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Poverty Is More Than a Spoonful of Rice

If poverty were merely a financial aid problem, America would have already solved it.

She was born with Down Syndrome, and it wasn’t hard to see it in her eyes. She walked through the playground talking and singing to herself, and even though you might write her off as a “loner” type of kid, her facial features were a dead giveaway. Her name is Maria, and she lives in a small orphanage on the outskirts of Guatemala City, Guatemala.

I met Maria when I decided to take 60 teenagers, all of whom are interested in changing the world, to Guatemala. We arrived at the orphanage late on a Saturday night, and Sunday morning Maria was up early to greet us with a smile and her favorite song, “I can’t wait to see you again” by Miley Cyrus.

It was amazing to see this little girl declare her identity: “I’m Miley.” These kids in the orphanage idolized celebrities almost as much as Americans do, and we were privy to Maria’s obsession. Every day, she held a concert on the top of a small hill on the playground outside the orphan center. She would stand up with her back to us, and when she was fully prepared, she’d turn around and start in on her favorite song.

We didn’t mind that she missed a few words, or sang out of tune. In fact, I watched the glimmer of joy in each one of the teenager’s faces as she danced around the park, acting like Hannah Montana. They wanted to make Maria feel like a million bucks, and for a short time, I think she did. They even went out and bought her a Miley Cyrus T-shirt so she’d have some performance clothes.

What a joy to reach out to countries in need. What a thrill to be able to be given the resources to pour into the physical lives of thousands of people.

But let’s not forget: If poverty were merely a financial aid problem, America would have already solved it. We have more money than we know what to do with. And let’s be honest, if we can spend $18 billion on ice cream (as we did last year), then we can certainly spare some money to help feed people who are dying of starvation.

But the real issue is not only poverty with regard to hungry bellies, but also the poverty of identity that happens in the communities around the globe. Food and water are certainly the immediate needs, but community is also a part of our fight. We don’t just want people to live day-to-day, hanging on every penny we give to help feed them. We want people to experience their dreams, live out their hopes and feel that they are a part of a global movement.

At least for a day, Maria felt like she had the world’s stage, and the teenagers I brought from thousands of miles away were more than happy to give it to her.

I wonder …

How different would the world spin if we took a second and tried to give people our time and attention? The poverty of loneliness can plague kids from the slums of Guatemala as much as those from the suburbs of America. Sure, we might not have to worry about whether or not we’ll eat today, but every high-school student in the United States has a place in their heart where they feel poor. It may be they don’t fit into a particular group; maybe they’re an outcast when it comes to dating. Or maybe they’re in the middle of the most popular group at school, but they feel like no one really cares about them.

Ten years ago, I founded a place out in Colorado where 13- to 18-year-old students can come and learn about belief systems. I share different ways to look at the world, and challenge the kids to implement a firm core of belief in their lives, so they can reach out to others. Poverty of the spirit begins to disappear as students realize we want to live life with them, not at them. So students will say, “This is the greatest community I’ve ever been a part of.”

The community we’ve developed here outside of Durango is one that meets people’s physical and spiritual needs, and then we have a prime opportunity to focus on the major problems around the world. I’ve taken students to Costa Rica, Ecuador, China and Guatemala for the sole purpose of reaching out and giving what they have to people who are in need. They feed the poor, play with orphans, work with different cultures to achieve whatever goals they want to achieve—all the while living life with people in our global community instead of trying to live life at them.

It’s time that we focus on global poverty. There’s no doubt Jesus was interested in the poor. But let’s not forget that food is made for the stomach, and the spirit of humanity must be addressed as well. We don’t need any more “evangelistic crusades.” We need like-minded people who are willing to live a life liberated from social structures that chain them to oppressive poverty, be it physical or spiritual.

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May we be a people who feed people around the world.

May we be a movement of people who care about the people we feed, and help understand the value of relationships within an honest community.

May we not only respond to physical needs, but remember to take time and give them the stage they deserve as humans.

May we be people who perceive the needs of others and sacrifice some of our own time and energy to live with those from different cultures.

I’ll never forget my little Guatemalan friend. I can’t wait to see her concert in heaven as she rejoices with those who believed in her. But more exciting than that are the thousands of “Marias” who are waiting for us to engage with them now. Sure, we need to provide for physical needs, but the Marias of the world also need to know they are the greatest treasures on Planet Earth, and we can all give that kind of gift. So, I challenge you to go find your Maria.

Andy Braner is the President of Kanakuk Colorado. As an author, speaker and global religious activist, Andy helps teenagers see their responsibility on the global stage of human community. He’s been involved in several programs that help connect teenagers who live in the suburbs to reach out to the poorest of the poor around the world. He can be found at his blog, http://andybraner.typepad.com.

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