A few months ago I sat with one of my friends, he turned to me and said: “Tom, the squatter camps in and around Johannesburg is contested arenas”.  His statement puzzled me and I asked him what he meant.  He continued, “So many white rich churches want to come in here and make a name for themselves.  It is nothing more than a competition between them, an ego trip to see who can make the biggest name for themselves”.

This statement, more than any other has shocked me into realizing that the new craze for justice ministries should be re-evaluated.  My friend then told me that their community would rather work with corporate companies and their CSI divisions than with churches and all their hidden agendas and innuendos.

So in this short essay I will discuss some ways in which we can prepare our hearts for building healthy relationships with the poor.  I will specifically write from my own experiences in Johannesburg, but I think that it would be equally useful for other areas of our country.

Facing our own god-complexes

Whenever rich people engage with poor people they (that is both parties) experience and uneasiness.  A tension that is usually relieved by the rich taking on the role of giver, this usually flows into them feeling superior.  It is this tension that people who enter into the adventure of building relationships with the poor have to face squarely. 

Whenever the poor and the non-poor meets there is a battle raging inside of both sides’ hearts.  I’ve never been in the poor category so I cannot comment on what happens inside of their hearts but I can attempt to articulate what happens inside a non-poor person’s heart.

Meyer (2005:116) comments about these two journeys, when he says that:

“The poor suffer from a marred identity and a degraded vocation.  The non-poor, on the other hand, suffer from god-complexes and an inflated vocation.  The challenge to the poor is to recover their identity as children of God and to discover their vocation as productive stewards, discovering that they have been given gifts to contribute to social well-being.  The challenge for the non-poor, including the development agency, is to relinquish their god-complexes and to employ their gifts for the sake of all human beings rather than using their gifts as a source of power or control.”

The tension I mentioned earlier usually gets dissolved by the rich assuming the role of God in the poor person’s life and usually manifests itself in reducing the complex factors of poverty into a simple solution.  Many times I’ve been with groups that walk into a poor neighborhood and then walk out saying, “all they have to do is just …” and then they propose a solution that they think will be a miracle cure (this is something I’ve done myself).

It is this god-complex that we have to repent of and work through.  One of the helpful ways to do this is to limit the non-poor’s financial giving for the first phase of building relationships with the poor.  This allows the tension to do its purging work.  It creates a space where the non-poor can learn to relate with the poor as a person using relational instead of financial capital.  It helps them to relate to the other person not as a project which can so easily become a boost of the non-poor’s ego.

It allows two people or groups of people to relate to each other as human beings.  Meyer paraphrasing Koyma writes, “we can know a poor person, but we cannot know poverty (1974,129). We must begin with people not abstractions, data, analysis, or technique.  Without transforming relationships there is unlikely to be much transformation.”

Though this might sound counterintuitive, the rich must resist their urge to give money to the poor and relearn the art of being with the poor.  Even more radically, the non-poor is invited to become a student of the poor – to allow the poor to teach them something.

This movement is perfectly captured by Jesus’ instructions to his disciples when he sent them out in pairs.  He instructed them to go into people’s homes without provisions.  This would allow the hosts to contribute to the relationship.  In the same way we (as the rich) have to let go of our prideful self-sustainability and allow the poor to give to us – for it is only in this context that a relationship can develop.  If one person is always the giver and the other always the receiver then the relationship morphs into an unbalanced giver-receiver transaction.