In La Paz, Bolivia I encountered extreme poverty for the first time, and the experience is not something I will easily forget. On every corner were old people who spent their last days begging for money. Grown-ups worked as shoe polishers—covering their faces with masks, ashamed of what they do for a living. And children, who should have been at school, worked long days in the scorching sun trying to put some food on the family table.
Growing up in Norway I did not see a lot of poverty. I saw pictures in the newspapers and clips on the evening news, but living in one of the richest countries of the world, most Norwegians are not familiar with poverty, and are not often exposed to the suffering that so many people in our world live in every day.
The prosperity is a grim contrast to many of the poorer countries where access to the most basic things are considered only for the richest of the rich. I lived in a bubble where everybody had all they needed or wanted. The Easter of 2008, however, I was exposed to a whole different reality.
I visited my sister who was in Bolivia as a part of her studies, and together we joined a mission organization visiting some of the work and projects they were doing in the area. That’s where my eyes were opened to the suffering of the world for the first time.
During the day we saw children running around playing and laughing like kids do, knowing that when darkness fell, the wind would blow right through their poorly insulated houses, making it feel like there were no walls at all. At one of the schools in the area I wept, knowing that the kids flocking around us singing, laughing, and calling out: “Gringos! Gringos!” barely had enough food to survive. One meal a day is not nearly enough for a growing child.
People shared stories of their daily fight for survival. Their biggest question was how to get enough money to get through the day. There was no long-term plan—just step-by-step and day-by-day. Suddenly all the stories of poverty and suffering had a face—real people representing the cold, hard facts and numbers that I had learned in school and through the news.
This was not my last encounter with extreme poverty. Since then I have traveled to many places in the world—Europe, South America and Africa. As I witnessed the suffering in our hurting world firsthand, I found myself crying out to God. What was fair about letting me grow up in such wealth and comfort, but let these people suffer with pain and agony?
I spent weeks and months crying out for God to answer this question, and I fervently searched through my Bible trying to figure out what His Word said about it. Through that period God gradually opened my eyes, revealing to me that while I see and know only in parts, God knows fully. I see only a few steps ahead, but He sees the whole picture. God showed me that He had a purpose in letting me grow up in wealth and prosperity. My upbringing and past experiences cause me to react when I look at injustice—demanding a change. Faced with poverty, oppression, abuse and suffering, I know this is not the way it is supposed to be.
“He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of their people.” (Psalm 113:7-8 NIV) When I played and laughed with the school children in Bolivia, or shared my lunch with the street kids in South Africa, I got to be a practical answer to the prayer in this Psalm. When I picked up that little Xhosa-girl with tears streaming down her face and held her in my arms till she stopped crying, I put these words into action.
I hope and pray for a future when we start putting feet to our prayers and start raising people from the dust, and lifting people from the ash heap. I pray for the day when we’re not able to distance ourselves from the suffering of the world any longer, but are moved into action by the Spirit of God. That’s when we will see the world around us change.
My world was turned upside down once I stopped treating and perceiving the poor as statistics and numbers, and started looking for the people behind the numbers. Everything changed once I understood that poverty is not just cold, hard facts—it has a face.
Jarle Aarbakke Tollaksen. 21 years old from Norway, is studying Human Rights and Political Science. Works with the mission organization Youth With A Mission in Harpenden, UK and in Kona, Hawaii.