Eugene Cho

How can we love and serve the poor if we don’t even know the poor?

During this election season, there are many conversations that are going on. They’re all important. For example, the most recent and last of the three presidential debates centered around foreign policy. Clearly, very important in light of the ongoing global tension and relations. But what has been very troubling for me is the the lack of focus and substantive dialogue around domestic poverty in any of the debates is tragic.

Why are poor Americans invisible?

And if and when it’s discussed, mere numbers and statistics are thrown out…and then on to the next question.

When you break down the numbers, this is the reality.

15% of Americans are living at or near the poverty line.

For you Washingtonians, the statistic remains consistent for our state. That’s nearly 1 out of every 6-7 Americans. According to the US Census in 2011, there are about 46 million Americans living in poverty.

1 out of 5 American children face food security issues.

Simple and real talk translation:They are hungry.

For African-Americans and Hispanics, the statistics double. [Let that sink in...]

Let me repeat that: 1 out of 5 American children face food security issues which means they do not always know where they will find their next meal. What does 1 out of 5 mean? It means approximately 16.7 million American children under the age of 18 live in this situation.

16.7 million children.

This, fellow Americans, is not acceptable.

This isn’t to suggest that global issues and children and citizens of the larger world aren’t important or that I’m suggesting that American children are greater than global children. Let’s not go there. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know how important issues of global and extreme poverty is to my heart. It gave birth to an organization called One Day’s Wages.

What I’m suggesting is that if we simply open our eyes – these are our kids. They are in our neighbhorhoods; They are our neighbors; They are in our schools; They are in our churches; They are our friends; They are right here.

How can we seek to love the larger world and ignore our very own neighbors?

When we do speak of the poor, there’s an awkward but at times, subtle judgment about the poor? While we cheer thunderously any time the “military” is mentioned in political speeches and debates, the audience turns quiet when the mention of the “poor” comes up? Whether it is articulated or not, there are judgments made in the larger mainstream discourse and perhaps, we’ve allowed ourselves to believe it.

  • “The poor are poor because they deserve it?
  • The poor got what they deserved because they are lazy?”
  • They are a bunch of folks taking advantage of the welfare system.”
  • They are stealing and cheating from this country.”
  • We shouldn’t help those who won’t help themselves.”

While there are clearly real stories of real people abusing the welfare system, we are making an egregious mistake when we allow one story or the stories of some to filter all the stories of real people.

Eventually, we start dehumanizing the poor.

And when you start dehumanizing the poor, you have no desire to build relationships with them. You have no interest in their stories. You have no interest in relationships. You believe stereotypes that have been told about them. You believe the lie that they have nothing to teach us and are incapable of contributing to the larger society.

Listen: When we’re not interested in building genuine mutual relationships, you rob people of their dignity and they become projects and not people. They become statistics and not reflections of our selves.

Listen: How can you love and serve the poor if you don’t even know the poor?

This conversation needs to happen especially in the Church.

While these conversations need to happen in many places, they especially need to happen in the Church. How could they not if the Scriptures – that we espouse to love – speak so much about how we are to engage, serve, and love the poor among us?

This is why our church birthed the Bridge Care & Advocacy Center.

And this is why I want to invite you (if you’re anywhere around Seattle) to join me for the The Isaiah 58 Summit for Economic Justice on Nov. 1-2. Quest is hosting the event on Thursday (7-9pm) and Friday’s event will take place at Seattle Pacific University. The event on Thursday is free. For Friday’s event, there’s a small $15 fee. If you’re facing financial challenges, I would be happy to personally pay that for you. Let me know. Here’s more info and how you can RSVP for one or both of these events.

While I’m excited to welcome back my friend, Dr. Soong Chan Rah to Quest and Seattle, I’ll be very honest: I’m more excited about the privilege of introducing you to some friends I’ve had the privilege of meeting in the recent months. They are those that sociologists call the “working poor.” Here’s the full run-down on the conference:

At the Isaiah 58 Summit For Economic Justice, you will meet low-wage workers from the Seattle metropolitan area who are struggling to make ends meet. Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) is partnering with The John Perkins Center for Reconciliation at Seattle Pacific University and other local faith communities to host this two-part event. IWJ is a national organization whose mission is to partner with churches to advocate for low-wage workers in our country. Together with other local Christian leaders, we will have the chance to learn how we can come alongside these workers in service and in prayer.

The summit will take place in two parts. Part one will take place on Thursday, November 1st, from 7 to 9 PM at Quest Church in Interbay. Part two of the Summit will take place on Friday, November 2nd, at First Free Methodist Church, in the Fine Center, just across 3rd Avenue from SPU.For part one, the attendees will hear again from Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism from North Park Theological Seminary, who will further elaborate on the unique calling of the church as it pertains to matters of economic justice. Rev. Dr. Rah will be followed by a question and answer session with workers from downtown hotels, Sea-Tac airport, and Seattle-area Walmart stores. Through bringing church leaders and students into conversation with workers, we hope to begin the process of standing alongside low-wage workers who are struggling to attain living wages, health benefits and safe working conditions in their workplaces—utilizing the prophetic voice of the church to speak up effectively in solidarity with the poor and marginalized members of our community.

I want to invite you to join us for this conference – either Thursday night or Friday or both. Whatever works. Just be there. Please.

I’m again challenged and confronted by the words of Scriptures. From Isaiah 58:6

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” Isaiah 58:6

Lastly, watch this documentary:

I want to invite you to watch this documentary called ‘The Line’.

Grab a seat. Get yourself a cup of tea of coffee. Sit. Watch. And let it sink in…

Poverty in America — It’s not what you think

The Line documents the stories of people across the country living at or below the poverty line. They have goals. They have children. They work hard. They are people like you and me.

From Chicago’s suburbs and west side to the Gulf Coast to North Carolina, millions of Americans are struggling every day to make it above The Line.

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17 Responses

  1. Alaina says:

    Thank you so much for bringing this to light. And thank you for the link to the video. I am thankful to have seen it.

  2. Evan says:

    i can feel the passion behind this Eugene, thank you.

  3. Oliver says:

    One of the 1st churches I attended in Seattle was geared towards college and newly-graduated, 2nd generation Asian Americans.

    The pastor there once told me a story about how there was a homeless man who would attend the services. He would show up w/ his Bible and sit quietly through service, maybe in hopes of sharing the regular post-service lunch they did there. They asked him to stop coming and put him in touch with a ministry geared towards the homeless. The reason being that they weren’t well-equipped to ministry properly to him.

    Never seemed right to me…

  4. Downey says:

    The reason your 1 in 5 statistic is so shocking is that we all know it’s not actually true. From a Forbes article dispelling the myth that 1 in 5 children are food insecure: (read the whole article for more context)

    “…Slightly over 21 percent of households are “food insecure.” This is the one-in-five statistic we hear from the media and advocacy groups.

    The one-in-five figure is for all households, many of which consist only of adults. If we limit the sample to households with children, ten percent of them are classified as food insecure. If any group wishes to use the broadest possible measure of children’s “struggle for food,” the ten percent figure would be it.

    Notably, weekly spending on food by the median “food insecure” household is 95 percent of the cost of the USDA Thrifty Food Plan – the minimum cost of an affordable and healthy diet. It seems that another five cents on the dollar separates 16.2 million hungry children from a healthy diet.

    Not publicized by the childhood hunger lobby are the USDA’s most direct measures of childhood hunger. They reveal that between one and two percent of families “cut the size of children’s meals” or report that “children were hungry” or “skipped meals.” And only one tenth of one percent of families reported that “children did not eat for a whole day.” These findings do not suggest, to say the least, an epidemic of childhood hunger. The USDA’s most direct measures yield a childhood hunger rate between one and two in a hundred, not one in five.”

    Read the source artice:

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2011/11/20/are-one-in-five-american-children-hungry/

    It’s important that we con’t resort to made-up statistics if we’re really going to do something about the poor in our society. Doing so just loses the respect of others that may otherwise be willing to help.

    • Eugene Cho says:

      Do you have another source beyond the Forbes article?

      I’ve heard this pushback but never get any good resources to check out. Thanks for the comment and the good pushback.

      • Downey says:

        Here’s the official USDA study notes. (I had to do some math to draw out the numbers we need)

        http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err125/report-summary.aspx

        – There are 127 million total households in the us. (derived from their statement that 14.5% = 17.2 million households)
        – “Children are food insecure “at times” during the year in 9.8 percent of households with children (this is 3.9 million households)”
        – 3.9 million households w/children represents 3% of total households in the US.
        – This category of “food insecure” doesn’t seem to be too devastating according to the study, but the next level (Very Low food security) does. This is because in food insecurity status “children are usually shielded from the disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake that characterize very low food security”
        – 1.0 percent of households with children have “very low food security”

        I think we can see that although the US is not a utopia, we’re far from having children suffering starvation on a widespread scale.

  5. Debbie says:

    Thanks Eugene. Once again you have hit it out of the park in speaking truth. Love you, love Quest. This is just one small example of why.
    So wish there was a way for me to be a part of this in Seattle. Sharing. Also recommending a couple of books: Same Kind of Different As Me and What Difference Do it Make? both by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. Their story really speaks to the whole issue of poverty/dignity just as you do here.

  6. Eugene, thank you for your work.

    Grace and peace-

  7. tonip1 says:

    Downey,
    even if we go with the Forbes article, is it okay for people to go hungry whether they are adults or children?

    • Downey says:

      Of course no one should be hungry the US, but I think everyone would agree we need correct data to make rational, strategic desicions to combat hunger. The difference in strategy needed for 20% vs. 1% children hunger is massive.

      Kids are in a special situation because they don’t control household budgets, which means if the parent’s aren’t capable of making mature decisions about finances, we outsiders need to step in and help those kids.

      Adults are in a completely different situation as they have dominion over their obn budgets, which they set according to their personal priorities. A healthy diet doesn’t always make the list. Frequently, “optional” things do. For example, according to the Heritage Foundation’s study on households below the poverty line (article linked below, and I realize this study is about poverty, but we can assume poverty and hunger are related):

      43% of poor households own their own home
      80% have air conditioning
      75% own a car and 31% own two cars
      62% have cable or satellite TV

      Link: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2007/08/how-poor-are-americas-poor-examining-the-plague-of-poverty-in-america

      Fighting hunger is fundamentally about keeping people alive and reasonably healthty. If these adults’ lives and health are at risk and yet don’t prioritize it with their finances, perhaps benevolent folk could be using their limited energy and resources on more receptive individuals (or the aforementiond children, which aren’t an epidemic and can probably be laser-targeted since it’s about 1%).

      For an adult, there’s really nothing that should be a greater motivator than hunger. Stop and really think about it for a few moments. Hunger is a MAJOR MOTIVATION, appealing to our basest needs. There should be no other financial expenses that trump your food budget. This is probably an budgetary education issue & not a food delivery issue.

  8. jonathanmontan says:

    We all need to do more for our neighbors. Thanks for being an advocate.

  9. [...] poverty: “The Line, the 47%, and the Food Stamp Professor” by Soong-Chan Rah and “How Can We Love and Serve the Poor if We Don’t Even Know the Poor” by Eugene Cho. Each focuses on how the poor are often dehumanized and how “The Line” is [...]

  10. [...] when you start dehumanizing the poor, you have no desire to build relationships with them. You have no interest in their stories. You [...]

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