When we first received a set of new couches for our living room, my mother cried.
Prior to receiving this gift, generously donated by a local faith charity, the room had remained bare for months. On my mother’s modest salary, we were barely able to afford food each month let alone any decorative furniture item. At the time, she had been working as supply staff for a local daycare while I had been unemployed.
This had been our seventh move in less than two years. The emergence of mold in the substandard basement apartment we had been living in the year before had forced our exit. We had been almost evicted from house number six when we had been unable to keep up with the rent. The landlord who threatened us had been an elderly lady who had first appeared to be sweet and nurturing. She did end up taking us to court but lost.
The beginning of our financial woes seemed to occur in the wake of my parents’ divorce. I had been 16 at the time and concerned mostly with my friends, oily skin, and passing math class. That all changed with my dad out of the picture — I wondered if we would even make it. When my mother lost her full-time job as a support worker in December 2013, this further compounded the financial trials she had previously encountered — the latest, the inability to find steady work.
So, though she ended each day exhausted and worn out from a day’s work at a mere $11.40 an hour, she would wake up the next day and do the same thing. She had many dreams of going back to school and starting her own business, but all of these had to submit to a higher order — to do all she could to simply survive.
According to DoSomething.org, over three billion people (roughly half of the world’s population) live on less than $2.50 a day. The World Bank describes it this way:
Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.
What is most curious about poverty is that it comes in all shapes and sizes, so it may not always look the way we expect. It could look my mother — the single mom — working more than one job to make ends meet and provide for her children. In fact, according to a report released by Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO), situations like my mother’s are becoming the “new normal.”
The prevalence of what is called “precarious employment” even on a full-time basis (which essentially refers to jobs that offer no benefits or security) has risen dramatically in the last 20 years. This has created much peril for those who are unable to land steady sources of employment for whatever reason and have to rely on this type of work to make a living.
In North America, there are varying degrees of poverty depicted in the faces of the men, women, and children we are surrounded with every day. Poverty could be among the faces of those in the cities who stand on street corners, make park benches their resting place, and sit holding arresting signs on the sidewalks. Poverty could appear as the millennial 30-something postgrad who hasn’t been able to land a decent job in their field. Poverty may meet you for coffee, visit your home once or twice, or could even be sitting in the church pew right beside you at your place of worship. These people are no different from you and me.
Since leaving my full-time steady job in 2014, I have taken on multiple temporary agency jobs and part-time contracts along with takeout payday loans and social assistance in the effort to afford my monthly expenses. In the last couple of years, my experience living as an unemployed, racialized single woman meant I battled daily with unforgiving societal expectations that convinced me the dreams I have for myself are not possible. Constantly, I have come face-to-face with these economic and social barriers which have threatened to steal my joy and purpose.
Poverty is fear for the future…and a constant battle to live for your dreams. One of my favourite poets, Langston Hughes, wrote these words in a classic poem: “…if dreams die…life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” For a dreamer like myself, these words hold so much weight for me. As one who has experienced a mild version of poverty, I have found that when it strikes, both our physical and emotional states can often go into survival mode. Because of this, we unconsciously put aside the things of the soul, which unfortunately can come to include our dreams for ourselves and our families.
One of the greatest dreamers of all time was Joseph. In his time of poverty and enslavement, he still held on to the dreams of his childhood, those that had been first divinely communicated to him through sleep (Genesis 37:1-19). Yet, the dreamer whom we all know and love didn’t see the full fruition of his dreams until years and years later.
To any onlooker, it may have seemed that Joseph was going nowhere fast. Meanwhile, the Lord was writing a script behind closed curtains that could knock any Hollywood blockbuster out of the ballpark. So, just like it appeared that there was no future for Joseph, we are quick to determine the same for those in less than ideal situations. Whether it is that they can never seem to find steady work, hop from shelter to shelter, or are up to their eyeballs in debt.
When we notice others at less than glamourous places in their lives, our natural inclination is to look the other way. Or we may give prescriptive advice — which is never truly helpful — in response to conversations where others are relaying their financial woes to us. But what if our truest calling could be discovered not by shying away from the issue of poverty but by moving our hearts nearer to it? By choosing to align ourselves with those who experience it daily and do not have the luxury of simply turning away? By affirming their God-given identities and re-inspiring their dreams for their future?
God has a special place in his heart for the poor, which may be why there are more than 2,000 references in the Bible relating to poverty. In Proverbs 31:8-9, we are told to “Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and the needy.”
Ministering to the poor vindicates the character of our Lord and is a working out of our faith. Not only is this an act of advocacy and of righteousness, it is an act of justice. By likening ourselves to those of the poor, we receive the God-given ability to step into their shoes. Once we do that, part of our role as advocates is to help them see their worth through God’s eyes, and to find success beyond just earthly titles and possessions.
Contrary to what the present circumstances may sometimes tell us, God is completely invested in the outcome of each and every one of our stories. For those who are caught in the rut of poverty, hope can often seem so far away. That’s why more than ever, we need to remind those most impacted by poverty that their dreams do matter and that there is a purpose for their lives.
Aside from simply ministering to the needs which are more often most apparent to the average eye, those in poverty are also seeking comfort. Comfort that can found in the promise that there is a God who loves and cares for them and is readily available to attend to their every need. Poverty does not have to limit our dreams if we are willing to open our hearts and believe in God’s promises — anything is possible for those who believe.
Alexandra Yeboah is a diversity issues blogger and lead storyteller of Speak the Words Communications (speakthewords.com). She has a passion for writing specifically on faith, mental health, poverty, cultural identity, and abuse. She also helps children and adults explore the love of storytelling through interactive workshops held within the community. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, taking long walks, spending quality time with her family, and discussing great ideas.
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