One minute, I was alone … and the next, I was overrun. While I was answering emails on the last day of a trip to visit savings groups in Asia, teenage girls suddenly swarmed into my bedroom unannounced, covering giggles with their hands.
These girls—who lived at the orphanage next to my guesthouse—asked to see my clothes and touch my hair and page through my books. They called me “sister” and showed me how to wear the sari I bought that week, explaining that only married women wore saris. Whoops! They acted shy at first but were soon gently elbowing each other out of the way to have me photograph them by the window.
Eventually all the girls disappeared except one—Anaya.* She told me how her father abandoned her after her mother died. And how despite huge class barriers, she dreamed of being a nurse. As she scrolled through photos of HOPE International clients around the world on my laptop, I explained that I sometimes traveled to help others—mostly Americans—understand what poverty is like.
Her curiosity bubbled over. “So your job is to help the poor people? People like me?”
“But you are one of the money people, right?”
“…I guess you could say so.”
And that’s when she asked it:
“Sometimes I feel sad and ask God why I am one of the poor people. Do you know why?”
This same question has hung in the air, unanswered, for generations before her, but I’ve only ever heard it articulated by Westerners walking away from poverty like doctors walking out of a sick room. Talk about a heavy moment.
I didn’t know why, I told her. I added that I didn’t understand many things about God, but that I knew He was good and trustworthy and loved her and loved me the same amount. She smiled knowingly and agreed.
The dissonance was heartbreaking: Anaya and I were totally equal, but our lives couldn’t be more lop-sided. There’s no explaining why I wasn’t born into her life and she wasn’t born into mine.
Honestly, I don’t often let myself feel the confusing weight of poverty in my work with HOPE. It’s exhausting, of course. And with more and more leading voices decrying knee-jerk, short-term responses to poverty—and rightfully so—more practitioners and donors are prioritizing an analytical approach.
But hearing Anaya’s question makes me think we might have lost something there.
Sure, if emotion is our only motivation, we’ll run out of steam halfway and be of no help. But God’s Word speaks of softening, not hardening, our hearts. What if we only need to learn to harness our feelings?
In Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Heath portray our emotions as a mighty elephant and our powers of reason as its tiny but thoughtful human rider. When the elephant and rider are out of sync, disaster ensues. But when led well, the elephant becomes the powerhouse that overcomes inertia and barrels through challenges.
In economic development, emotions without reason can quickly take us off course—into things like dependency, cynicism, or megalomania. But without emotion, we might never find the momentum to get started at all.
I suspect there’s a reason, then, why empathy, compassion, and emotion are at the core of how Christ calls us to live: Love your neighbor as yourself. Anaya’s life is too precious to concentrate only on her most heartbreaking, immediate needs. But if we’re not willing to tap into our emotions as we go about the work of empowering men and women like her, we’ll never end up where we want to go.
Becky Svendsen has served with HOPE International since 2008 and currently leads HOPE’s communications team. It’s her privilege to share about HOPE’s mission, operations, and incredible clients with churches, donors, foundations, and others. One of her greatest joys is getting out from behind her computer to interact with HOPE’s clients and field staff to see firsthand how God uses meaningful work to help families break free from poverty.