How Uncomfortable Do the Poor Make You Feel?

I wonder if you and I are really any different from the woman who said,

“I don’t think you understand. I hate kids.”

She was right, actually. I didn’t understand. I thought I had heard her incorrectly.

“I don’t like kids. I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t relate to them.”

I realize now that she doesn’t actually hate kids. She just feels uncomfortable around anyone who’s notably different from her. Anyone she can’t relate to easily is a little bit, well, scary. She would rather avoid them.

And I wonder if a camaraderie about something that is, frankly, a little bit shameful might actually be where we can start building our own personal and community efforts to break the chains of those held in a death grip by extreme poverty.

Brainstorm with me here for a minute.

This acquaintance of mine is certainly not the only person in the world who feels uncomfortable around kids. She isn’t alone in feeling uncomfortable around people from another culture or another economic reality.

In fact, I’ve been a bit surprised recently at just how many people I know who have stayed away from the challenge of fighting poverty because the whole thing is just uncomfortable.

waterway full of trash

Maybe your friends or colleagues wouldn’t use the word uncomfortable. Maybe they would use adjectives like overwhelming, challenging, thankless, too big of a risk, or uncontrollable. They may even fall back on some unflattering biases about the poor including the stereotype that most of the poor are poor because they just don’t work hard enough.

Please believe me when I say I am not out to objectify people who hold these preconceptions. They’re a very present reality in our Western world. Some individuals are just a little more honest about it than others.

I’ve seen these attitudes outside of the West, too. Some blurt out,

“I hate kids.”

Others softly chide,

“Stewardship is important but I need to ensure that there will be a good return on my investment or it’s just not worth the risk.”

The perceived risk makes them uncomfortable.

So how do we address these realities? Because if we’re truthful, although most of us fully believe that children and adults can be released from poverty, we have all felt the weight of those unflattering adjectives ourselves from time to time.

What causes you, an advocate for the poor, to stay strong and carry on in those moments when you feel combating poverty is overwhelming, unappreciated, or uncomfortable? Is there a specific moment or story you can point to and say,

“I have been there, I have felt that, and I know the rewards of persevering.”

We have great resources at our disposal — informative and soul-stirring resources like 58:, as well as books and video clips, talking points and Scripture passages.

But I think that to really communicate with those who are skittish, or those who genuinely want to say “I am uncomfortable around kids” or “I don’t know how to relate to the poor,” we need to find a bridge.

suspension bridge

That connection won’t come by patronizing or scolding the other person. It’s going to come through authentic conversation — respectful exchanges in which we express that, really, we’ve felt the same way too … but here’s what happened, here’s why this thing we call “fighting poverty” is working, and here’s why it’s so important that you get involved even though, right now, you might just feel a bit uncomfortable.

20 Comments |Add a comment

  1. Michael Case July 30, 2011

    I got a very warm feeling reading your story Ruth. Thanks

  2. Ruth July 30, 2011

    I don’t have any pat answers but I do know what happened to me last week when I was on holiday in a european country.

    My daughter and I were walking down a side street where there was a church. It was raining. On the side of the church was a man sitting with a dog. The man was selling some kind of magazine – maybe the kind that some homeless sell for spare change. The dog was lying down under an umbrella. I asked my daughter if we should give the man some spare change but neither she nor I had any readily available so we walked by. The next day we walked down that street and the man and dog were on the other side of the street and we walked by. That night, God clearly spoke to my spirit (which doesn’t happen often to me and with such clarity either). God said: “You passed Me by two times, will you pass Me by a third time?” So the next day, I went to that street, got a larger denomination coin out, and gave it to the man. He wished me a very good day and as he did, I could see he had some kind of visual impairment. I realized afterwards that I actually had been the blind one. I had missed God himself sitting there, in the rain, next to a dog who was sheltered by an umbrella.

    I was humbled by this experience and it was a learning experience. God’s rebuke was light but it stung. You never know where you will encounter God. May God change our hearts and attitudes towards the poor and homeless!

  3. Julie Porter July 30, 2011

    This is a fascinating topic. I am always frustrated by my lack of effectiveness at getting people to jump in. I’ve tried to convey the benefits to the *sponsor*–and now there is brain research to back it up! Our brains are actually wired to reward us for being compassionate! Kindness actually makes us healthier. For people struggling with depression or anger or frustration: sponsoring could be the best medicine. But, oh, how do you convince someone of that??

    1. Michael Case July 30, 2011

      Its pretty neat that when you are doing what God wants us to do, you also get the benefit of feeling good. I equate it to the way we felt as young kids when ever we did some chore for our parents well. We just felt good. Sponsoring a child that is in need makes me feel like I’m doing something good for that child, their family and my Father. Don’t know how to get others to be able to become involved and receive that gift. I guess you just plant the seed and pray.

  4. Kristi R July 29, 2011

    I don’t like being around children and I can’t stand crying/screaming babies and young kids. I’m not afraid of them. It’s simply not an enjoyable experience for me at all.

    That being said, I have been sponsoring children for close to 20 years and I love them dearly. I just don’t want any of my own. My heart still goes out to them and their families. The blessings I receive from helping even one person have a better life are immeasurable! It isn’t a chore, or something I feel I HAVE to do – it’s a privilege!

  5. Kees Boer July 28, 2011

    It is a very difficult situation. Because where do you draw the line…. I know right here in Bolivia, I get constantly asked by people begging for money…. It’s easy to give to one, but then there is another and another…. Then we really have to be wise about it too…. because a lot of the money goes towards buying alcohol. Or the children are being used by the parents to get money to buy alcohol for them. Then even the LDP students don’t give money to them and suggested not to do so either…. But it is so difficult. I wish I could help them all. It’s one reason that I’m glad for Compassion. They will work within each culture and I don’t have to figure it all out. They all are locals, who will work in the countries and they know the pitfalls, and what have you!!!

  6. Kim Edge July 27, 2011

    I am uncomfortable around kids myself because I am very sensitive to the noise they make. I carry earplugs with me so I can escape shrieking kids. I am sponsoring an adult child (she is 21 now) and I enjoy being able to have an adult conversation with her. So even if you hate kids, you can still work through Compassion.

    The main reason to help the poor in my opinion is because our Lord Jesus commanded it. He didn’t say, “Get comfortable with this idea first”….

    I would say that we should all pray that God would send the Holy Spirit to soften our hard hearts and give us compassion for the poor, the widowed and the orphaned.

  7. Jason July 27, 2011

    Thanks for these thoughts. I think sometimes its not the poor that make us uncomfortable, but the sudden awareness of our extreme wealth that causes discomfort. Even those of us who don’t think of ourselves as exceedingly wealthy discover that our every day lives are full of excess while others struggle to eat. this is uncomfortable.

    1. Kristi R July 29, 2011

      That’s a very good point! I think you hit the nail on the head for how I feel. Plus it’s overwhelming because you want to help, but you know you can only do so much.

    2. Tiffany Aurora July 28, 2011

      Jason, you raise a very, very good point. Learning how to accept that realization and use it as fuel for change in our own lives and for others is a constant struggle.

    3. Alicia July 28, 2011

      Very true Jason. My thoughts exactly.

  8. Mike Stephens July 26, 2011

    well, I think I enjoy eating very much and I am sure the poor love eating more than me, so often sometimes that is a simple icebreaker, as long as I brought along enough money, b/c if I didn’t then we just have a bunch of hungry people and that often doesn’t end up good 😉

    I Peter 5:7 “Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.”

  9. sean buchanan July 26, 2011

    I recently posted on this topic at my blog in a post titled “Why I’m afraid of poor people”

    For me the first step in admitting my fear of the poor was related to broadening my definition of “what poverty really is”. The Compassion poverty wheel helps put a visual to this. When we understand that poverty is not simply a material issue then we can begin to understand that we are ALL poor, and need Jesus.

    1. Dorothy August 4, 2011

      Stay with this guys, you’re helping a lot of ppeole.

    2. Alicia July 28, 2011

      Hi Sean – Your link didn’t work for me…

    3. Mike Case July 26, 2011

      Tiffany the Outreach Team at my church is tryinng to get our congregation to become involved in the lives of the poor in the housing authority in our town. The response from the congregation is cool at best. I believe that what you have stated about the fear and lack of understanding is what is keeping a wall between our congregation and the poor. We want to start a second ministry with Childrens Hopechest but we have concerns about starting another ministry. I have prayed and I feel led to do this. This is the only church I have ever attended. Do you have any ideas on what our team can do to get our congregation involved.

      I am writing this on my Nook and it has no spell check and I can just barely see the letters.

      Mike Case

      1. Tiffany Aurora July 28, 2011

        Mike, I hope others will see your comment and share ideas with you from their own experiences.

        Three ideas that I would share:

        1) Pray hard for your church leadership. What you’ve described is not atypical in the western church. But my experience has been that when God gets a hold of the hearts of the leadership (whether or not that means the persons with a title), the church follows.

        2) Model the ministry you want to start. Ministry, at the end of the day, isn’t a do to list; it’s not a project; it’s not an activity. It’s who we are. Ministries will flourish when the people involved become the embodiment of the ministry’s purpose in their day-to-day lives.

        3) Be encouraged, and don’t ever, ever give up. 🙂

        I look forward to hearing how God is moving in your life and in your church!

  10. Jo Anna Crawford July 26, 2011

    Tiffany, I think you hit the nail on the head. I truly believe more Christians would do SOMETHING if we 1)got out of our comfort zone and 2)realized the potential we have in Christ (2 Peter Chapter 1). Our family has only learned this over the past few years–and we are slow learners. I wish it would’ve been sooner. We just got back from a family mission trip to Guatemala with our 2 kids age 8 and 10. We decided as a family to forgo the beach vacation for 2 years to afford this. We painted, did VBS activities, participated in medical and dental clinics, etc. Our kids got to meet our sponsored child for the 1st time! All I can say is, it was life changing for us. Our kids are already trying to earn money to go back next year 🙂

  11. Edgar Greene July 26, 2011

    When I see a pauper I feel rather uncomfortable. I usually give them money, but some times I feel no shred of remorse to those people. We all should help those people, because we can be in their unpleasant times.

    1. Andrew Z July 26, 2011

      “A hand up, not a hand out,” was a motto where I used to work. Poverty is not a lack of money, so handing out cash is not an answer. Sometimes being nice is easy but not an act of love.

      On the same day this was posted (hmm), our new small group discussed the same topic from the book “Economy of Love:: Creating a Community of Enough” (Shane Claiborne). Many of us were unclear what the Bible says exactly about situations like meeting a guy with a cardboard sign. I’ve worked for 7 years at a non-profit addressing local poverty and 4 years at Compassion, and one big reason I like the way these two organizations work (especially over hand outs) is the relational dimension that makes it possible for accountability and addressing the underlying, difficult issues.

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