Looking at Poverty but Seeing People

I won’t say that I have seen a lot of poverty, but I am aware of it, I have seen it. The poor have always been close to my heart. The places I saw in Colombia were nearly unbearable situations, shanties made of found materials, entire peoples displaced by guerrilla warfare, 12 year old children taking on the financial burden of a family. . . it goes on. The people were stunning, they were brave, many of them had firm faith. I watched many smile. I was invited into homes with dirt floors filled with smiling faces. It was obvious who had hope and who did not.

The poverty in Shanghai is different from what I saw in Bogota. China has no middle class. There are the very rich and the very poor. On one block I may see a Ferrari and a fisherman gutting some sea creatures. Each street is different and obvious according to class, some even vary building to building. I thought I was prepared to see both rich and poor but some of the poverty has been entirely shocking and difficult to stomach.

I may have seen one or two people begging for money, Stephen and I were even approached one night outside Starbucks, a woman was in tears and needed some money. I’ve seen homeless, and suffering, and hurting. What I have seen in Shanghai does not compare to what I have seen previously. There is nothing to prepare you for the discomfort you face at seeing these people so frequently.

Begging is simply not uncommon. I have seen old men who are obviously disabled (one man only had one leg), their bones show, their clothes hang on them like rags. Everyone shuffles to avoid them. I was told enough foreigners would give them money. I Twice I have seen people on the Subway trains, they carry a sound system with a mic and sing depressing songs, one was preceded by a woman scooting on the ground, the other held the hand of a small child. I saw a man lying on the ground as if he was dead, another man was screaming out, no one looked up too much. I saw a man lying on the ground on his stomach, I passed him going to Nanjing Rd. I passed him coming back. 3 hours must have passed. He was dirty, his hair was mangled at best, I couldn’t see his face because he kept it towards the ground. He didn’t even seem human. . .

And my heart breaks as I say it. He didn’t even seem human. And how could he? Who treats him as a human? He was alone, lying on the street, and no one did anything. He’s not the only one. The others I mentioned, who sees them? I have fallen into the trap with the others. Like the Levite I cross on the other side. Everyone else is lowering their head, everyone else is saying someone else will give, everyone else is questioning their motives. Are they really as poor? Couldn’t they sell their mic and not beg professionally? I’ve said it myself.

One thing is for sure, a person who begs is poor of spirit. They have lost hope. How wretched would it be to not only be without food, shelter, clean water, but to have no communication with another living soul, because to those who are living, you are not even human.

It’s so uncomfortable to see that it is easier to lower your eyes, to say nothing to them–how could you fix it? What would you say? “I won’t talk to them” I tell myself, “what could I say?. . . My Chinese is so bad. . . . they wouldn’t understand.” I gave what I had to a man who trailed our group after we arrived in Suzhou. He was a lovely old man. I smiled at him, but said nothing. I think that is my biggest regret. I didn’t want to make a scene, I didn’t feel like I had the time to attempt to tell him something, or anything, even when there’s so much I could have communicated, even without words. He smiled back and told me thank you, and then I followed the rest of my group.

We took a bus to Hangzhou a little while later. I leaned back in my seat and began to study what was outside. There were fields dotted with shacks similar to what I had seen in Bogota. A few workers were out in the fields wearing their straw hats, harvesting brown stalks. Some fields were surrounded by concrete buildings that looked as if they could nearly fall in. Laundry hung outside the block windows. They looked like barracks but I think they were work units: or communes. Many times I had to search between trees or over the tops, straining my eyes to see the rural areas. They were hidden from our view, as if someone didn’t want us to see.

I began to think about that. To really pray about it. We ask all these pointless questions, how poor must someone be to be in poverty? How their wrong methods make them unworthy of help? What if they just buy drugs with what we give them? People don’t associate with this class, especially the beggars. Yet, Jesus himself was homeless. He knew what the religious scholars were talking about, but he associated himself, not only with them (whom may have been hypocrites), but the real dregs of society: the lepers, the prostitutes, the crippled. . .  the beggars. He encountered beggars, they were in all the public places. They were despised by the Jews “and the Jewish communities are forbidden to support them from the general charity fund (BB, 9a; Yoreh De`ah, 250, 3). But the spirit of the law is evinced again in that it is likewise forbidden to drive a beggar away without an alms (ha-Yadh ha- Chazaqah, in the place cited 7 7).” (http://www.biblestudytools.com/encyclopedias/isbe/beg-beggar-begging.html).

Jesus gave more than alms. We open our eyes to look at poverty. Jesus looks at poverty but sees people. We often remove ourselves from the situation emotionally, physically, spiritual. Jesus is present. I’ve heard some talk of Jesus’ eyes. I know they must be beautiful beyond measure. You can see his love in them. When he looks at someone he doesn’t lower his head and peer out avoiding eye-contact, I bet he looks deep within with such love and raw emotion and passion for whoever he sees. He associated with those who make the rest of us uncomfortable for the most part. He reminded they, themselves, that they were worth being looked at, being smiled to, being helped, being human… and to be human is to be made in the image of God, and he has made us worthy because of the price he paid for us. He has made us priceless. The outcasts are included. No one is turned away. His arms are open. Ours should be too.

Tomorrow when I’m out on the streets of Shanghai once more I desire to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and seeing people as he sees them, treating them how he would treat them, and loving them.



3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Hayley Davis
    May 31, 2012 @ 21:30:03

    This is really hard to read, but I know it’s the truth. So often we accuse others of looking down, saying how we need to react Christ-like, but we do the same. I hope Jesus did share his eyes with you for the remainder of your Shanghi trip…


  2. Jim Miller
    May 31, 2012 @ 22:28:42

    Hi Meredith,

    Your remarks on poverty in China are insightful, honest, compassionate and disturbing. Thanks for sharing so deeply. Would you be led to do a presentation on your trip at Oasis some Sunday morning?


  3. Merry
    Jun 01, 2012 @ 00:49:09

    I could be persuaded to do a small presentation at Oasis I think, Pastor Jim.


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