Theres nothing romantic about working with the poor. Poverty is grindingly dull, banal, colorless.
There are few true feel-good stories about poverty. Most of the poor in the world live simple, short, and desperate lives.
Forget what you’ve heard about how the poor “seem so happy” and are “content with what little they have.” Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the poor live some kind of purer, more innocent lives that are simple and somehow nobler than ours. Nobody really believes that; otherwise, there’d be a rush of people giving up their possessions to become poor.
After spending a weekend with Proyecto Abrigo on the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico, I was reminded of the true nature of poverty. Along with Charles Harrison, Oscar Brown, Wayne Braddick, and David Spence, I helped build a small add-on room for a mother who has recently lost her home, and had to move in with her son, daughter-in-law, and baby granddaughter.
During my short stay, I looked into the smiling faces of poor children, drove through the dusty streets of poor neighborhoods, and tried to avoid drinking the water of the poor.
Like most mission trips, the overall experience made me feel good. I enjoyed constructing something for someone in need, and received a rush of warm gratitude.
It also made me feel queasy, uncomfortable, a little melancholy. But it no longer prompts me to shed a sympathetic tear as it did once upon a time. I don’t get emotional like I used to when encountering life on the margins.
I guess it’s because I have seen way too much of it. It doesn’t shock or surprise me anymore. If anything, poverty is painfully boring. That’s just the truth of it.
Day after day, the global poor wake up, trudge to a distant well for water, carry it back home, start a fire, boil water, cook some breakfast, look for work, peddle some goods in the city streets, forage for signs of hope, return home, cook some dinner, sit into the night with friends and family, go to sleep, and hope to wake the next morning and do it all again.
I contemplated this tragic cycle while in Juarez over the weekend, and it occurred to me that the worst part of poverty is the fact that the poor have very little power to change their own lives and fortunes. Poverty is something that happens to you, that oppresses and beats down so hard that you are tempted to stop trying to fight it. And, even if you do try, there is little you can do. Things are firmly entrenched, thanks to governmental corruption, lack of access to power, and international free trade deals.
Just look at the situation in Juarez — wealthy US corporations move their factories across the border in order to make bigger profits, thereby reducing employment opportunities for potential workers in America (and making them poorer), and enabling them to pay Mexicans only $40 per week, which keeps the workers of Juarez barely above water. Meanwhile, schools are prohibitively expensive, and medical care even more so.
Proyecto Abrigo is not the final solution to poverty in Juarez. The folks who make up Proyecto Abrigo are aware that their work is a drop in the bucket compared to the kind of change that needs to happen. Structural, systemic change needs to occur in Juarez (and America!) that will enable people to take control of their lives and fashion their own destinies.
But in the meantime, a house of cinder blocks, with concrete floor and wooden roof, is a symbol of hope. It has to be enough for now.
God, may the simple homes we help construct in Juarez be like tiny acorns of justice and peace which shoot down roots of patience and courage, until the day they burst forth as gigantic oak trees of shalom, overthrowing the mercenary merchants of wealth, power, and prestige. Amen.
-Rev. Dr. Wes Magruder, Kessler Park UMC