23 July 2012

Poverty, Friendship and what it means to be Human

by Dr Mark McConnell

I recently asked my friend Dave Tims to come and talk to one of my classes at Laidlaw College about the work that he does among the “urban poor” in Manurewa, South Auckland. Dave has given more than 20 years of his life to working with the poor and the marginalised, so I knew that what he would say would be both real and challenging. But what most surprised me was the link that Dave made between friendship and poverty.

Dave is part of an organisation called Urban Neighbours of Hope which believes in transforming communities, not primarily through social programs and structures, but through individuals relocating into these communities to be present with the poor, living alongside them, serving them in practical, life-giving ways. In other words, for Dave, communities and people are transformed through neighbours who are willing to share life and build healthy relationships.

Such a strategy, though, challenges our understanding of poverty. Most of us, living in our leafy rich suburbs would probably define poverty in terms of “lack of” – a lack of money, a lack of housing, a lack of jobs etc. Claudio Oliver, a poverty activist in Brazil, disputes this notion. He asks those who are “not poor”, what if one day you received the news that you had lost all your money, savings, house, job, etc? What if one day everything was taken from you, and you found yourself basically homeless? And then he asks, how much time would it take to find something to eat… a place to sleep… some kind of work? Most of us, through our friendships with others, could find something to eat in a matter of minutes; a place to sleep in a matter of hours; and some kind of work in a matter of weeks.

And so, Claudio Oliver argues that lack of friendship is the key factor in defining poverty. We give billions to the poor, but no-one has been transformed by giving away just money. What we, the rich really need to give away, is ourselves and our friendship with all the associated risk and complication which that would involve. This is the most important thing that the rich can do for the poor – on a global as well as a local scale.

Such insight speaks to what it means to be human. In the Garden of Eden story in Genesis there was one thing that was not good about God’s original creation… which was that man was alone. And so God makes an “other” for Adam – someone else to share life and friendship with. The story (however we understand it) suggests that we are not meant to be alone; we are not created for isolation. And so, arguably, it is this “lack of humanness” that is at the root of poverty. The way to deal with poverty is therefore for all of us to actually become more human.

This way of seeing things also speaks to the poverty which is present even in the richer suburbs where homes are built for individual space and to be cocoons of privacy. For many of us the garage door goes up, the car goes in, the door shuts. We can live isolated lives, not knowing more than a handful of our neighbours (if that). Although taking very different forms with different consequences, poverty can be as much an issue for “the rich” as well as “the poor”.

Mark also blogs at www.fourthopinion.net

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