The thing that bothers me most about poverty is not the poverty itself. It’s not the unsanitary living conditions. It’s not the appalling lack of privacy. It’s not even the greed and corruption of those in power which so often creates and always contributes to poverty. It’s not the schools with no books, or desks, or indoor plumbing. It’s not the dirt roads and lack of electricity. It’s not even the kids, God bless ’em (No. Seriously. God, please bless them. Oh, wait, maybe you already have…). No, the thing about poverty that bugs me, that drives me crazy, that absolutely kills me is the simple fact that I’m getting used to it.
I’ve been to Honduras four times now. While it’s not the worst poverty in the world, it is the most poverty I’ve seen personally. And I’ve seen plenty of poverty — from the South side of San Antonio, to the Appalachian mountains in Tennessee, to the inner city of Washington, D.C. to a Yaqui Indian Reservation in Arizona. Moscow and Juarez and Agua Dulcita. White people and brown people and black people. No roads. No electricity. No plumbing. No medical care. No shoes. No food. No hope.
I’ve seen enough that my heart has begun to harden, if only to protect itself, like a callous on the hands of a worker. The first time I encountered such poverty, I gave away all the money in my wallet. But eventually I stopped carrying cash. It used to make me sick. Then it made me sad. Then it left me angry. Now it just leaves me. And that’s what scares me. At what point do we see so much that we stop seeing anything?
Have you ever noticed how dirty poor kids are? Seems like they’re always filthy. Grubby hands. Muddy clothes. Snotty noses and dirty faces. Like a Flannery O’Conner character might have said, “Just because you’re poor don’t mean you have to be trash.” Everywhere I looked in the little mountain villages of central Honduras I saw dirty children. Even the clean kids seemed on the verge of getting dirty, as though the washing could only last so long. I have three kids of my own. They get pretty dirty. But they are basically clean. Clean kids who often get dirty. These are dirty kids who sometimes get clean.
I used to wonder about that. Then I simply accepted it. These people have dirty kids. You see, I stopped seeing kids and started seeing statistics. Poverty equals dirty children. But in Honduras, like Saul on the road to Aqua Dulcita, the Lord opened my eyes.
I watched a mom ripping laundry off the line before a swift moving thunderstorm could break. She was yanking clothes off as fast as her hands would move. And it hit me. She just worked her ass off to get those clothes clean. She hung them up to dry so her family would have clean clothes to wear tomorrow. If this storm caught them still on the line, all that work would we wasted.
I saw a little girl, maybe six years old, barefoot, carrying two gallon bottles of water up a mountain road. While leading her two-year-old little sister by the hand. They were both coated with road dust. They looked like rugs you wanted to beat with a broom. Trekking up the roadside. Big sister carrying the water with over her shoulders so she could hold little sisters hand. Their feet were filthy, of course. But even their knees were dirty.
You see, one of the truths about poverty is the presence of dirt. Not dirty. Just good old dirt. The people in the Honduran mountains live in an antiquated, agrarian society. They farm. They raise livestock. They walk. Not for exercise but for transportation. They farm in the dirt, often tilling and digging and planting by hand. Their animals live in this same dirt. Most of their homes have dirt floors. The floors are dirt, the yards are dirt, the roads are dirt. Have you ever stood on the side of a dirt road when a truck passes? Have you ever been in the third car in line driving down a dirt road?
Add in the fact that almost none of them have running water. Maybe some rich land owners. But that’s about it. So just getting fresh water (never mind how dirty it is) takes hours of work. Hike to the source. Fill the bottles, jugs, jars. Hike back. Don’t rinse. Just repeat. And when you live in the mountains, half the trip is always uphill. You know how heavy water is? Then if you want hot water you have to start a fire to heat it. Or set it outside in the sun for a few hours, praying no trucks drive by, and the dogs don’t drink it, and the kids don’t spill it.
So let me ask you. How clean would your kids be?
Yeah, I know. Mine, too.
The thing about poverty is that we frame it in terms of money. Which only shows how little we understand the problem. When you don’t have any money, you’re not poor. You’re broke. Broke is about money. Broke is about cash flow, money in the bank, change in your pocket. You can have a million dollars in land and be broke. We’ve all been broke at some point. But few of us have been poor. Poor is not about money. Poor is about options.
If you have no money, but can get some from friends, or family, or church or even the government, then you’re not poor. You’re broke.
If you don’t have the job you want, but you can get a job, some job, any job, then you’re not poor. You’re broke.
If you have an education, can get a roof over your head if you want one, have others who can help you out. You’re not poor. You’re broke.
But if your knees are dirty, and you have no hope of keeping them clean, well, then…
“Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’
“He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’ — Matthew 25:44-45 (Message)