This past weekend our church participated in World Vision's 30-Hour Famine. Participants, ranging in age from 5 to 89, took monetary pledges to go without food for 30 hours to experience hunger. 29,000 kids die worldwide every day of hunger and related diseases (I'm sure our "simulated" hunger pales in comparison). The money raised goes to feed starving kids around the world. Our group raised enough to feed 5 kids for a year.
We used our "Famine" as an opportunity to serve others. All throughout scripture you'll see a list of those we're supposed to serve: widows, orphans, and aliens (the homeless). We directly impacted all three this weekend. We fed orphans, visited widows, and met the needs of the homeless in our community. In addition, we watched several videos that tell the true story of poverty.
Imagine feeding your child weeds because it's the only food available.
Imagine knowing that you're going to die of AIDS and realizing that there's no one to care for your children after you're gone.
Imagine you're 7 years old and a rebel army invades your house and tells you at gunpoint, "Kill your parents or be killed."
Imagine knowing that at age 15 you only have a 1 in 10 chance of reaching your 35th birthday because of the AIDS pandemic in your country.
Imagine being the head of your household as a 6-year old orphan and having to trade sex for a loaf of bread to feed your younger siblings.
These things are happening. We're so insulated from them in America.
Several things struck me this weekend. Poverty in western society is so much different than almost everywhere else in the world. Americans in poverty largely have basic human needs cared for. We eat. We're clothed. We have a roof over our heads. Nearly every major city in America has a place where a willing person can have these basic needs met. Not so in other places.
I realize that by speaking in generalities that someone will come up with an exception (i.e. "I know someone who doesn't have a roof over his head...", etc.) I guess my point is that in most of the world people in poverty have none of the above. In Swaziland, for example, 67% of families live on less than 45 cents a day. (That's the kind of uncomfortable statistic that we like to swat away by saying something like, "Yeah, but 45 cents in Swaziland buys so much more than here in America." The truth is, none of us would change places with them if given a choice.)
It could be argued that much of the poverty in western society (at least what we'd consider "extreme poverty" - homelessness) is self-induced. For example, when we volunteered at the Cherry Street Mission this weekend we found out that 90-95% of the homeless men in the shelter got into their situation because of choices related to drugs and alcohol. They lost their family, their home, their car, their possessions, and their dignity. But their poverty could all be traced back to a choice - THEIR choice. Again, this is a generality...feel free to argue if you think I'm wrong. (By the way, we still have a responsibility to help people who "brought it on themselves". For further reading on this subject consult your nearest bible paying close attention to the stuff written in red.)
In other places of the world poverty isn't a choice. A rebel army kills your parents. AIDS claims 90% of a population before they reach 35. It stops raining. Nobody chose these things.
And one other big difference... The people in America can choose to get out. 76% of the homeless men who enter the program at the Cherry Street Mission end up being fully functioning members of society. There's hope. With some help there's a way out of your homelessness. Contrast that to Africa. Things can't be fixed quite that easily. How do you make it rain?
So here's what struck me biggest and hardest. I participated in this 30 hours of "starving" myself to "experience what others around the world experience every day". So I packed my pillow, my sleeping bag, a toothbrush, and a change of clothes. I found a mat in the children's ministry room to sleep on. All this after watching a video that showed an orphan from Uganda dressed in rags who carried everything he owned in a lunch bag. At any moment I could choose to step back into my comfortable life again.