At the end of my first day working at Baptist World Aid, I came home to a terse conversation about school-bag keyrings.
“I only have one. I need more! Everyone else has at least ten!”
The moment was jarring when I had spent my day reading stories about people living in poverty. Stories about mother’s struggling to feed their children; young children working all day instead of attending school and families fleeing violence.
How would I respond to my seven-year-old, “Are you kidding me? Let me spell out for you how much you do not need any more of anything!”?
The truth is we are surrounded by a culture full of unnecessary keyrings. We consume, and throw away, at an alarming rate here in Australia. It’s in stark comparison to how most of the world lives, and really troubling when compared to the 700+ million people surviving on less than $2 a day.
Making my children feel guilty won’t address this imbalance. And I know guilt is not a catalyst for change in adults either. So I’ve been wondering, how do we have helpful conversations about poverty? How do we cultivate conversations that feel inviting instead of overwhelming? It’s not hard to point out that our world is broken but we can’t stay in that place when God is inviting us to participate in change.
I am not an expert, in parenting or poverty alleviation. But I want to introduce my children, my friends and family to a story larger than our daily experience. I want us, together, to participate in seeing God’s will be done, and his last-shall-be-first kingdom come here as in heaven (Matthew 20.16).
When it comes to children, a good starting point is to foster – and model – gratitude. Dinner table conversations are a great place to start. In our family, we talk about where our food comes from; how grateful we are to have access to fresh, delicious food; we thank God and we thank the chef. From there the tricky questions come: we feel the tension around our privilege, the injustice that we have while others go without. It has helped to ponder these things together. I don’t have all the answers but I can model the wrestling as we sit at the table (and each time we go to the supermarket), make space for the questions and encourage discomfort with the way things are.
With friends and family, I think the same principles hold true. If I berate a friend for being too materialistic, I alienate her. I create distance and no one feels empowered. As with my children, I’d rather create conditions for fruitful conversations.
So, what if we begin by building communities that foster gratitude?
Eugene Peterson’s Message paraphrase translates Psalm 100 as, ‘Enter with the password: ‘Thank you!’ Make yourselves at home, talking praise. Thank him. Worship him. For God is sheer beauty, all-generous in love, loyal always and ever.’ So, what if we talk about God’s generous love, thank him for his goodness when we are with our community while not ignoring the opportunities to reflect on the real problems of poverty around the world?
Then we begin to live as if every good gift comes from God (James 1:17) and we become open-handed with what we have (Luke 12). This biblical approach fosters an invitation to reflect and grow in our own understanding of what it means to Love God and love our neighbours as ourselves.
Yes, I want to encourage friends and family to consume less, or to donate money to worthy causes. But I also want to amplify the biblical invitation God is issuing to co-labour with him, to love those he loves, to experience his presence when we get to know to people living on the margins (Matthew 25). This may result in buying less and giving more but it shouldn’t end there.
So, here are five practical ways to start thoughtful conversations around poverty:
- Ask. Start by asking questions. The best conversations are those where all parties feel they have something to offer. Explore what people know about poverty; how they feel about the state of the world; ask them what issue, or injustice, is close to their heart at the moment.
- Listen. Christ-like conversations are ones where people feel heard, and their ideas matter. I know for me, if I feel heard I am more open to hearing others. When we give people space to express and explore their thinking, we are creating conditions for their hearts to grow.
- Discover and share stories. In my experience, the best way to talk about poverty is to introduce people to someone living in poverty, respectfully. Tell their story. Stories build connection and foster mutual responsibility. They highlight our shared humanity and close the gap between our experiences.
- Pray. In all of the above, ask God to guide you to season your conversations with grace and wisdom (Colossians 4:1-6).
- Read. Study scripture to understand God’s heart for people living in poverty. The bible has a lot to say on the topic. Explore the scriptures with your children, friends and family and learn together. Great places to start are: Isaiah 58; Matthew 25; and the book of James.
As Christians, we believe all human beings have been created in the likeness of our creator (Gen 1.27). We are all image bearers called to display God’s character as a community. We become part of God’s restoration story when we see that we are responsible for one another’s flourishing. This extends to our response to poverty and injustice. But it is also part of encouraging our friends and family to pursue God’s purposes for their lives. Together, we are called to bring glory to our creator and take part in the work he is doing making all things new.
As the prophet Isaiah said, “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (43:19).
In both the brokenness of the world and in God’s plans for its restoration – we are all in this together. When we take hold of this truth together in conversations and in action, we step into God’s purposes for our lives, becoming more like Jesus in the process, and creating the conditions for those around us to flourish.
Click here to download conversation cards to help you have conversations with your friends and family.