In affluent Singapore where we rarely see beggars or the homeless, few can imagine that Poverty is even worth a conversation.
But does that depend on how we see Poverty?
At the tender age of 11, Natalie (name changed) lost her father — her confidante and best friend. For years, she could not process the traumatic grief and ended up mixing with bad company, playing truant and losing interest in her studies. Natalie’s relationship with her family also deteriorated over the years as communication broke down. At 15, she was referred to MWS Girls’ Residence.
Deborah’s father and husband both fell ill at the same time. After her father’s demise, she directed her attention fully to her husband, but he was proud and temperamental towards her, especially when he was in pain. Gripped with anxiety and fear, she harboured deep hatred towards him over past hurts, and struggled emotionally to dedicate herself to his care.
Natalie and Deborah’s situations speak nothing of their financial circumstances. But the brokenness or void they were experiencing – emotionally, mentally and relationally – is palpable.
Is there more to Poverty than just a lack of material resources?
We would never want to diminish the realities or struggles of those experiencing Poverty by trying to package it in a simplistic way. It is a complex topic with many layers and economists, sociologists and numerous experts have spilled much ink on it. Indeed, the definition of poverty is probably as varied as the people crushed under its grip.
For many, ‘poverty’ may conjure images of starving children staring blankly as flies swarm their faces, in a war-torn or barren landscape. Most of us may also think that poverty is the state of a group of people, whom we may refer to as “the poor”.
The problem with this understanding is that it divides. By its nature, the label separates people into hierarchical groups where “the poor” is framed as helpless individuals whom society deems inept and in need of whatever we have, for which we decide.
Another common perception is that poverty is a situation of dire financial constraint or lack of material resources. But poverty is not just about money. There is more than one kind of poverty. From MWS’ perspective, any individual who lacks fulfilment of any deep need or faces impoverishment in any aspect of their well-being is in fact experiencing poverty in that area.
For instance, many disadvantaged children or at-risk youth do not know what an intact or loving family relationship feels like. They may experience a poverty of love, self-belief or hope for the future.
Among the socially isolated or the chronically frail and destitute, many not only experience poverty of physical health, but also crippling mental and emotional anguish, and potentially fractured relationships.
Similarly, low-income and distressed families not only face financial constraint, but may lack familial harmony, live in the shadows of marginalisation and experience a poverty of social support, choice and perhaps even identity, as if they do not exist.
A person can therefore be poor in community, health, options, security, dignity, spiritual life, or any number of other ways.
We also realise that anyone can face real poverty, even if they are materially rich.
In the Christian worldview, God is the creator of the universe – one that is whole, perfect and intended for good. But the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, fell for a lie and disobeyed God, resulting in a broken creation. Because of that, sin came into the world, along with suffering, evil, poverty and everything that destroys the perfect, full and abundant life God intended for us.
Fikkert and Corbett note in their book ‘When Helping Hurts’ that “poverty is the absence of shalom (peace).” It is not a disease, a mindset or a lack of values, though these things may exist in places of extreme poverty.
But poverty is the result of the broken creation and the subsequent fractured relationships (with God and His creation) that are not working.” By this definition we all suffer from poverty, and that levels the playing field.
As a Christian organisation, MWS shares this perspective.
This is why we approach our work not only as a social service agency that provides casework and counselling, nursing care and community engagement, or any other kind of services for beneficiaries with different profiles and needs.
Rather, we see what we do as really a mission to alleviate all kinds of poverty – to ignite God-given dignity into the hearts of all who experience poverty, by empowering them – us – to be who God had intended.
Matthew 25:40 tells us that “’Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’.” At the heart of Jesus’ words is that people are created in the image of God. The call to end poverty and human suffering is compelling because every person bears His likeness, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, economic status or social standing. Our Christian response to poverty thereby recognises the dignity and value of the person, and our goal is to see the person flourish.
Because we believe that every person is made in God’s image, every person has God-given potential. John 10:10 tells us that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” The ability to live life to the fullest honours the dignity that God has given us.
These perspectives have a direct impact on MWS’ way of care.
Firstly, instead of trying to ‘rescue’ people from their despair, we are committed to an approach that is empowering. What this looks like is togetherness, walking hand in hand alongside those experiencing poverty with them in the driving seat, instead of us charging ahead and simply carrying them along.
As such, no matter how tempting it is to push through case plans so as to see clients’ situations improve rapidly by conventional standards, our professionals are mindful of the need to move at clients’ pace and carefully consider their experiences, hopes and strengths.
Secondly, we seek holistic transformation by addressing the whole person. For instance, in MWS’ approach to eldercare, we encourage seniors to identify and tap on their strengths and abilities – be it craftwork, keeping fit, befriending or project planning and so on – and co-own by taking charge of their well-being journey. We believe this leads to a more sustainable change. In time, we hope that they can also uplift others in their community, to create ripples of impact.
At MWS Girls’ Residence (GR), Natalie received guidance on how to handle her emotions and grief. The team at MWS GR also created a safe environment for Natalie to manage her anxiety and study for her N-Level examinations at the same time. With her determination and the recommendation of MWS GR, she now works as a residential care associate in a local nursing home.
As for Deborah, her husband was subsequently referred to MWS Home Care & Home Hospice. The team not only supported her with practical guidance on caring for her husband physically, they were also a huge source of comfort and emotional support, including attending to her cries for help in the wee hours. Over time, he became gentler and more loving, and the couple eventually reconciled before he passed on peacefully.
Natalie’s transformation was more than the outcome of therapy and rehabilitation. The change in Deborah and her late husband’s situation was more than just medical aid and counselling. These are the results of restoration of dignity and growth towards God-given potential – in individuals and with others – to the point that they could continue the process by helping others.
These are testimonies of what God can do in the lives of others when our work is focused on the whole person, to see them flourishing. It also encourages and humbles us staff, volunteers and community partners, and helps us gain a fresh understanding of the image of God in others and ourselves.
We love because God first loved us.
We care because He loves all, regardless of ethnicity, religion, economic status and social standing.
We act because He has placed in our hearts a passion for these issues, such that we run towards all who feel vulnerable, not as saviours but as those who have been saved.
Today, as we mark the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, whether you are a Christian or not, we invite you to see poverty through a different lens, and consider how we can all play a part in alleviating its debilitating impact.
Take your time to question your beliefs, and find out more about poverty in its many forms. Understand it well enough to explain it to friends/family.
Sharing is caring! Get others to understand and care about poverty in its many forms. How about sharing this article as a conversation starter?