I had dinner with a group of our Indonesian staff members and met a new member of the local leadership team. She told me about her many experiences working with the poor before she came to work for our ministry, and I was truly amazed at all the things she had done.
I asked her to share her best advice for someone who wants to work with the poor, and she had four words for me:
“Bring an empty cup.
“Most people come to help the poor with only a full cup.
“Their cups are full of all the things they want to do for the poor, all the things they want to give to the poor and all the solutions they have for the problems of the poor. These things can sometimes be very good, but if people only bring a full cup, they can’t accept anything in return. They can give, but they can’t receive. They should bring an empty cup.”
I was humbled by her comment. How many times had I visited some of our church partners with only a full cup? How often had I spent time with the poor assuming that I had all the answers for their problems and that I was the only one who had anything to offer in the relationship?
As we talked, I began to realize that my heart needed to change about the work I was doing. While my intent had always been good, I had to admit that I thought the poor needed me more than I needed them. I have since come to appreciate just how much the poor can teach me if I come prepared to receive from them.
When I come with an empty cup, the poor teach me about the faith required to truly depend on God rather than for me to try to solve all their problems by reaching for my wallet. When I come with an empty cup, the poor teach me how to get the best use of the resources around me instead of wasting so much.
When I come with an empty cup, the poor teach me about the joy of giving to others even when I can’t “afford” to give. They teach me about the beauty of simple living, about the importance of relationships and human contact, and about finding God in the little things.
Working with the poor isn’t about doing things FOR them; it’s about doing things WITH them. Those of us in developed nations might have the financial and material resources, but the poor are often rich in spiritual and relational resources. This is no accident.
I believe that God has arranged things so that we can both benefit when we work together to address the needs of the poor, but it won’t happen unless we are intentional. We’ve got to bring an empty cup.