This post has been floating in my mind for years…probably for the majority of the 13 years I have lived in America. And I fear posting this because of how some may receive it but there comes a point where certain things just need to be said as they are (in love of course).
Here it goes.
Last month, one of the campus pastors at my university introduced the CEO of a non-profit Christian organization aimed at removing children from poverty. Once I realized that he would be the speaker for chapel that day, I couldn’t help but cringe. Mind you, it had nothing to do with the guy or with the specific organization. In fact, he didn’t even utter a word! It’s just that there is a certain jargon and method used in promoting non-profit organizations like this that doesn’t sit well with me and many others who have lived in (not visited) a “third world country”.
As the CEO was nearing the end of his sermon, he showed the student body a video clip of a young Guatemalan girl around the age of 8. They did a good job of capturing her home in a very rural area as well as the somberness of her family in that environment, a scene that is the poster child of what many Americans would consider poor. Her village lifestyle was a lot like the one I had back Nigeria and the one I have every time I go back to visit.
To be honest, I didn’t realize my village lifestyle in Nigeria was one of “poverty” until I heard preachers talk about how blessed America is since they live in “one of the richest countries in the world” (if not the richest).
Often times, I left sermons confused when the theme of the sermon was how better off America is and how we should be grateful for it. The thing is, I have never felt poor. I have never felt like I lacked anything at all in my life. If anything, my village life in Nigeria was (and is) a lot simpler and more carefree.
I kept all of that in mind as I was watching this little girl living life a lot like I did. Her story took a turn for the worse when she mentioned that her mother died. The little girl was only 8 and had to take up the huge responsibility of taking care of her family. Clearly, she needed help; specifically, funding for school and healthcare. As a response, this organization stepped forward and helped her. Commendable, right?
As the video was about to end, the lady in the video urged that we should support the organization and help “the least of these.”
And that’s where my heart dropped.
This isn’t new actually. This is a common phrase that I have heard too many times by the American church when they refer to those living in Third World countries. Because they are poverty stricken and are in much worse of a state than First World Countries, right? I mean, even when looking at the context of this phrase in Matthew 25:35-40, Jesus was clearly referring to the poor:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
So yes, Jesus was referring to the poor. And with that idea in mind, we’ve taken that phrase and run with it, making ourselves feel better because we live in “normal” looking houses that have running water, aren’t topped with aluminum roofing, and are just a short ride away from a nearby accessible hospital. Because those who don’t have our First World lifestyle must be poor, poor human beings.
We have (unintentionally) subscribed to the idea that the only legitimate form of poverty is the lack of material wealth or lack of access to adequate healthcare.
If we look at those verses again, we find that Jesus is not referring to just the materially poor. He was referring to the sick, the prisoner, and the lonely. I think we Americans Christians have made it abundantly clear that there is poverty in other countries but we have not put near enough emphasis on the material poverty that exists here. In fact, I had a friend tell me a few months ago that after he had gone to several African countries, he concluded the poverty there was more legitimate than the poverty in America. In that moment, all I could do was exhale bitterly and admit to him that I didn’t really see poverty until I came to the United States. In that moment, it hit me that, perhaps, we have two different perceptions of poverty.
No one hesitates to mention the poverty in Africa when discussions of world issues come up. Yet when it comes to world most optimistic countries, the top 14 out of 15 most optimistic countries are in Africa, including my country, Nigeria. There is an infectious joy that can be sensed among many people that live in Third World countries. I wish that the video of that little girl in chapel included her happiness being shown in her home once she got the support she needed. I mean, they did show her joy when she was in school but to see her beaming with joy in her home, a home that would have been considered a poor one by outsiders, would have been a beautiful dichotomy. It would have sparked the opportunity to show that perhaps what we Westerners consider wealth may not actually be the kind of wealth that truly matters.
When it comes down to it, “the least of these” are not solely confined within the borders of third world countries. “The least of these” are not confined to those who wear brown skin. Those who utilize the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems are not exempt from being “the least of these”. I am the least of these. You are the least of these. Bill Gates is the least of these. Oprah is the least of these. Where we lack, others can bless. And where we are blessed, we can give without being patronizing and with a genuine desire to learn who Christ is and how we can better reflect Him in our giving.
Amazing Grace. How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like all of us.