Monday, April 6, 2015

What Are We to Do About Poverty?

How do you feel when you’re walking down a city street and someone approaches you asking for “spare change” or some kind of help? How do you respond?

Do you avoid eye contact and keep walking? Do you pause, politely listen to what the person has to say, and then simply say, “Sorry, I can’t help you”? Do you wish you could peer into the heart of the individual to determine whether there’s a real need – or if this is just one of those I call “the professional poor”? Or do you reach for your wallet, or purse, give some money, and then wonder if you did the right thing?

Randy Nabors' book, MERCIFUL,
offers to help answer questions
many of us ask about poverty.
I’ve done all of the above. One day the receptionist at work summoned me to the front desk to talk with someone seeking help. The man, whose name – like mine – was Robert, asked to speak in private, then told me his car was being repaired. The serpentine belt had broken, he said, and he lacked $18.57 to pay the bill.

I had gone to the bank earlier that day to withdraw cash, so I couldn’t honestly use the “I didn’t have any money” excuse. Since the fellow shared my first name I thought, “Maybe this isn’t a coincidence; perhaps the Lord sent him to me for help.” And “Robert” hadn’t made a general request. He needed a specific amount. So I gave him $20. He thanked me and went on his way.

Weeks later I was talking to a friend who worked at the post office downtown. When I recalled this episode, he laughed. “Oh, that’s the serpentine-belt guy. He comes by the post office once in a while with the same story!”

When I looked in the mirror later that day, I was almost certain the word “SUCKER!” was written across my forehead.

But scenarios like this are a real dilemma. And not all the people who seek assistance are con artists. So what are we to do about the poor – and the larger issue of poverty?

There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all solution, but my friend, Randy Nabors, has just published a book that will be a great resource for many of us who really would like to help those in need, but are puzzled about what are the best things to do.

His book is entitled, MERCIFUL: The Opportunity and Challenge of Discipling the Poor Out of Poverty. (It’s available on There has been much written about the issue of poverty, from many perspectives. But Randy has unique credentials to address this ever-present problem – and suggest workable solutions.

He experienced poverty himself, growing up in the projects of Newark, N.J. with a single mom and several sisters. He never knew his father, and if it weren’t for members of a caring church in their community, Randy could easily have become a sad statistic of urban blight and despair. Instead, involvement in the church taught him simple but important things – such as what a healthy family looked like; how men properly treated their wives, and how to work.

Through the kindness and generosity of a Christian businessman, Randy was able to do what is unimaginable for most inner city youths – go to college. He proceeded to attend seminary, taking along his wife, Joan, whose family had also lived in the projects. Together they struggled, one day at a time, sometimes not knowing the source of their next meal, but determined to pursue Randy’s calling to become a pastor and return to minister to the urban poor.

And that’s what he did, serving many years as pastor of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tenn., a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural congregation with members from every economic level. Guided by Randy’s vision, the church established a very intentional, effective ministry to the poor, providing not only immediate relief but also helping those in need learn how to help themselves and become self-sustaining, productive citizens – and in many cases, church leaders.

The Bible says much about our responsibility to address the needs of the poor, but perhaps the most compelling, convicting passage I’ve ever read is Ezekiel 16:49, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; but they did not help the poor and needy.” We could easily replace “Sodom” with “America,” because in many respects we too have become arrogant, overfed and unconcerned.

Randy’s book isn’t just his story, but a comprehensive, well-considered guide for dealing with a pervasive problem in proactive, life-changing ways. Today some people think the answer is simply providing more benefits and raising the minimum wage. Others staunchly contend it’s a matter of poor people taking the initiative to seek out a job.

He points out this problem is far more complex, more deeply rooted than the so-called liberal and conservatives camps understand or are willing to admit. But it’s not hopeless – MERCIFUL offers many real-life stories of people who found the dignity of no longer being dependent on others, for the first time experiencing hope and joy through the power of community, caring relationships, and faith in a God who promises to provide for His children.

And Randy affirms that in coming to the aid of others, there is another kind of joy – just as Jesus described: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me…. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35-40).

What the poor need – according to Randy, a man who knows better than most of us, having been both beneficiary and benefactor in the war on poverty – Is not pity or dispassionate handouts that only perpetuate misery. They need mercy – biblical mercy that manifests the love of God in both tangible and practical ways that feed people not only for a day, but also for a lifetime.

MERCIFUL. The title makes sense. As the Scriptures tell us, “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

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