Retro: A Very Personal Journey About Poverty and Hunger

In 1979, when I was editor of Worldwide Challenge magazine, we did an unusual, for us, special section on poverty and hunger.  I wrote this article about my personal journey, long before the emphasis on justice we are seeing in the evangelical world today. Rereading it was encouraging to me. Warning:  This is pre-political correctness.

It can be a long way from suburban Dallas to identification with a hungry world. But it's not a trip that is impossible to take.

The brown faces were eager as we finished the story and moved into one of their favorite games. Maria wanted to be "it." Jaime asked when it was time for snacks.

It was Saturday morning, and I was at a small mission playing with the neighborhood hispanic children as I did every other Saturday morning the year I was 16. It was almost Christmas, so with snacks today there would be a small gift for each child.

Caring for these children was one of my responsibilities as cochairman of the service committee of a club at my high school, and it was one of the most giving things I had done in my young life.

I grew up in a very comfortable home in one of the “best" sections of Dallas. We had all that we needed and more, but compared to many of our neighbors, we were not especially well off. We didn’t belong to the country club or have a home and boat at the lake. My mother made most of our clothes. And we drove Chevrolets.

Startling Discovery

My family was relatively non-materialistic, and I learned to be thrifty and careful in my spending. It wasn't until I took a sociology class in college that I discovered that, by most standards, we were wealthy. I was glad I hadn't known.

I met the Lord in high school and was eager to tell others about Him. I felt that my activities at the mission and the Christmas decorations I made for the children's hospital each year helped to demonstrate that I was a Christian and cared about the needs of others. 

When I graduated from the University of Texas, I joined the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ to serve the Lord with my skills and my life. Some friends didn't understand why I would choose to work for such a low salary--and to raise it myself. But making lots of money didn't seem very important in light of eternity--and helping to make sure others spent that eternity with God.

I felt I was a generous person. I contributed regularly to God's work. And I loved to give to others in need, and often did so. But I also had all I needed--and more. A nice home. Attractive clothes--my kind family helped make that possible. My  work included a fair amount of travel, which I enjoyed. I wasn't extravagant or excessive in my desires, but my lifestyle was very comfortable.

Then God began to lead me onto a new path--a journey of discovery about myself, others, needs, poverty, hunger, injustice. In the first stage of my journey I began to observe. I saw that many people around the world were starving to death, that others lived in terrible poverty. I saw affluence surrounded by squalor.

Although more and more people were coming to Christ, more and more people were living--and dying--without the bare essentials of life, much less enjoying the abundance God's earth has to offer.

Good Works and Good News

Then I began to read. As editor of Worldwide Challenge, I see many articles of current secular and religious thought. Increasingly evangelical leaders were speaking out on our responsibilities to minister to the whole person.

Billy Graham, in his opening message at the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, said, "At this Congress we expect to reaffirm that our witness must be by both word and deed.... Historically evangelicals have changed society, influencing men and women everywhere in the battle against slavery and in the quest for social justice. We should be proud of this tradition.

"At the same time we must squarely face the challenges of our own age. We must be sensitive to human need wherever it is found.... Scripture calls us time and again to do all in our power to alleviate human suffering and to correct injustice.”

At the same Congress, Dr. Carl F. H. Henry commented, "When Christians fail to emphasize that it is morally wicked that human creatures starve and suffer and that insensitivity of the rich to the physical needs of those around them [makes them] ethically culpable, they yield…the privilege of formulating social criticism.....Since all we possess is held as a divine stewardship, the apostles emphasize that one who has more than others has greater opportunity to bless those who have less. (1 Peter 4:14ff) No true Christian can be rich and use wealth merely for self·gratification.”

All this reading increased my awareness of the plight of the poor and sent me to Scripture to see what God's Word says on this subject. God's Word says a great deal.

Certainly, the major emphasis of Scripture is on alleviating spiritual poverty through salvation by the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. But the responsibility of God's people to do justice and to care for those in need is one of the main themes of Scripture, beginning in Genesis 1:26 and 4:8 and continuing throughout the Bible. God's concern for the poor is evident all through the Old Testament: "For Thou hast been a defense for the helpless, a refuge for the needy in his distress.... “(Isaiah 25:4) )

In both the Old and New Testaments it is clear that many of the poor and hungry--the widow, the orphan, the handicapped, the oppressed-- are in that condition because of circumstances that have forced them into a marginal existence. God looks at this poverty as evil, and He promises not only to love the poor and the hungry, but to be active in their behalf.

Because of God's love for the poor, He calls His people to special concern for these persons. He even goes so far as to say that there would be no poor if His people would follow His commands: “However, there shall be no poor among you ... if only you listen obediently to the voice of the Lord your God, to carefully observe all this commandment which I am commanding you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:4)

But since God’s people--past and present—have not always obeyed fully, there were specific laws in the Old Testament to provide for the poor.

The Bible is also clear in its comments on wealth and property. Private ownership is sanctioned in Scripture, but the right to possession is not unqualified: “the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.” (Leviticus 25:23) We are merely stewards of property with the responsibility to use it for Him.

The Bible's focus on the right use of possessions expresses a consistent concem for the poor, indicating that amassing great wealth for pure self-gratification was wrong and a major cause of poverty. God is especially concerned that riches not corrupt their owner and cause him to forget that God is the source of all blessing.

The Old Testament prophets repeatedly spoke out against injustice to the poor and oppressed. One of the strongest statements is in Isaiah 58: “Is this not the fast which I chose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”

Our Lord echoed the same thoughts when He began His ministry: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord." (Luke 4:18)

Though Jesus undoubtedly was concerned here about spiritual bondage and poverty, His identification with the poor, both in His lifestyle and in His associations, indicate that He was also referring to freeing those physically enslaved and oppressed.

The early church continued in this tradition, sharing with each other to the extent that as late as the fourth century Emperor Julian the Apostate said, “We ought to be ashamed. Not a beggar is to be found among the Jews, and those godless Galileans [Christians] feed not only their own people but ours as well.”

The apostle Paul maintained the same emphasis, frequently admonishing the various churches to give to the needs of the poor and stressing the biblical principle of equality: …at this present time your abundance being a supply for their want, that their abundance also may become a supply for your want, that there may be equality."(2 Corinthians 8:14)

Laziness or Circumstances?

As I absorbed all this reading, I began to think, to ask questions. First, what caused poverty? I had always thought that laziness caused poverty, and certainly in some cases that is true.

Many, however, especially in much of the Third World, are destitute because of circumstances beyond their control: death of a partner or parents; poor education and opportunities; climate and weather; overpopulation; culture; exploitation by the powerful. And for many life consists of unceasing toil just to exist from day to day.

But wasn't I involved in introducing people to Christ? Isn't that the most important thing I can do? Yes, it is the highest scriptural priority--but that doesn't justify ignoring God's other priorities.

I believe that people changed by Christ should lead to a changed society--and in the past they have. Throughout history Christians have been in the forefront in social reform: abolition of slavery, child labor laws, education, medical treatment.

But if so many people are becoming Christians--and they are---why are we not seeing change in society? Why is justice ignored, the poor not cared for, the needy not helped to help themselves?  Apparently because so many of God's children--myself included--have not been obedient to the whole of biblical teaching--the command to minister to the spiritual and physical needs of people.

If we expect those who come to Christ to be changed and to become instruments of change, we must be models. We must demonstrate holiness and Christlikeness in our personal lives and in our involvement in the needs of the world. For our converts will surely follow our examples.

John F. Kennedy pointed out our reluctance to act, to be inconvenienced: "We have the ability, we have the means, and we have the capacity to eliminate hunger from the face of the earth. We need only the will."

I realized that God was asking me, “Do you have the will?”

And that's where I am now in this journey. I am seeking God's wisdom, His direction for me. I'm not moving quickly, but I am moving. I have made some changes.

My husband and I are seeking ways to free up more funds to give to others. We are trying to spend carefully, to buy less new, to buy wisely when we do. We are giving to those in need as we are aware of needs. And we are researching opportunities to give regularly--in addition to our giving toward evangelism and discipleship--to places where our money will help alleviate hunger and suffering, especially long range through development, not just relief.

We recognize that these steps in themselves will do little to change the destitution of so many around the world. But if many of God's children were to take a few such steps, we could begin to make a dent, and our actions would serve as examples to others.

Then I am also seeking to awaken believers to the needs of people and the imperatives of Scripture through this article and through this entire section on poverty and hunger.

But I cannot then sit back and say that I have done my part.  My heart echoes the Lausanne covenant statement on social responsibility: Because mankind is made in the image of God, every person . . . has an intrinsic dignity—and for which he should be respected and served, not exploited ... we express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. Although reconciliation with man is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and social-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. ... The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities. Faith without works is dead."

My prayer for myself as I travel the path on which God is leading me is that I will be sensitive to Him, that I will know what He wants me to do, that I will have His heart of compassion for those in need.  And that I will be obedient to His call.

Will this also be your prayer? Will you join me in this spiritual odyssey to discover what it is to be the total person God has called us to be, and to care for the whole person He loves so much?

- Judy Downs Douglass