Hurricane Gilbert struck the island of Jamaica back in 1988.  As is typical in many natural disasters, the government was either slow to react due to being overwhelmed or due to actions which may be characterized as … idiotic.  Not surprisingly, the tourist areas of Jamaica were the first ones brought “back to normal” after the disaster … which meant that many of the actual people of Jamaica were left struggling.  Being from Jamaica, I remember my mother being practically a one woman relief effort.  Collecting donations, traveling back and forth, doling out much needed supplies and aid, she was every bit a force of nature as Gilbert.

One of my cousins from Jamaica, about my age, confided in me that she wanted no part of the clothes.  I found this to be an interesting response.  Surely the clothes my mother was bringing had to be better than the ones my cousin had, especially given the circumstances.  However, as she put it, she didn’t want to be a part of someone’s feel good efforts and wanted some new clothes.  After all, we (collective American we, as my mother had rallied several churches in her efforts) had so much and were basically giving up leftovers.  It’s not like it actually cost us anything.

Now, I’ve thought about her words and wrestled with them.  My first reaction was “beggars can’t be choosers” and “how dare she think we [I had taken this personally] ‘had so much’” as I recalled how little money we seemed to have.  And I was left thinking that poor folks just ain’t grateful.

Reflecting back on that event, there is some truth and plenty of non-truth in my thinking.

There are times when our need, or rather, the way we choose to swoop in and help comes across as patronizing.  Essentially, we’re coming in to fix those poor people, and make sure they measure up to our standards.  Sometimes in our rush to “save” them, we reduce them to objects to work out our faith upon.

Whether we realize it or not, we have a sense of superiority which sometimes comes across even when we’re going something positive like helping those “less fortunate” than us.  It’s as if we are saying (whether spoken aloud or through the tenor of our actions) “I have my act together” or “I went to school and made good decisions and worked hard”, neither of which is bad, unless it gives the attitude of being superior.  When we see others, it should be through the lens of mutual brokenness.  We each have problems, issues, AND value.

Someone may be in material need or have issues of time management or budgetary priorities that they may be struggling with.  Others may, even through their acts of kindness and generosity, generate pride (“Look at how holy I am”).  Maybe we need to not so much think in terms of “how do we fix the poor?”, but rather “how can God fix us both?”  This may not seem like a big deal, after all, who cares what your attitude is if they’re getting a meal or clothes on their back.  “They should be grateful.”

Here’s one thing we don’t often consider when helping the poor:  part of that help has to restore their sense of dignity.  The poverty they are dealing with may not solely be a poverty of material, but also a poverty of being, lack of self-worth.  Instead of realizing they have been created in image of God, with inherent worth and dignity, they have been made to feel inferior.  Poverty brings with it feelings of shame, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, voicelessness, inferiority, personal worthlessness, despair.  You don’t think there’s any shame and inadequacy at their situation, much less being reduced to someone’s pet project.

So the havenots battle with shame even as the haves battle with pride.  In the torrent of hand me down heaven (the haves recycling our “junk”, not really sacrificing anything and yet patting ourselves on our backs) the have-nots wrestle with loss of meaning and loss of hope.  Both in a state of mutual brokenness, both having something to learn and something to offer.  True motives and true assessment of needs can best be done in relationship with someone.  It didn’t take long to tease out that my cousin was caught up in a moment of material lust, somehow feeling entitled to designer outfits.  That attitude needed to be checked.  However, it didn’t change the fact that when one is poor, when one struggles with having any sense of dignity, a new outfit can also help restore a sense of worth.

And I know, a “thank you” is always nice.  Cause sometimes even the gesture, whatever the motive, needs to be acknowledged and appreciated.