The smell in the air is a combination of someone burning leaves on a fall day and something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s confusing me. The images that the smell creates in my mind don’t match up with the heat and humidity my body is experiencing.
My arms are wrapped around a man I’ve only just met. I’m sitting on the back of his motorcycle as we twist and turn through a maze of streets that look so like one another; dirt and rocks mixing together to create a path, shouldered by some sort of small ravine whose water is peppered with pieces of trash and specks of green plants trying to push through. Grey walls of cinderblock are on both sides of us reaching 8ft high and topped with broken glass. Barbed wire obscures the buildings and houses on the other side.
I look up and I can see the bright blue sky peeking through the lush green leaves from banana and coconut trees that hang over the tops of the walls. At this angle, it’s breathtaking.
This is it. This is the moment I realize I totally look like someone in a National Geographic photo. If only there was someone here to snap my photo so I could show everyone how National Geographic-y I am!
I’d just moved to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. It wasn’t my first experience in the country, but it was my first time to venture out in this way. The man on the motorcycle, my friend’s nephew, was driving me to his church. The purpose of the outing was him pitching to me the idea of having my state-side friends donate money so that he could help his church put children through school.
I knew I didn’t have the means to help them in a way that could be sustainable—and to be honest, I didn’t know how to best communicate that message to him. I was pretty sure that I couldn’t translate this message in a helpful way.
As he took me back to my friend’s house, I was feeling less victorious over how cool I looked, and instead, my thoughts zeroed in on poverty. I had come face to face with the fact that not everyone has access to the same opportunities I have. My National Geographic moment was becoming less glamourous by the second.
How is it possible that life could look so different? Geographically speaking, I was only a 5-hour plane ride from where I grew up, and yet, the typical living situations we’ve come to know and accept are so different. Things that I claim as necessities, like electricity, free education, trash pick up and running water, are considered luxuries in many parts of Haiti.
It made me wonder, does poverty (or wealth) choose us? Do we choose it? Or, is it something we are born into, or given?
One thing I know for sure: the reality of poverty in that moment flipped a switch for me. I realized I knew much less than I thought I did, and needed to start thinking in a way that didn’t marginalize or undermine the people I was seeking to serve by giving them just enough to get by for the day. Instead it became my goal to help empower people.
For me, in practice—over the long term—that started to look like connecting people to better healthcare, more educational and job opportunities, companionship, and true friendship with the people I came to know and love. Short-term relief aid made sense from time to time, but it was minimal in amount and personal in nature.
I certainly live with more questions than answers as to how we help and serve our local and global neighbors living in poverty. There is one key way in which my ‘approach’ to loving and supporting others has changed. I’ve stopped assuming, and instead, I lead with listening. And then, I listen again.
This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on poverty from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.