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How Blessed Are the Poor, Really?

When Rodolofo’s horse burned up in a forest fire, “blessed” was about the last word I would have chosen to describe his family. A horse could carry sacks of beans home from the fields, haul your tired bones up and down the mountain and even earn a little rental cash for neighbors who were horseless. Now, Rodolfo had joined the horseless.

We had come to Nicaragua inspired by the many Bible verses about generosity and God’s concern for the poor. The topper of them all, most ridiculous in all Jesus’ many words to the poor, we memorized: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” Not “miserable are you who are poor.” Not needy. Not pathetic, stuck, mistreated or damned. Blessed.

Wait, what? Rodolfo’s family, now horseless, was definitely not looking too blessed.

How are the poor blessed? It’s easier to believe the theology you find in giving campaigns for lots of Christian aid organizations.

In a rural Nicaraguan village where everybody starts out at a pretty rock-bottom poverty level—no electricity, safe drinking water, phones or a paved road or health clinic within two hours' distance—you still notice ways to differentiate the relative wealth of families. Out of the 40 families in the village, you’ve got about three with little shops in their homes—the Monopoly equivalent of a couple green plastic houses trickling in money all year round while everyone else tries to subsist on the two annual harvests of beans and coffee. There were also three families with televisions rigged up to car batteries, a couple houses with zinc for roofs instead of palm leaves and a couple men with rifles to hunt in the surrounding woods. Two families had enough to send an older child to boarding school in the city. And four families had horses to help with work and transport.

Rodolfo’s family ranked at about the bottom on almost every scale. He had 10 children ranging in age from infant to bloated-belly toddlers to elementary kids staying home because all their clothes had gaping holes to a 16-year-old girl who’d just given birth to her first child. Neither parent could sign their name or decipher any letter sounds. Rodolfo spent frequent nights passed out on the road from the house that doubled as the nearest bar. Local rumors said the family had at times gone so hungry they’d resorted to eating the ultimate last-ditch meat: rat.

The one thing Rodolfo had going for him was his horse, a feisty stallion that rode like a roller coaster called “Demon Death Drop” but without the predictability of tracks. So when forest fires swept through the village in the dry season, wiping out acres of coffee fields along with Rodolfo’s grazing horse, it was hard to stay cheery.

I (Chrissy) talked to God about that a lot over the year we spent there. How are the poor blessed? It’s easier to believe the theology you find in giving campaigns for lots of Christian aid organizations: “You [North Americans] are the blessed. They [in the Third World/developing world/global south] are poor. You help them.”

But Jesus didn’t say it that way. He said the poor are blessed.

I think Jesus’ upside-down blessing has something to do with a phrase we heard almost daily in Nicaragua: “Sí Dios quiere.” If God wants.

When it came to making plans, people spoke of going to town “if God wants,” celebrating Christmas “if God wants,” taking a bath “if God wants,” having enough corn to last until the next harvest “if God wants,” having a child live to adulthood “if God wants,” eating breakfast “if God wants.”

This grows tiresome. In our North American mentality, we searched for culturally appropriate ways to shake people up: “Stop being so fatalist. Pull yourself up by your flip-flop straps, and do something about it!”

What these people in poverty knew and we didn’t was that sometimes you can’t do something about it.

What these people in poverty knew and we didn’t was that sometimes you can’t do something about it. Drought withers the bean harvest. The world coffee price drops to the lowest in 50 years, and there goes all your winter income. The bank denies your loan to pay coffee harvesters. An organization promising to pay people to build roads skips town without paying the workers. A hurricane takes your road and a thousand lives. Sickness takes your child. A fire takes your horse.

The poor face constant reminders of their lack of control. We wealthy folks dance around it, deny it, get psychotherapy, blame somebody, sue somebody.

But that recognition of your lack of control is the starting point of faith. When your control ends, you choose to either 1) pout and plunk yourself in a coffin, waiting for your slow slide toward death or 2) admit somebody else has control. Sure, plenty of poor people choose the first option, just like plenty of rich people do the world over. But we all have the choice to take the second option.

Sooner or later, we all get to make that choice, the letting-go-of-control choice, the faith choice, the trust choice. We can stop fleeing the edges, where we run into the fences of our control. We meet those boundaries when the college of our choice rejects our application, a relative gets leukemia or we just sit down with a friend and discuss the question, “Does life matter?”

I hit that point with Rodolfo and his wife one morning when he was still hung over from the night before. I stopped in for a friendly greeting, and as I sipped coffee beside them on their single wooden bench, Rodolfo told me, “Pray for us. We need help.” Rodolfo bowed his head.

Being poor in spirit means asking God to save us if He wants. “Sí Dios quiere.”

God’s answer echoes back: “Sí, Dios quiere.” Yes, God wants.