Breaking The Cycle Of Poverty

November 1st, 2009
This article is featured in the Ministry with the Poor (Nov/Dec/Jan 2009-10) issue of Circuit Rider

“There they are, in those two old cars over there!”

My wife pointed to the far corner of the parking lot, just a few feet from the busiest street in Athens, Ga. Two women were in one car, a man and a woman in the other.

I parked nearby. We got out and walked toward them. Their expressions of anxiety changed to smiles as they recognized us.

“Boy! Am I ever glad to see y'all again,” said one of the women. “I thought for a minute it might be somebody coming to tell us to leave. We've been living in the cars ever since my husband got out of the hospital a week ago. Police give us the eye sometimes, but so far they haven't made us move.”

The speaker was a lady in her late thirties. Her husband sat motionless next to her, his seat tilted back as far as it would go. It was obvious that he was in pain. In the other car sat her mother, a thin little lady whose wrinkles and lack of teeth made her look much older than she probably was in reality. Next to her was the youngest member of the family, a seventeen-year-old daughter.

Carolyn and I had first met this poor little family in a local hospital. Homeless and unemployed, they had all been living for days in the hospital room where the father was being treated for multiple problems, including a very painful back condition. The mother had been looking desperately for some place they could go while the doctors tried to ease her husband's pain enough that he could resume his search for a job.

“The doctor says he can't work unless his back gets better, and sleeping in the car like this is just making it worse.”

This poor woman was articulating a vicious cycle of poverty that affects too many people: health problems lead to debt and unemployment, which lead to homelessness, which only exacerbates health problems and makes it harder to find work.

As we talked with the family, we were impressed by the resilient spirit of the daughter, alert and upbeat despite everything. “I had to drop out of school, but I'm studying to get my GED,” she told us proudly. “And guess what?” she added. “I've read twelve books while we were at the hospital and living in the cars!”

After some searching, we were able help the family find a cheap room where they could live for a few days while searching for work. We found a little money for them and then shared some food from our garden. Most of all, we did our best to encourage that bright young lady who was so determined to find her way out of this situation. We were glad to do what little we could for her parents and grandmother—but in the long run, we're betting on this young woman!

Carolyn and I have been involved in Christian communities seeking to end poverty for over four decades, and there have been many times when we felt almost overwhelmed by the immensity of the human suffering we have encountered. That's the time— we have learned—to stop what we're doing, say a little prayer, and go find the children! I am firmly convinced that they are the best place to start if we are truly serious about breaking the cycle of poverty.

In the 1970s, Carolyn and I lived at a Christian community in southwest Georgia, named Koinonia Partners. The surrounding countryside was littered with dilapidated, rat-infested old shacks. I was shocked to discover that poverty-stricken families—not just adults, but children too—were actually living in most of these drafty old piles of rotting lumber.

Koinonia's founder, Clarence Jordan, died six months before we arrived, but a human dynamo named Millard Fuller had come just in time to take over the leadership of the community. He was enthusiastic about Koinonia's new low-cost housing program, and soon after we arrived there in 1970, he put me in charge of it.

“If you're serious about fighting poverty,” Millard told everyone who would listen, “help them get a decent place to live. Then they have a better chance of coping with all their other problems!”

It was out of that belief that Millard and I, along with several other friends, founded Habitat for Humanity in 1976. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of Habitat houses in a hundred countries around the world. At least a million children and their parents have a better place in which to live. Just as important, many millions of people have worked together at sites all over the earth to help this miracle of hope and love keep growing. I have watched beautiful things happen between people in dramatic situations all over the world.

At times, I admit, I stood out there on a building site in that south Georgia heat and humidity, mopping sweat and swatting those maddening gnats and wondering whether it was worth all the effort. After all, how many houses could our little handful of amateurs expect to build? What difference could we make in the face of all this poverty? Any rational person could see that it was hopeless. But there were all those kids living out in those shacks…

So we kept digging foundations and driving nails, and slowly our little building crew began to grow. So did the number of houses we produced and the number of happy, healthier children who lived in them! In the next few years, we finished dozens of houses and watched a growing stream of families with children move out of the old shacks and into decent new houses and better lives. As we listened to their laughter, saw them become better students, and watched their dreams take off, our own hope grew. We began to see that poverty was not an invincible force after all!

Before his death early in 2009, Millard and his wife, Linda, also launched the Fuller Center for Housing, a vibrant and creative new ministry that complements the Habitat ministry. In just four short years it had spread to more than sixty locations in seventeen countries. Poverty is being overcome by compassionate action in these communities around the globe.

Now, Carolyn and I live at Jubilee Partners, a Christian community fifteen miles east of Athens. The two dozen people on our staff work primarily with refugees from disasters all over the world—from the “killing fields” of Cambodia to the death squads of El Salvador, from the “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnia to the genocide in southern Sudan. These days we are hosting a steady stream of the victims of the violence of the Burmese military forces. The factors driving all these people from their homes are usually complex, but poverty is always one part of the equation.

We know that hunger and homelessness are painful for anyone, whatever their ethnic or national backgrounds, and we don't want to become so specialized in our work that we fail to empathize with each needy child of God we encounter—especially the youngest among them.

Our work at Jubilee has also led us to confront poverty and suffering in other ways. In almost every situation we have been motivated primarily by the suffering of children. Through our Walk in Peace campaign we helped provide thousands of artificial limbs for children and young people who had been maimed by war in Nicaragua—and through that program we continue to provide scholarships for hundreds of bright young Nicaraguans from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the world. Our efforts on behalf of Iraqi children who were war victims led to the launching of the All Our Children program. Through it the United Methodist Church and many other denominations around the world have saved lives and eased suffering for an estimated 200,000 children in Iraq.

Decent homes, medical care, education for the young—every one of these approaches has an impact on the root causes of poverty, in this country and everywhere else.

Jesus warned us not to expect that we could simply wipe out all poverty. But then he told us unequivocally to get busy and do whatever we can. The world is full of great problems. Most of these problems rest on a foundation of fear, hopelessness, and a shortage of empathy. These are contagious diseases of the spirit!

But here comes the good news. Love is also contagious, and it is more powerful than all of those forces of evil.


Don Mosley is co-founder and resident of Jubilee Partners in northeast Georgia, has helped launch many projects around the world to fight poverty and relieve suffering over the past half century. He is the author of  Faith Beyond Borders: Doing Justice in a Dangerous World. 

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