I live in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Need presses in on us, and at times, it is suffocating. I don’t say that for pity; I say it because it’s true. Haitians don’t want your pity, either. They’re a proud people who love their country, and many wouldn’t leave even given the opportunity.
That’s the backdrop for this week’s Ask Me Monday question from my friend Kristine:
How is it to be surrounded by poverty 24/7 and raising your children alongside it? How do you help them handle it when you go out and meet people and have many people lacking basic needs?
I don’t know if I’m the best mama to answer this question. I may be wrong, but I think I’m a bit unorthodox when it comes to being honest with my kids–I tell them too much. It’s still a difficult conversation, whatever age your kids are.
In some ways, poverty feels normal to my kids. It is what they know. Of course people come up and tap on our car windows, asking for money; they’re hungry. Of course people build houses in the flood plain; they have nowhere else to go. When the interactions happen, here’s a few things I try to impress on them:
- God cares for the poor and will take care of them. God calls himself the defender of the orphan and the widow. He cares deeply about justice and their well-being. He takes care of us, he takes care of them…and sometimes, he uses us to take care of them. But we can’t always help, and in those instances, we pray for God to provide for them. That’s a gift we can always give.
- We treat everyone with respect. Haitians love to laugh, so many times, if someone’s asking for money, I can joke with them a little and complain about how my kids eat too much and now I’m broke. We all know it’s not true, but it’s a kind way to refuse the request and build relationship. It’s very easy to get tired of hearing it, and frankly, it’s socially acceptable for me to be rude to them or ignore them completely. But I try to make eye contact, express sympathy, listen to their story. I try to model a soft heart. If it were me, that’s how I’d want to be treated.
- Teach compassion. If I were in need, I’d ask me, too. Those window tappers? They’re not trying to bother us or scare us, they’re just in desperate need. I try to help them see past the behavior to the root cause.
- God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. Whenever I can, I try to esteem Haitian believers in front of my kids. I try to shift the focus from what they don’t have (money) to what they do have (faith, a good work ethic, artistic talent, wisdom, physical strength, etc.). And honestly, it’s not that hard. Their faith puts me to shame on a regular basis.
- I respect their desire to give. If they want to take toys to the orphanage down the road, we do it. If they want to share a banana with a random guy as we’re driving home, I let them. I think it helps them feel like they’re part of our ministry, too. There’s two young men who regularly come to our house for food, and I have the kids help me carry it to the gate and hand it to them. We focus on helping people we know, and the kids know that. Culturally, that’s appropriate here. Do what’s appropriate where you live: maybe that means setting up a fund at the church and letting the pastor distribute to those with real needs. Maybe that means you give a little to everyone who asks. Maybe that means you save special projects to hire people who ask for work. Here’s what I know: it’s more blessed to give than receive.
And this is one of the big reasons that we take regular trips off the island every year. That type of need all around is heavy. You start to forget that it’s not your fault. You start to forget that you can’t fix it all. You feel helpless, yet responsible. A friend put it well: “The need is not the call.” I’m called to help in specific ways, but I simply can’t help everyone, and I don’t need to feel guilty about that. Sometimes I do anyway, but I don’t need to. Giving without boundaries leads to resentment and burnout.
My kids aren’t really old enough to ask why poverty exists, but when they are, I think it’s a good opportunity to talk about systemic oppression and the role of sin in all our lives. Plus, Jesus said it’s an incurable problem–it’s part of life, no matter what we do. We will help when we can and leave it in His hands when we can’t.
These are tough issues and good questions! I wish I had better answers for you. I pray God gives you the words as you talk to your kids.
You’ve got this, mama.