Poorism: A Double-Edged Sword

It’s a bit of a hot topic as of late: “poorism.” Poverty tourism, as a commodity. It’s booming. Ironic, huh? Wealthy people paying money to go and look at poor people. 

Obviously, there is a little more to it than that. But at its core, that’s all that is happening, isn’t it?

On second thought, what if that’s not all that’s happening? What if, to a certain degree, we are reverting to something that goes much deeper, something that bubbles up from the deepest corners of our spirits and souls? What if we are simply remembering something?

Read the gospels much? I try to. 

When I began thinking about the poorism, the first thing that came to mind was …Jesus. Let me tell you why.

Repeatedly throughout the gospels, when Jesus first calls his disciples, when he is approached by the rich young man, whenever he is asked about the kingdom of heaven, He says, “Come follow me.”

“Who first started following,” I asked myself. 

To the best of my knowledge, it began with the disciples. Perfectly healthy, employed and financially comfortable men. Perhaps suburbanites … if they were married.


Where was Jesus going that he wanted people to follow? 

According to Matthew 4:25b he went to “…Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, to Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (ESV). 

In other words, all over; far beyond the reaches of his backyard, hometown and comfort zone, if I had to guess.

All the while, being “followed” (v. 25a).

Two questions down, one to go. 

Why? Why did they follow? 

I suppose the fact that he was literally performing miracles in front of them might have been compelling. But, from a cultural perspective, he was also claiming to be the Son of God; the Messiah. And, as history has shown us, that didn’t go over too well. 

It was offensive to many, blasphemous to others, and absolutely absurd to the Pharisees. All around, a fairly radical claim. 

And like today, you are guilty by association, so to follow him was to believe him. A dangerous path to tread if you cared about your reputation.

But still they came. They followed. They were captivated. 

I can’t help but think that as appealing as Jesus must have been, there had to be some draw to where he was going and what he was doing. His followers ranged in social status, and they willingly followed him to places they had never been.

Is it crazy to think there would be some degree of curiosity to see the other side of the tracks?

Without demeaning the poor, I wonder if the wealthy were simply thirsty for the reality that they had so long been deprived of. Whether it was for their protection or not, many, like today, were segregated from the poor, the afflicted, the sick and the hurting. 

Could it be that the hearts of the wealthy were not wholly consumed by their monetary funds, but were simply uneducated on the depravity of the masses that surrounded them?

What if they followed Jesus because no one else was brave enough to take them there? What if they followed Jesus because they wanted to help make a difference, to go back to their homes and spread news of need? What if Jesus inspired them to see souls instead of sickness? Is that poorism?

Granted, nowadays people are literally profiting off of the poor by exploiting their desperate situation to a mass consuming public. But then again, why now? Why are the wealthy taking trips now when, like most of America, their wealth is actually diminishing? 

It’s not logical. It’s not rational. It’s not fiscally sound. 

I wonder if the hearts of so many, given the country’s economic circumstances, aren’t breaking for those who are losing so much more than their 401K plans. I wonder if the eyes of many Americans aren’t being opened for the first time to the vapor that their wealth has now become and to the weight that their spiritual lives should have been long before they had to hit their knees. 

I wonder if perhaps the Lord is not reminding us what the first followers truly looked like. Drawn out, taught and challenged to do something about that which is so conveniently shoved under the rug. 

In the same way that the Holy Spirit will simply not leave you alone when you come to know Him, could it be that coming to know the poor and destitute will inspire action?

Because following alone cannot be the end result. Christ didn’t simply walk around from town to town and look at those in need. He met their needs.

He touched them, healed them, spoke to them, loved them and set them free. 

He calls us to do the same. And if you feel as inadequate as I do sometimes, no worries. He has equipped us with all we need. All we have to bring to the table is a willing heart and obedient spirit. 

So, if you’ve been sheltered in the way that I have, perhaps a trip would be good for us. Not to gawk and stare, but instead to open the eyes of our hearts so see the souls of those who crave the same things we do: love, acceptance and help.

In the same way that a shepherd must break the leg of a wandering sheep, maybe the Lord needs to break our perception of reality in order to use us in bigger ways. 

It is an undeniable thing, I think, within every human life to want to have an impact, to want to leave a legacy.  But I also think, we get in our own way; we don’t venture out because we don’t want to get lost.  

But if we don’t dare get lost, we will never know the saving grace of a God who has promised to deliver and lead us out of the wilderness.

16 Comments |Add a comment

  1. AllisonO of O My Family February 2, 2012

    So often I hear (including here in these comments) this pattern: “I went because I was going to go help people, but I was the one who was helped.” Why, then, should we go on subsequent trips?

    It’s something I’ve been struggling with for a while. I want to hold things, even seemingly good things like missions trips or visits to encourage sponsored children, with loose hands. My hesitation is this: Once we know that WE are the ones who benefit more than those we go to visit or serve, is it selfish of us to venture out again? Is it irresponsible of us to use the resources necessary to get there (assuming international travel is involved) just to have a spiritual high and return home?

    To answer my own question, no. To seek God’s face, near, far, here, there (in a house with a mouse? Sorry. Seuss joke.) is not selfish. It is what we were created to do, and I think that is what keeps drawing more and more people. Our God’d heart is for the least of these and I want to be a woman after God’s heart.

    I think, ultimately we ought go with the purpose to know God and make Him known, be that unto others, or known unto ourselves.

  2. Sarah Ray February 2, 2012

    “May the eyes of your heart be enlightened so that you may understand….” Ephesians 1:8. Jesus not only bid us come and follow, He bid us come and SEE (John 1). Many of us cannot empathize, nor live in response to the lives of our suffering neighbor if we don’t first become intimately aware of their plight. We must first see – with the eyes of our hearts. However, in seeing, we must not make a further discrepancy between ourselves and our neighbors. We must not make of them a spectacle. We must step into their very lives with great respect, lending dignity by giving up of our own. That is how Jesus walked. Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Ghandi…these heroes modeled that. And so do many others. Yes, come and see. Come and serve. But in coming, know that it is YOU who will leave most changed by your encounter. Feel free to join us on a Yobel Exposure Trip to Uganda, Thailand and India in 2012 for that very purpose, or go with another fantastic organization like Compassion or your local church.

  3. Juli Jarvis March 28, 2009

    Yeah Sonya! And yeah Compassion Canada! Woohoo!

  4. Mike Stephens March 28, 2009

    I like Dave’s answer, “I have this deep sense that God planned that we would go long before we were even born!!!” I agree with that!!! Looking at the picture from Nicaragua I went simply so she could see me. The Philippines is a little of the same thing except I have a little more of a mission this time. I hope to dunk a basketball for Angelo to specifically encourage him in his dream to become a basketball player. The core reason why I am going I am not sure I really know!!! I went to the Dominican Republic in High School with my youth group and I went b/c I thought it would be good and liked our youth group leader a lot. It was an amazing trip!!! I went to Russia b/c a friend who lived there for 10 years or so as a missionary son said as we were taking a break from lifting weights “Stephens you need to go to Russia with me.” So I went and I shared a quick little testimony on New Year’s and an older gentleman raised his hand when the Russian Pastor took over after my sharing. That is the only time I have seen someone decide to accept the Lord with the help of me saying something. There are so many reasons but at the end of the day I go because I BELIEVE I have to!!! I believe it is a matter of LIFE!!! I think I know why I am going but God KNOWS why I am going b/c he is the one who ordered it before I was born!!! Thanks Dave!!! Proverbs 16:33 “Even the things that seem accidental were really ordered by Him!!!” Amplified Bible.

  5. Brianne Mullins February 23, 2009

    Thanks so much for your responses! Dwight I love what you said, “Money is not everything.”

    I actually really struggled with my 1st call to go on a mission’s trip. I was a leader for a middle school youth group and I was approached to co-lead a group to Mexico. I was terrified. And, in all honesty I kept thinking, “Why not take the money I raise for a plane ticket, food, room…and just give it to the mission organization?”

    I am so grateful our Lord is a relational God. My time with Him, the way He speaks to me, the way He listens to me…nothing can replace the love I feel in His presence. So I went, not really understanding why I went. I remember getting on the plane and hearing, “This experience will change the rest of your life. It will change how you live.” That was actually not exciting for a 20 year old girl to hear. I liked how I lived and was not much interested in changing it up. And I knew the change would be a difficult one provoked by the reality of poverty. But He showed me the power of relationship.

    Since then I have gone on quite a few different mission trips and I always have the same feeling on the plane, “The way you live is going to be challenged after you see this. You’re going to have to change.” And each time it is true.

    So I guess at first I went because it was what Christian middle school leaders do. Now I go because His relationship with me catapults me into a desire to love and be there for those in need. Lastly, I often find it is actually their embrace I needed – probably more so than they needed mine. (Hmmm, that was long. Thanks for allowing me to give you a glimpse into my heart my blogger friends!)

  6. Dwight February 22, 2009

    This is a good question Brianne.
    I attended School at MBI in downtown Chicago only a 1 mile or 2 from a large public housing project. It gave me my first taste of seeing poverty. I always wanted to go on an international mission’s trip but I was always working. The teen age child that I was sponsoring at the time asked if I could come and visit…; I think they said I am praying that someday I will meet you. I had the money and I always sent family gifts…. So I thought how can I say no to that?! Sending money is not everything.

  7. Amber Van Schooneveld February 20, 2009

    Michael, I loved your story. What a wild and wise thing for a little girl to say.

    Brianne, I’ll answer your question–just to get you to say why YOU went.

    My answer to why I first went on mission trips is the un-spiritual one: I love cultures and languages and travel. I want to go everywhere and see everything. So that spurred me on to mission trips in college more than my desire to help others. But I think God gives us our passions for a reason. I think God gave me a passion (that I still very much have) to go and see everything so that it will prod me on to continue to learn about and understand other people and cultures, and to serve and help them when I can (while they in turn bless and teach and humble and give to me ).

  8. Meredith February 20, 2009

    What amazing testimonies to the power of personal experiences! Thank you for sharing how the Lord changed and shaped you through your journeys! I hope that these stories inspire others to step out and dare to see God where there seems to be nothing else.

  9. Sonya February 19, 2009

    My first trip was to Kenya and Tanzania to visit our sponsor children. I had never been to a developing nation, and my first shock was walking into Mathere Valley in Kenya, since then our lives have NEVER been the same.
    I think I wanted to go, because it would be ‘cool’ to go to Africa…that sounds a bit funny now, but thankfully God works through all that, and He
    changes hearts!
    I like Michael, and Juli found myself being blessed by the people who have what we think is so little, but have a faith that is unreserved. God OPENED my eyes and is changing my heart!
    Upon return, I joined the Advocacy Network in Canada (Eh!), and I am constantly encouraged by how God is using Compassion to reach His children. Children like me and children like the children we get sponsors for.

  10. donna February 19, 2009

    The first time I went to Guatemala I was 10 years old and I went because my parents were the leaders of the missions trip. My mother was shocked at the poverty. I simply observed and was too shy to play with the kids. I didn’t understand what I’d seen until much later and the perspective it gave me on my life was enormous.

    Now, at 40-something, I’d like to go back. I feel like I’m starting to forget.

  11. Juli Jarvis February 19, 2009

    Also, each time I return home another huge group of kids is sponsored after sharing about the experience with others.

  12. Juli Jarvis February 19, 2009

    The first time I went it was to Haiti — I desperately wanted to meet the boy I had sponsored for 16 years before he completed his education. I also thought I was going to “be a blessing” to those in need. Quite the opposite is what happened — they blessed me so deeply — children, project workers, facilitators, country office staff, pastors. I can’t even express what a blessing it is to be among these people. Now, when I go — it’s because I know I need them as much as they need me. Without them, I’m filled with greed, materialism and selfishness. I want so badly to tear down the walls so others will go and see what I’m talking about, too, and experience it for themselves.

  13. Brianne February 19, 2009

    Meredith, your writing and pursuit of understanding Jesus’ life is so compelling. Thank you for writing this and for challenging my thinking & at the same time drawing me to the Lord.

    Time for my thoughts (remember – I’m pretty good at analyzing EVERYTHING). Since the first post by Becky – Slumdog Millionaire and Poverty Tourism – I have really been challenged in my thinking on this topic, poorism. I am curious and I want to hear all readers thoughts.

    Why did you go? All of you who have been on a mission trip, who have worked in the slums, helped in the orphanage…why did you go?

    And remember this is a blog for honesty, so please share all the good, bad and ugly.

    I will reveal why I went…but I’d like to play the “you first, then me” game… 🙂
    *start typing!*

    (And by the way, I believe the Lord has given us authority to talk about this subject because we have been commanded to feed His sheep – so let’s not be quiet or reserved).

  14. Michael February 19, 2009

    My first trip out of the U.S. (with the exception of a couple short day trips into Canada) was on a Compassion Sponsor tour to the Dominican Republic. I went thinking I was doing something nice for our sponsored child…. blessing her with a visit.

    Eventually my arrogance gave way to my impatience. I found myself in an unfamiliar place, sweating profusely, and overcome by the smell of burning tires and open sewage ditches. All I wanted was to meet my sponsored child and go home.

    Then I was approached by a young girl. She must have been about 7 or 8 years old. She told me her name, Emily. I told her I have a daughter named Emily, and showed her a picture. I will never forget her response, “You tell your Emily she is beautiful, and I hope God blesses her every day of her life.”

    I can’t describe the rush of emotion I felt. I’m not exactly sure why. Was it because this little girl, who seemed to have nothing, cares about my child? Or was it because her in the midst of devastating poverty, I finally got a glimpse of God’s grace?

    I still don’t fully understand it, and don’t expect that I ever will. What I don know is that my attitude changed from that moment on. I was humbled by the dignity and grace of the people who had little else than their faith in God.

    I’m convinced, those who venture out to the poor, will find God in these places – even if they don’t expect to.

  15. Compassion dave February 19, 2009

    The notion of poorism reared its ugly little head recently in the movie Slumdog Millionaire–a movie I recommend by the way, as painful as it may be to watch at times. More than a couple times I teared-up by what I was witnessing on the screen and amazingly I heard people in the theatre laughing at precisely the same times. That phenomena baffled me, but at the same time it caused me to remember that the producers of this movie were not out to educate an ignorant public on the horrors of abject poverty, but rather to make a buck for themselves.

    Be that as it may, for this Christian, what some may meant for evil, God used for good. I suppose the point I am groping to make is that poorism (which is really the exploitation and oppression of poor people at its very core) is absolutely nothing new–the movie itself even poked lightly at it. The sad (or good, depending upon how you want to look at it) reality is that as long as the poor are with us, we will have poorism. Let us pray.

  16. little i February 19, 2009

    Wow, Meredith! That’s apost that will make you think. At least, it did me!

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