I run an apartment ministry that works with families who live in low-income housing. We work to meet the spiritual, physical and emotional needs of families who are struggling in the midst of poverty. I see a lot of ugly stuff. The kids I work with grow up without much in the way of food, clothes, entertainment or fathers. They deal with racism. They struggle with violence. Poverty is a really bad thing. And I often feel guilty because I don’t know what it’s like to live in it.
I grew up middle class. My parents never divorced, and my dad was always around. Life was comfortable. Sometimes money was tight, but I always had nice clothes to wear and plenty to eat. I’ve never been poor. And I’ve never been a minority like many of the kids I work with.
Today, I am still solidly middle class. I have a wife and three kids. We live in a nice new home. Each day I leave the rundown apartment communities where I conduct Bible studies and games and other outreaches—a quick drive to my nice home. Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite. At times I’ve felt almost ashamed that I grew up the way I did. I didn’t get to pick my parents. But, if given the choice, they are the ones I would have chosen anyway. Call it fate or chance or God’s sovereignty; I’ve lived a relatively easy life.
A couple of years ago, prompted by a burden for the poor and the call of God, I began this little apartment ministry. I developed relationships with lots of kids and their families. I made new friends. I found my calling. But I kept my personal life separate from the ministry. Sure, they knew my wife and kids. But they didn’t know much about me—where I lived or what kind of income I earned or whether or not I was college-educated. I was simply the skinny white guy that came out and played with them and talked about Jesus. I didn’t talk much about me—mainly, I guess, because I felt guilty.
Well, a few months ago, four of the high school boys I work with came to stay at my house for the weekend. I was a little nervous about what they would think of my house. I prepared to defend myself.
Nick, who lives in a run-down 1000 square foot home, three-bedroom house with his grandmother, mother, uncle, two sisters and four cousins (that’s ten people, if you’re counting) walked in and gazed up at the high ceiling of living room. “You rich, Brooks?”
Immediately feeling defensive, I shot back, “No, I’m not rich.” (I drive a ’97 Plymouth Voyager, by the way.)
Sensing my embarrassment, Nick said, “This sure is a big house. Why didn’t you tell us you was rich?”
“I’m not rich, and my house isn’t very big!” I practically yelled. “It’s 1700 square feet. That’s not big!”
“Compared to mine it is. I’d like to live here.”
He was right. I couldn’t hide from it. I couldn’t pretend I didn’t earn a decent living. I couldn’t pretend I didn’t have a nice house. Fact is, my house is nice. And compared to Nick, I am rich.
And in Nick’s world, people who live “comfortable” lives, in decent homes, with decent incomes, come by that lifestyle dishonestly. Stealing, pimping and dealing are the common ways to get ahead in life. What if more young men like Nick could meet more men like me who gained a level of success through education and hard work? I think that would be a good thing.
Nick’s a deep kid—a thinker, a dreamer, a seeker who’s slowly falling in love with Jesus, but still wages a daily battle with the world he lives in. My dream for the boys like him who I minister to is that they’ll see that a quality future, comfortable life is a real possibility.
What I’m getting at is that I’ve realized that I don’t have to hide the fact that I own a home and a vehicle from kids that don’t have either. It’s something I’m learning to embrace and talk about. The poverty “my” kids live in is ugly and dark. I don’t want them to live in it. And they don’t either, but they fill trapped, and, to be honest, many are. Poverty is cyclical. And it’s all they know.
In a middle-class evangelical church that gives sermons against being “comfortable,” we forget that Christ often restored earthly gifts to the least of these around Him. It’s so easy for us to ask them to focus on a spiritual kingdom when we already rule this one. I don’t want to tell kids that if they believe in Jesus that they’ll be wealthy, but it’s wrong to withhold the truth of a rewarding life of honestly and integrity.
Can a visit to my house break that cycle? Of course not. But it’s a seed that’s planted, one that says “success is possible for honest people.” That’s a seed that speaks volumes in Nick’s world.
But still, I feel guilty. My life’s work is surrounded by poverty. Yet I don’t live in it, and I think that’s a good thing. I see daily how awful it is to live in that world, and it makes me grateful to have a comfortable life.
Is that right? Is that wrong? I wrestle with those questions daily.