What Seeing Real Poverty Showed Me About Pretending to Be Poor
A few weeks ago I shared my Thoughts From India and Lessons Learned In India (my first guest post). But as my henna fades, I’m afraid my convictions from my trip will, too. One insight I desperately want to remember is how seeing real poverty left me more motivated than ever to “pretend to be poor” in order to share more resources. Witnessing wide economic disparities firsthand was a poignant reminder that I’m just pretending; our lifestyle is truly luxurious by global standards. It was also a good reminder of why I’m pretending, and an encouragement to continue, so I can help those who aren’t just pretending.
By pretending to be poor, I mean living below our means so that we can have extra to give and save. We would never claim to actually be poor or deprived in any sense, and we’re quite content with our lifestyle. Our tongue-in-cheek title comes from a proverb and one of our main goals goals of financial flexibility is to help the destitute. In fact, I believe generosity can be a more effective motivator for wise financial habits than early retirement, financial independence, or even debt payoff. (Read why in the post Get Rich With Generosity.)
I didn’t visit the streets of Calcutta, but I saw one of the world’s largest slums, the massive encampment spanning the outskirts of the Mumbai airport grounds, described in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I was comfortably bubbled behind the airplane window and can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to walk through its paths, but the sea of blue tarps that is home to one million people left an impression.
On our way to visit a village church we drove through narrow dirt alleys crowded by small, low-roofed homes. These are the real tiny homes, without the high-tech innovations to make them comfortable.
At a children’s home, I met hoards of kids whose parents can’t afford to take care of them. They are well cared for in the homes, but they still live in conditions we’d consider sub-par for our children—twelve to a room in bunks, with a small cubby for their personal belongings.
Another team from our church visited a remote village that our church sponsors. Before the sponsorship program began, they had so little food that at times meals would consist of starchy water leftover from cooking.
In the streets, beggars, often with small children, knocked on our van’s windows. You want to help but you don’t know if they are being exploited, or if a small handout would do much good anyway. And you certainly can’t help everyone in this situation.
We all know this level of disparity exists, and you don’t have to travel the globe to see it. A few years ago I volunteered at an inner city after school program where many of the elementary-aged kids went home to empty houses and no dinner. But in everyday life we are largely sheltered from these extreme conditions. We don’t have time in our busy schedules to enter into the mess we know exists. So instead we simply feel sad when it comes up in conversation.
Evoking guilt is the furthest goal from my mind. I believe contemplating inequity and doing something about it can inspire us to resist our culture’s tide of lifestyle inflation like nothing else. As we deflate our lifestyle we aim to inflate our usefulness, in part by helping others. I wrote about how to Get Rich With Generosity & have experienced that giving away money is one of the best ways to become more disciplined with money. However, it’s not really about getting rich or poor, and certainly not about inflating my ego instead of my lifestyle.
Before my trip, I’d occasionally receive a letter from a charity we donate to, outlining a need and requesting additional funds. For the most part I viewed these letters as annoying. “I’m already giving what I want to give to this group,” I’d think and trash the letter without even reading it.
I just received a letter from the organization I traveled with, explaining their fundraising needs for a special training conference. Now that I’ve seen their ministry firsthand, I understand why supporting the conference is so important. Many of the pastors live on a very small stipend, provided by their own congregation after two years of outside sponsorship, and may lack basics such as electricity, shoes, or access to transportation. Far from an annoyance, this letter became a welcome opportunity to practice noblisse oblige and participate in God’s work across the world.
I can’t respond to every letter by sending money, but I’m now equipped to make better decisions about these requests. I have a whole new schema for the realities in developing areas. More than ever I see sharing with others as a way of striving toward equality: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (2 Corinthians 8:13).
No one can eliminate poverty, but we can help improve the life of one person. Or maybe two or three or ten. I encourage you to consider sponsoring a child in poverty. Many charities have a program for child sponsorship because the need is vast, as is the potential for impact. If you’re looking for a trustworthy group, I witnessed India Gospel League in action this summer, and friends of mine highly recommended Compassion International after seeing their work firsthand. Both are doing balanced, legitimate, cost-effective, holistic ministry to truly impoverished people.
Do you think helping others can be a financial motivator?