool with Kim, has four children. Six of them live in a one-room home with a dirt floor. She has twin daughters, one of whom was severely ill recently. We asked for prayer for the little girl and Kim bought a little medicine for her. Doctors and decent medical care and even adequate knowledge of basic health do’s and don’t’s are all privileges that come with wealth. We’ve seen that repeatedly in our barrio. But this one caught me off guard: with the other children, just a small expression of kindness for this family. The kids, who are very sweet, were grateful to receive the food. One of the little girls took a bit, looked up and exclaimed, “It’s cold!” And they were all amazed.

They don’t have a refrigerator. Their tiny house has beds, of a sort, and they wash their laundry by hand outside and cook over a fire outside, and never had they tasted fruit from a refrigerator before.

If you’re willing, I want you to take a moment to contemplate that. I imagine that I’m stretched by hoping for a hot shower when “everyone” takes hot showers for granted.  Think about your life. Think about what you’ve had all your life. Now think about a life in which you never had a refrigerator. It is for most of us, to lean on Princess Bride semantics, inconceivable.

Our neighbor across the street, with whom we are very close and to who I often refer here, asked after about the third time she’d been in our kitchen, “What is that?” pointing to the microwave. Same reflections, but even more so. What life could you have lived in which you’ve never seen a microwave oven?


Celebrating a birthday with Juan Ramon’s family.

Consider our dear friend, Juan Ramon. In the past two weeks, he’s gone back to work as a security guard for an electrical supplies company. His schedule is 7AM-5PM for a week, then 6PM to 5AM for a week. Juan Ramon and his wife are raising three kids, including a very young daughter. But he’s also struggled to find decent work, taken jobs that turned out to be little more than employers taking advantage of desperate people (buy your own uniform, provide your own tools, then we’ll give you a few hours of work here and there, as we feel like it), and scraped together anything he could find, month after month to feed his family. Juan Ramon is also a regular lay-preacher and -teacher at his church. He also takes classes all day on Saturday working toward his high school diploma, which due to severe circumstances he could not finish when he was a teenager.

I know, some of you have schedules that bad or worse. But he will bring home $200 a month for that schedule. In a country with >50% unemployment, there aren’t better options. He has certainly looked and searched and knocked and prayed, every day.

Those are a few examples. They aren’t the worst. Women are beaten by drunkard husbands every day. Those same husbands drink away most of the tiny income on which their family is trying to survive. Our friend Bella tries to help these women grasp their own value and the cyclic nature of their abuse. But many ask, “How would I survive if he wasn’t here?”

I know this is hard to read. This is the world we live in—you and I, not just here in this barrio, because as Paul Farmer* said, “Not two or three worlds, but one.”

I don’t have any rules or even guidelines for how you should spend your money.  Please don’t hear me posturing as an expert here.  But I know we who have much are responsible for what we have. I believe we can view this with grace, not as a red hot poker of guilt but as a measuring stick, a level we carry with us to evaluate how we live in this one world. What are the steps we can take in the right direction? If your part is not to work directly to alleviate the suffering of people living in poverty, then is your part to share your resources with ministries and organizations that do? God loves us and delights in us. He desires that we make the world more loving, more generous, more full of kindness and grace. “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” means all that and more, so if you buy into that prayer, it follows you are on board with this thesis. Jesus also makes clear that the purpose behind his commands is that we will experience joy, the deep, life-changing joy of being fully alive and loving others as we love ourselves.

It’s a scary thing to suggest that God shows his love for us by lavishing material wealth on us. That view implies that God loves people living in poverty less. “No, he just blesses them differently,” people say. But maybe those people should come have that conversation with our neighbors and explain how that works theologically. I have no idea why I was born into a middle class family in the most affluent country in the world. But I know this: it wasn’t because I was better or deserved more or was more loved by God. I also know this: if I keep my resources all to myself, that means I believe God cares about me more than about my neighbors in poverty. It doesn’t matter what I say I believe; that action reveals my belief. Jesus commands us to care for those who are materially poor (and there are certainly many other forms of poverty) and makes that about as clear as anyone could possibly make anything. How exactly we go about that in our individual lives is less clear, though we get some suggestions (feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit prisoners, welcome the stranger/alien/immigrant, don’t ignore starving folks lying at our gate and share are all explicit).

So I will risk repeating myself here: what is your part? To work toward breaking the cycle of poverty for people directly, or to share part of your abundance to make it possible for others who are doing so?

Speaking of risks, here’s one: ask God the answer to that question.




*“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” ― Paul Farmer

One thought on “What Poverty Looks Like: Some Examples

  1. Once again, you open our eyes & hearts. Thanks for all that you do, and for putting faces on the ones that are “far away from us” is so many ways.

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