Material sufficiency, even abundance, is an important dimension of the prosperity that is the destiny of humanity. This notion is more than mere “make-me-happy” humanism. Jesus himself tells us, “I have come that they may have life; and have it to the full. (John 10:10 – NIV). This prosperity, this God-kind-of-full-life, that Jesus came to give us has two core characteristics:
- Vibrant and resilient community and
- Satisfying and fruitful work.
To say, as many mistakenly do, that material wealth is what Jesus promises us would be silly. But it would be equally as silly to deny that material wealth has obvious and important implications for both.
Let’s consider the first: vibrant and resilient community. Anyone who knows actual people living in actual poverty will quickly observe that the absence of community is both a cause and effect of material lack. It is, after all, not just what, but who, you know.
Well-connected people don’t look for jobs – and I’m dating myself here – in the newspaper. They simply call their friends and begin to ask after opportunities. Eventually, their social networks yield something. But poverty is in part caused, and then reinforced, by a lack of these same social networks. If you don’t know anyone with a fruitful and satisfying job, it is unlikely that anyone will offer you one. Thus, Proverbs 19:7 reports, “The poor are shunned by all their relatives – how much more do their friends avoid them! Though the poor pursue them with pleading, they are nowhere to be found. (NIV)”
The same it true of work. Lack of work is both a cause and effect of poverty. Material resources, including cash, are important to participation in family/community and performing work. How often has the it been said, with hands raised in vexation, “to get a job you have to have a job!” This catch 22 forces the socially unconnected to start from scratch. And while their peers gain valuable experience under the supervision of their parents’ friends, the poor toil to pull together a long enough work history to compete for entry level positions. This cycle puts them at a disadvantage well into their careers.
So, I offer that when we think about how to serve people living within the limitations of material poverty, the framework of “community and work” will guide us to two at least two important questions:
- How might we create opportunities and provide resources for people to move toward participation in vibrant, life-giving and resilient communities?
- How might we create opportunities and provide resources for engagement in satisfying and fruitful work.
How do we respond? With more questions of course!
Here’s a perspective set of questions we can ask. The first questions are personal ones:
- Who are the people with whom I am in relationship, but for one reason or another, are in danger of moving outside a community of care and positive influence?
- How might I help those people find social or occupational opportunities and resources?
From there we ask:
- Who can help me respond to connect these people to a life-giving community?
- Who can help me help my neighbor find opportunity and resources for generating value within the community we share?
A third level of inquiry might be:
- What organizations are already addressing the needs of people, like the one’s I know, who need/want community and opportunity and resources for value-generating work?
- Are they doing their work well?
- Do I support them?
As answers to those questions emerge we get a clearer picture of our own personal role in the fight against poverty. We see those in, or near, our own circle influence who are impoverished by isolation from community, or by lack of opportunity and resources. These are individuals with whom we can take personal responsibility and act in their favor. We can make it a point to introduce them to community. We can take economic chances on them. We can, in short, be the beginning of the network and/or opportunity that we ourselves have enjoyed through others.
We also identify organizations and institutions that will share the weight that comes from offering such aid. By supporting those groups with time, talent and treasure, we make it easier for others to ask these same questions and engage. And once the virtuous cycle starts to spin, it only gets easier to make a difference.
Gerry Hartis is an experienced professional working with commercial and non-profit organizations engaged at the intersection of business, higher education, and policy. Gerry served as the Director of Business & Leadership Studies at the American Studies Program of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (Washington, DC). In that role he was among the first to actively explore the application of market principles to the global development enterprise through partnerships with players in the NGO and business communities. Gerry and Joanna Hartis are residents Alexandria, VA.