We left our Cambodia home 8 months ago, that land of endless green growing rice, of water, of simple shade sitting or escaping the sun in a hammock. Thoughout our 3 years of working and living in Cambodia we were faced daily with poverty. The kind of poverty where farmers have just barely enough food for the next meal of rice and fish. The kind of poverty where even the hardest working student can't make it to secondary school without an extra "donation" to her teacher. The kind of poverty where hard working adults who are eager to work simply cannot earn enough income for their families; capable adults, left humiliated. Poverty resulting from years of conflict, families broken apart, land grabbed by greedy hands, pride, fear. Poverty that leads the poor to believe they have little to hope for and nothing to contribute.
When we left our Cambodia home 8 months ago, 5 suitcases and our teething 4 month old in tow, we did next expect our first year back in America to be so defined by our own need for jobs, income, food, a home. We have spent 8 months pleading with God to provide, eeking by on little or no income, living for months on end with family members, selfishly longing to unpack our boxes. As another month of unknowns slowly ticks by, and as we wonder and ask God why, I must acknowledge all I am learning. And this is what I wonder the most: in these 8 months - even as we're checking out at the grocery store with food stamps - why have I never felt poor?
I have spent 14 years of my life learning about poverty. Reading about it, writing papers about it, interning, serving, working. Wrestling with the complexities of poverty and development. Studying God's words which compel us to give, share, feed, clothe, show mercy and compassion. I see and understand poverty as not simply a lack of things. (Which of course then implies that our response is not as simple as merely giving things.) True poverty comes from really messed up relationships. From family members who don't care to extend generosity to a sibling or son in need. From one ethnic group's insistance that they are more deserving over another. From a farmer's lack of relationship with the land he cultivates. From a widow's inability to see herself as fully human. From a hardness inhibiting commune with a God who does care and does long for restored relationships.
This is why I can look in my wallet and still say: I am not poor. We have been overly abundantly provided for by the safety net of family. We have been surrounded by the prayers of friends. We still see ourselves as (mostly) capable adults who do have things to contribute. We see God - clearly - as the One who calls and calls us to Him. We have nothing to fear.
And while I give thanks for these riches, hardly a day has passed these last 8 months that I don't acknowledge my place of priviledge, and grow more acutely aware of this world's needs. I think about the widow in our church small group in Prey Veng, sitting in her tiny tin home, barely scraping together enough food for 3 grandchildren. I ache for her.
I wonder how she sees God providing for her.
I wonder what He will continue to ask of us.
Note: I should clarify that my use of "poverty" in this post refers specifically to physical poverty. Similar vocab can of course be used to describe spiritual brokenness and need for redemption. And in that sense, we are all indeed quite poor.
For further reading, Ryan and I recommend this book.