Sunday, October 11, 2009

Why I Stopped Serving the Poor - by Claudio Oliver

(Reprinted from

Those who know me may find the above title curious, to say the least. Being with the poor is part of my history: My grandfather and grandmother were founders of the Salvation Army here in Brazil, and their ministry is a central reference point for my family. Their life was dedicated to the homeless, prostitutes, and in a special way to the orphans, the hurting and the renegades.

My teenage passion was consumed by the idea of fighting against poverty, hunger and injustice. Since I got married, 25 years ago, I have been involved in serving in slums, serving poor students, coming alongside needy populations, in peripheral neighborhoods, the beggars, the unemployed and other moneyless people.

I could report facts to support my pretensions over the years such as having helped “the poor” generate income, facilitated the restoration and organization of broken families, made bridges between rich and poor, fed the hungry, and facilitated the opportunity for some friends to discover professions, find their vocation and transform their own future. To “empower” people was once a key point in my practice in order to avoid creating dependency.

After all of this, or even because of all this, today I am called to question my whole life of “service” and to give up on serving the poor.

Asking “Why?”

Throughout my life I have kept the habit of always asking myself whether what I am doing makes sense, whether my heart is aligned with God’s will, and whether or not I am missing the point. This discipline, is essentially the Three “Whys?” Rule. It forces me to question each given answer with the kind of question that only children ask, and which helps me to generate a permanent transformation vector of self-criticism and of personal adjustments. Thus, in each step I take, for every thing I do, I ask: “why?” Whatever the answer might be, again I ask, “why?”. I feel I am in the right path when what I am doing surpasses the third “why”, and then and only then, will I move on.

For some time now I have reflected on Jesus’ life, on the principle of kenosis (emptying) based on the text of Philippians 2:1-11. I’ve thought about Jesus’ incarnation into our reality and into the numerous contacts and conversations he had with miserable people such as the lepers, and rich people such as the publicans, the synagogue chiefs and princes of his people; how he spent time with middle-class families, with proprietors and with servants and beggars.

I have reflected on what Jesus saw and how he acted.

The “Rich” and the “Poor”

And all of this started to grow in me and made me think about the text in Matthew 5:3 where Jesus tells the poor to march on with their lives and rejoice for being poor, because theirs was the possibility of having their lives driven and controlled by God. Little by little, over these last few years, along with biblical reflection, I have observed how many extremely sincere friends come and go, getting very excited about serving, but soon afterwards loose their passion for serving as they get busy with their errands and preoccupations. Frequently, I also see how others pay for someone else to fulfill God’s loving service. They engage with the poor vicariously through others during certain periods of time, moved by real sincerity, even if from a distance and without personal involvement.

From another perspective I see how poverty takes over the lives of those who are poor, and how much it reveals their unfulfilled desire to own things, and have access to modern consumption – the destroyer of everything. I see how their situation is built by the seduction of the same things that seduce and destroy the rich: the same individualism, the same selfishness, and the same tendency to feel comfortable and find their identity in being able to own things. I see their same absolute adhesion to a hoped for lifestyle and a way of thinking that imprisons them to the myth of modern needs, to the mythical desire to evolve and come under in complete and un questioned submission to the myth of modern development.

Without exception, rich and poor have the same conviction that what they need is something that the market, money, the government or some other agency can offer them.

They are all convinced that they will be happy with ownership, with a full stomach (some with bread, others with croissants) and with the constant flow of money that can seemingly do anything and solve everything. And among this massive majority, there are a few well-intentioned people who extend their hand to “include” others into the lifestyle or the platform they achieved.

The stretched-out hand from top down…that’s what we call service.

Giving Up on Serving the Poor

Over the years I’ve discovered that the very position of serving the poor from a commitment to “liberate” them, has been filled with a sense of superiority. A kind of superiority that is translated into giving others what I have, assuming through my actions that what I have or do is what he/she should have or do. This subtle translation is noticed in the subtle arrogance of the so-called politics of “inclusion”, always trying to put the other inside the box where I live, including them in the sameness of my lifestyle.

All of this led me to give up on serving the poor. By making this kind of statement I am not taking sides with those who, from their positions of wealth, comfort and well being say, “See? That’s what I have always thought.” I’m sorry to inform these people that in no way do I believe in or embrace their lifestyle. A lifestyle that by design, separates them from contact with the poor, the sick, the hungry, the naked, the ugly, the smelly, and the “uncivilized” barbarians.

I do not side with those who pay their taxes or contribute to charity saying in that way they are fulfilling their role. To these people I keep on retransmitting the message of Jesus that confronts their blind, insensitive and arrogant lifestyles, a message that calls madness what the worlds calls security.

Seeing Ourselves in the Poorest of the Poor

I have given up on serving the poor for another reason.

Since 1993, when I regularly went to the streets with a bunch of kids to reach out to the homeless, I developed a spiritual discipline. On the cold nights when we would go out to the streets of my city, I made a point to the kids that we were not going out to meet the “homeless” or the “needy”. I would tell the kids that in all honesty, I never really ever felt excited about serving bread to a homeless beggar, or making him or her a bed, or clothing their nakedness. The spiritual discipline we instated was to constantly use the motto “we go to meet Jesus in the poorest of the poor”. Serving, feeding and clothing Jesus was our motivation. Now, that excited me.

We discovered each time we went out, that in each of these encounters with a camouflaged Jesus, the so-called “Miserable” would be transformed into Masters - into those who denounced our personal misery, and who were transformed into unveiling agents of our manipulative mechanisms.

We suddenly saw ourselves mirrored in the very “poor” we were serving. We recognized that we were constantly using the same excuses and lies to get what we wanted - perhaps more successfully, and surely with more social acceptance and security mechanisms. But throughout this process we came to discover that we were “the poor”.

Those of us who experienced that spiritual perspective were freed of ourselves. We grew, and we changed. Confronted by Jesus and taught by him through the contact with his poverty and misery, many of us discovered what the Gospel (good news) really meant. During those days, many of us were transformed by Jesus’ touch and by the good news that he transmitted as we discovered ourselves as “the poor”.

An Alternative to “Serving” the Poor

However, this somewhat mystical sense of awareness was not always a constant burning flame. I would so often return to that worldly perspective to serving the poor, letting myself believe that I was the healthy, privileged helper, many times forgetting my own misery. As I have already mentioned, the alternative is not to stay away from the poor, judging their conditions, circumstances and attitudes from a top of my comfortable superior social position. Nor is it helping the poor, by raising their own awareness of their situation or “including” them in an unquestioning submission to the development politics of the last 60 years. The alternative I present here is different, discovered through encounter, recognition and identification.

I’ve given up on helping the poor, given up on serving and saving them. I have rediscovered a hard truth:

Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those who serve the poor. Jesus didn’t come to bring good news of the Kingdom to those who serve the poor; he brought Good News to the poor. He has nothing to say to other saviors who compete with him for the position of Messiah, or Redeemer.

God Shows Up in Our Need to Be Healed

Jesus’ agenda only brings a message for those who recognize themselves as poor, naked, hurt, tired, overburdened, needy and hopeless. As for the rest, his agenda has little or nothing to offer.

The only way to remain with the poor is if we discover that we are the miserable ones. We remain with the poor when we recognize ourselves, even if well disguised, in him/her who is right before our eyes. When we can see our own misery and poverty in them, when we realize our own needs and our desperate need to be saved and liberated, then and only then will we meet Jesus and live life according to His agenda.

God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed. Finding out this weakness of ours leaves us in a position of having nothing to offer, serve, donate, but reveals our need to be loved, healed and restored.

Herein lies the meaning that the power within us is not the power of our strengths, abilities and wealth, but rather, in the power that is present in our personal misery, so well hidden and disguised in our possessions and false securities. As Jean Vanier says in a book I recently read. “We are called to discover that God can bring peace, compassion, and love through our wounds.”

How much more sense does Isaiah’s text about the Messiah make now: “by his wounds we are healed”. The remaining messiahs of this world tend to avoid Jesus’ example of emptying himself (kenosis) to the point of becoming one of us, of dying with us and thus opening the door of resurrection for us.

The power that Jesus used to heal us, and uses to keep on healing us, does not reside in his access to universal power, but in his identification with us on the cross; in opening himself in wounds, in becoming one of us, in living our life.

I have given up on serving the poor. I’m going back to encountering the poor and finding myself in them.

Again, I have discovered the misery that hides in the very-well structured lives of my own false security. Seeing things from this perspective helps me understand this Jesus who talks with lepers and wealthy businessmen, with tax collectors in their parties and with the sick and miserable on the streets. In his identification with each and everyone, Jesus saw what perhaps no one else did: the extreme misery and poverty of the human condition, apart from any status or social gown.

Serving from the Bottom-Up

I came to re-encounter my poverty, to see myself in each situation of misery, and to get in touch with my inner pain. From there, I pray for healing, freedom, community and love. I ask for mercy and restoration.

Whoever serves out of the sense of having something to offer, serves from the top down.

Jesus calls us to become incarnate and to see ourselves in the other and to place ourselves under him or her as powerless dependents. He calls us to give up in trusting our own capacity to impart goodness and to change our direction in order to encounter and recognize our own wounds, weakness and pain. From there, we discover the power that lies in being less and not more.

I have given up serving on the poor. I have rediscovered my poverty. And with it I can cry out again: “Son of David, have mercy on me.

About Claudio Oliver: Claudio is a pastor of Igreja do Caminho church in Curitiba, Brazil. He is also a Red del Camino Network connector, both in the Brazilian Network and the regional Latin American Network movement.

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View THEOOZE.TV video of Claudio Oliver interviewed by Spencer Burke

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