It was a hot Saturday morning. My family had driven two and a half hours from our home in Lae, Papua New Guinea, to worship with a growing village church in the Markham Valley. We sat under a shady tree on a woven mat just meters from the over packed church listening to the pastor’s sermon. Seated beside us were a young woman and her 12-month-old son. My husband had given the baby our keys to play with—I couldn’t help but notice that the little fellow had one significantly crossed eye and had difficulty focusing on objects he was trying to see.
With the mother’s permission, I took some photos of the baby playing. After the service had concluded I introduced myself to the mother, taking mental note of the names of her and her baby so that I could locate them again after I talked to an ophthalmologist friend of mine.
“The child has esotropia,” my doctor friend said. He gave me a rundown on how it would affect the child and how it would best be managed. With difficulty we located the child’s mother through a pastor from a nearby village and made arrangements for her to bring her baby to Lae to visit an optometrist with me. The optometrist was to assess the baby and decide whether glasses would correct his condition, or whether he would require surgery.
I Think I’m Helping Here, But Am I?
In Papua New Guinea, gaining an education and obtaining a good job seems to be the best way out of poverty, and since parents depend on their offspring to care for them in their old age, parents have a vested interest in ensuring their children overcome poverty. It appeared to me that the small amount of money I might spend on the child’s eye treatment could have lasting dividends for his family.
But on Mary’s two visits to the optometrist in Lae, she appeared to begrudge the time spent in both travel and consultation, commenting that she didn’t think it was necessary: her baby would only pull glasses off anyway and she had relatives with crossed eyes that corrected as they grew older.
I paid for the consultations and both times gave Mary enough money to cover the cost of her travel. However, before leaving Mary asked if I could meet two immediate needs (or at least perceived needs): a mobile phone and accommodation when she visited Lae. It appeared that she would prefer I spend my money on these things, rather than on her son’s eye condition. Perhaps we might question Mary’s wisdom in this regard, but it did change the way I think about poverty.
What Would the Bible Say about My Approach to Poverty?
Throughout the Bible, there are references to assisting the impoverished with their needs:
“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17).
“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘you shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’” (Deuteronomy 15:11).
“In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of our Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35).
These are just a few of the biblical passages about the impoverished; so there is no doubt in my mind that we who love the Lord are called to bless those in need around us. We are meant to use the blessings that we have graciously been given from above to offer hope to others. But my experience with Mary raises an issue with that in my mind: How often do we, in our approach to the impoverished, decide for ourselves what they surely must want and need, instead of asking them?
I think Jesus has an answer to this dilemma. When responding to the cries of the two blind men in Matthew 20:29–34 and Bartimeus in Mark 10:46–52, Jesus both times asks “What do you want me to do for you?” He does this before taking action.
Helping the Impoverished with What They Actually Need
Before moving to Papua New Guinea, I lived in a remote country town in Australia with a large aboriginal population. I had heard that many aboriginal people slept on mattresses under the bridges around the town and many other places that did not seem at all appropriate to those of my cultural background. I had even heard of the aboriginal people in the town breaking apart their government-funded housing as quickly as new housing was being built. This all disturbed me, until I read an article that explained everything. In a local newspaper, an aboriginal person stated that the government need not spend its money on things that the aboriginal people, with their unique cultural background, did not need or want. The author believed that the aboriginals did not need or want housing. They merely wanted some land, with some shady trees and a washing/bathing block.
It is profound that countless dollars are probably spent on aid work meeting needs that are perceived by Westerners, but not felt by the recipients. Naturally, when something is not wanted, it is hardly going to be appreciated, preserved, or respected in the way that donors might expect.
It would appear that the best approach to meeting the needs of the impoverished would be to follow Jesus’ example: Ask the question, “what do you want me to do for you?” The answers of the impoverished might surprise us.
Kriselle Dawson writes for Jesus’ Economy, a non-profit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. Jesus' Economy provides an online fair trade shop and is working to Renew Bihar, India. Kriselle lives in Lae, Papua New Guinea, where she is a full-time mom and homeschool teacher; she also serves with Papua New Guinea Union Mission and Lae City Mission.