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How to Walk Alongside the Poor

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“You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?” —Gustavo Guttierrez

Peruvian theologian and kick-butt priest on the margins, Gustavo Gutierrez, put his finger on a sore spot for most Western Christians when he spoke these prophetic words and asked a simple but super awkward question: “Um … tell me, what are their names?”

Something within us instinctively knows that if we truly care about the poor—we cannot hold them at arms length.

As followers of Jesus, we follow the One who came to “bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), but didn’t settle for dropping bread rolls from heaven to feed the 5,000, or thunderbolts from the sky to heal the disabled.

He came—in the flesh. To know you. To know your name.

You’ve probably experienced this pull, every time you feel drawn towards personalizing your own giving. You want to know whom and where and what you are giving towards.

You want to know their names.

And I think this instinct is right and good. We all somehow sense that giving in the context of relationship is more transformative. Because in the context of relationship we have the opportunity to be transformed ourselves.

So, here are three ways you can move in that direction:

1. PRACTICE DIRECT ONLINE GIVING.

Let’s start with the easiest: Personalized Giving 101.

Kiva.org is probably the most well-known online broker between those with cash and African women with cool ideas.

According to their website, you can empower people around the world for as little as $25. And the best thing is, you can select the individual person you’d like to help, see a photo of them and read about how your loan will specifically help them to overcome poverty.

You should know that Kiva is a “middle-man”—they work through local micro-credit organizations that are operating on the ground. At one time I worked as an adviser to just such a micro-credit organization serving around 1,000 impoverished women in the slums of Cambodia.

These micro-credit organizations do good work, but they usually do not work with the absolute poorest of the poor, because those who are barely able to feed their families will need to spend any cash they get their hands on to feed their kids and find shelter. Life for them is hand to mouth.

Most of these micro-credit organizations also require some form of security on the loan, such as a house title. These and other safeguards mean that Kiva-type loans are best suited to the working poor, rather than the poorest of the poor.

But don’t let that put you off. Micro-credit is an important piece of the puzzle in overcoming poverty and heaps of people have been helped through these initiatives.

2. GO AND SEE. COME BACK AND GIVE.

A step deeper is to go and see, with your own eyes. Allow your heart to grieve. And then come back and give, faithfully … and sacrificially. These types of Vision Trips, as opposed to Short Term Mission Trips, maintain a focus on long-term relationships rather than an easy two-week solution. They are built on a commitment to embrace ongoing lifestyle change, rather than a quick fix.

In fact, you may return many times, building a deeper relationship with those you met every time you go. If you can, visit with an organization that will allow you to immerse yourself among the poor by staying with a local family. Then you will be more likely to understand something of their context, rather than just seeing the outsider view.

When you go, don’t be a wise-ass and try to bypass the charity you are connected with by sending cash directly to the poor people you meet. By doing that, you are likely to undermine the delicate balance of empowerment they are working for.

Instead, have the humility to submit to the wisdom of those working on the ground, who know the culture and situation, and know the best way to strengthen the local community. They will guide you in the best way to give.

And remember—you cannot romanticize the poor you meet on a mission trip, then come back and demonize the poor on your own doorstep (or at your border).

3. WALK ALONGSIDE SOMEONE WHO WALKS ALONE.

At this point are you ready to try “advanced-level” connection with the poor? Where you not only know their names, but they become your friends, even family?

I’m particularly passionate about this idea, because it underpins the vision of the movement I lead in the Non-Western world called Alongsiders. We’re convinced that every follower of Jesus can walk alongside one vulnerable person in their own neighborhood.

Specifically, we mobilize and equip young people in Asia and Africa aged 16–30 to walk alongside vulnerable kids in their own communities.

But don’t worry about our age range—anyone can do this. It’s simple “love your neighbor” stuff straight from the teachings of Jesus.

Once those relationships are formed, they allow for a deeper, more beautiful way of giving—in mutuality. In fact, at this level of relationship, your giving is much more like sharing, because your relationship is give and take. This is the most empowering form of “giving to the poor”—where you are willing to learn and be transformed as well.

Are you ready to do something radical? Take a look at this video below and learn from someone who we normally think of as “poor”—as a beneficiary, a client or even as a victim. And see that she has a lot to teach us. That though she may be economically poor, she is relationally and spiritually rich.

So, check it out and be inspired. How can you walk alongside someone in your own community this year? Who is God leading you to build a relationship with? Go ahead—ask him!

Read more from Craig Greenfield »

Craig Greenfield (@craigasauros) is the founder of Alongsiders International and author of Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness in a Broken World (Zondervan, 2016). A storyteller and activist living in urban slum communities for the past 15 years, Craig’s passion is to communicate God’s heart for the marginalized around the world. This article was originally published on Craig’s blog.

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