Poverty and abundance at Christmas
Church, State, Life and Love
By Janet Galyen
In the midst of American holiday abundance, as lights twinkle our landscape and the aromas of cider and candles warm our Christmas parties, my mind drifts to the immeasurably less privileged people of India. I recall the beautiful, dark faces of Indians who live in the most meager of circumstances, and I recall the surprising lesson I learned on poverty during my visit to their land.
A nearly 30-hour plane voyage grounded my mission team in Jaipur, India on a cold, winter night. The prevalent odor was instant and unsettling confirmation that we were privileged foreigners in terribly unfamiliar territory. My husband and I were eager to find our bed and shut our eyes – but that did not happen until we came to terms with an unheated room, a bed with no sheets and only one thin blanket, and a showerhead that spewed only ice-cold water. In the ten days that lay ahead of us, I would learn just how fortunate we were to have these accommodations; how fortunate we were to have plumbing rather than having to squat over holes in the ground like most of the rest of the country. I would be humbled by the fact that while I was born into American luxury, over 400,000,000 Indians will exist their entire lives on less than $1 a day.
One precious couple invited us to their home to lead a worship service and minister to their neighbors. They were among the nearly 100,000,000 who make their home in the slums of India. Streams of open sewer flowed along the rough walkway that led us back to their three-room dwelling. The aroma of waste was pervasive. We viewed acres and acres of what Americans would liken to a landfill; scavenged jointly by men, women, children, and wild pigs all searching for some redeemable morsel or treasure. Dotted all throughout the garbage were tin-roof shanties propped up by rickety wooden poles. These were tragically home to thousands.
This was the atmosphere into which our hosts welcomed us with joyous smiles and huge hugs – as if oblivious to their poverty. I have never experienced more poverty-stricken conditions, yet I have never felt more honored to be in someone’s home.
When we left their company, I was sobered to the core. I wished for private moments to process the contents the day. Before we had the fortune of retreating to our hotel, however, my husband and I were approached in the middle of the highway by one of the thousands of tiny, child beggars. A little boy stuck his arms through our unenclosed, golf-cart style rickshaw. He grabbed my hand and made desperate motions in hope that I would buy one of his wares. As I looked into his eyes I saw deep sadness and one, long scar running between. But, before I had time to respond, our driver sped off. The little boy scurried back to the side of the highway so as not to get hit by the riotous traffic that most certainly would not value his life enough to not run over him.
The aching of my heart was now palpable. The events of the day had broken me. Once finally back to the hotel, I sunk onto the bed and cried – hard.
One of my strongest conclusions from this amazing trip is one that I was not expecting. That is – I do not pity the poverty of the Indian people any more than I pity the wealth of the American people. Indian poverty is no more a curse to the Indians than American wealth is a curse to us. The Indians are wonderfully free from money and possessions that have the power to steal devotion away from God. Many of us in America are, sadly, unfree of that power. We are often hindered from intimate communion with our maker because of the fleeting satisfaction of all our riches. Matthew 6:24 (NASB) speaks of this problem with wealth: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Classic theologian A.W. Tozer wrote on what he called the “blessedness of having nothing” in his book, “The Pursuit of God.”
“Things…were made for man’s use…. But sin has introduced complications and has made those very gifts of God a potential source of ruin to the soul,” Tozer writes. “Things have become necessary to us, a development never originally intended. God’s gifts now take the place of God…. This possessive clinging to things is one of the most harmful habits in the life. Because it is natural, it is rarely recognized for the evil that it is. But its outworkings are tragic.”
While memories of the poor Indians are forever branded upon my heart, I still rejoice in their blessedness of having nothing. While I know I cannot comprehend the great difficulty of their poverty, I still rejoice that they are free from the potential harm of riches and possessions. And, I rejoice in the power of God which is strong enough both to lift Indians from the sting of poverty and to deliver Americans from the bondage of wealth!