| I spend some time each week as one of the supervisors of a soup kitchen in Summit. This is a not-for-profit operation sponsored by S.H.I.P. (“Summit Helps It’s People”), and we serve cooked and nourishing meals seven days a week.|
Our clientele are local folks who are at or near homelessness, and for whatever reason are living at or below the government-designated poverty level.
We try to be welcoming, so we engage our guests in conversation during their time with us. Out of these conversations, I have begun to change my view of the people we are serving.
People are not born with equal opportunities. But, can we help people to create opportunities for themselves that engage their particular personal gifts, and then cause them to make the necessary effort to effectively employ those gifts?
One thing I have learned is that shame is a major part of the brokenness that low-income people experience in their relationship with themselves. Instead of seeing themselves as being created in the image of God, low-income people often feel deeply that they are inferior to others. This can paralyze the poor, preventing them from taking initiative and from seizing opportunities to improve their situation, thereby locking them into permanent material poverty.
At the same time, because I can afford to be a regular soup kitchen volunteer, and live comfortably in Summit, I realize that I also suffer from a deficiency. Specifically, I am a candidate to have a kind of “god-complex,” a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority in which I believe that I have achieved my “wealth” completely through my own efforts and that I have been anointed to decide what is best for low-income people, whom I might view as inferior to myself.
Few of us may be conscious of having a “god-complex,” but that may be part of the problem. Are we often deceived by one of our own sinful natures? For example, consider why do we want to help the poor? Really think about it. What truly motivates you? Do you really love poor people so much, and eagerly want to serve them? Or, do you have additional motives?
I confess that part of what motivates me to help the poor is my felt need to accomplish something worthwhile in my life, to be a person of significance, to feel I have pursued a noble cause, perhaps to be a bit like God. It makes me feel good to use my resources to “save” poor people. And in the process, I guess I sometimes unintentionally reduce poor people to objects that I can use to fulfill my own need to accomplish something. It is an ugly truth, and it pains me to admit it, but when I want to “do” good, the evil of feeding my ego is right there with me!
Perhaps we have been lucky. Perhaps we have worked hard and been well-focused in our lives. But how much of our reward was truly earned by us, and how much has come to us by the grace of God —– and thus should be shared?
Are the opportunities any of us are born into, some gift of God? I was fortunate in being born into a college-educated family, and then I was admitted to a challenging college, where I could discover my gifts and develop early, marketable skills. Sure, I could have wasted these opportunities, but that would have been in conflict with the culture of my family and those I socialized with. I was blessed with opportunities.
What if others in my personal culture had not laid out for me this path of growth and personal development? I would be a very different person today, and perhaps struggling. Indeed, I did work hard and I did apply myself, but others provided me with some great opportunities.
I must remember that for many of the poor it is their lack of opportunities —– the lack of the “shoulders” I was able to stand on, which doomed them to be poor. Yes, some of them may have lacked ambition and determination to better themselves economically. But, others who did have ambition and determination lacked an important thing —— opportunities. They may have felt shame in their poverty, but perhaps the real source of their poverty was outside them. Perhaps it was just the absence of “shoulders” to stand on. If I really want to help the poor, maybe I need to focus on nurturing their opportunities.
Do you ever wonder whom you should thank for your opportunities and particular privileges in life? Perhaps God was there, working through the “direct” providers to you, each of whom did something, contributed a little piece of the “big picture”, that became today’s YOU. Now the question is whether you can be one of those “direct” providers for someone else? If you are one of those “direct” providers, mindful of the many unearned privileges in our own lives, it could lead us to greater generosity toward others. For ourselves, it could lead to a more profound humility and greater conviction that we are at our best when we are acting as part of a community, helping each other.
Let’s think of helping others beyond their mere survival. How can we engineer opportunities for personal development that prior generations of struggling populations were not even aware were possible? Perhaps this is the next chapter in the ongoing story of our help to others.
These thoughts are brought to you by CPC’s Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage you personally in some spiritual growth this summer at CPC.