Lata was fifteen when she was given away for the ostensible purpose of working as a maid in Bombay. Her family was desperately poor and she recalls that “not for one moment did anyone suspect or question what [the buyer] told us.”(1) Her family received about US$360 and was told she would be able to mail money home every month and visit after the first six months. The day she left was the last time she ever saw her parents.
She arrived in the Kamathipura district of Bombay, and was soon to become one of its thirty thousand sex workers. Only fifteen years old, she didn’t understand what was happening.
I saw all of these girls wearing nothing but colored blouses, makeup and skirts, and asked the madam, “What is this?” She told me it was a place for working girls. I still didn’t understand, frightened by the very clothes these women wore. . . . Sapna, the madam, told me that I would be staying with her and ordered me to put on clothes that lay on the floor for me and then stand outside. I began crying and told her I couldn’t stay. She slapped me hard, and I remember I couldn’t stop crying. I told her to let me go, and she looked me straight in the eye and said, “You want to leave, fine. Give me 15,000 rupees and you’re free. Until then, get dressed and start paying back your kurja.(2)
For the next three days, Lata pretended to be sick, listening to the other girls call out to customers on the street. She watched as men and girls traveled in and out of rooms occupied only by a bed. On the third day, the madam lost her patience and asked one of her managers to “break Lata in.” Lata painfully recalls:
I had been sitting in the same corner for days, pretending I was not feeling well, frightened, and wishing Sapna would let me go. Finally Arun came to me and pulled me by my ear, telling me to put on the clothes and stand outside. I was a fifteen-year-old village girl and didn’t know what sex was, let alone prostitution. How could I understand what was going on? He took me to the room with the bed and closed the door and forced me to have sex with him. Afterwards, he said, “Now do you understand?” and laughed and told me to get to work. I remember being silent while the other girls stared at me when I came out. I’m sure they knew what he did. And for the first time I began to accept that there was no way out – I was here to stay.(3)
I read Lata’s story on February 1, 2004 while lounging on a futon in front of the TV. The Superbowl was about to start and someone was singing the “Star-Spangled Banner.” An American flag lit up by bright lights rippled in the wind and filled the 27-inch screen. The abrupt and ironic juxtaposition of this celebration of freedom and prosperity and Lata’s story of oppression and poverty made me want to cry. In the margin of the book, I scribbled “a thirty second commercial in the Superbowl costs $2.3 million.”(4)
Lata’s story is her own, yet there are so many stories just like hers – there is a repetition of the same desperate circumstances and choices, of deception, violence, despair and surrender. There are no accurate statistics, but it is estimated that in the last thirty years, 30 million women and children have been “employed” in forced prostitution.(5) This is not confined to the developing world. Kevin Bales, author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, writes that there are 30,000 to 50,000 sex slaves in bondage in the United States at any given time, often lured to America by promises of freedom and prosperity.(6)
Beyond active oppression, billions more people are victims of structural violence, mired in indescribable, overwhelming poverty. Girls practice survival sex, selling their bodies to stave off starvation or to secure schooling. Families are torn apart by diseases that are easily treatable, but only by medicines that are impossible for them to acquire. 40 million people around the world have HIV/AIDS. Few have access to treatment, and every day 8,000 people waste away, breathing their last while life-saving medicines remain far, far out of reach.(7) Two billion people live on less than $2 per day. Tens of thousands of children die every day from malnourishment. There are millions of individual stories, each person as alive as I am, and just as capable of experiencing joy, love, hope, compassion, pain, agony, and despair. When looked at with eyes wide open, the world can be a dark place.
Sometimes, all this makes me want to shut myself away in an ivory tower. My dorm room becomes my sanctuary; the pale, plaster walls push away the darkness and block out billions of people from my mind. Suffering of such magnitude beggars description, much less comprehension. It is difficult to even begin thinking about it without becoming overwhelmed by despair and depression. What can I do in the face of so much pain and suffering? It’s so much easier to simply stop caring, to stop reading books that make me want to cry and forget that somewhere, in a world beyond my understanding, all of this suffering is taking place. I want to divorce myself from Lata’s story; she is not like me. She might exist, but she is not real. And so I forget, and I go on with my life. I read newspaper accounts of genocide in Sudan, but my eyes skip down to the entertainment section, and I rush out the door excited about the latest Pixar movie, forgetting completely the horrors of Darfur.(8) Gary Haugen, founder of the International Justice Mission, captures this problem when he writes about his experiences during the Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 people were slaughtered over a period of 100 days.(9) He recalls:
Like most Americans in the spring of 1994, I was also starting to see horrible stories in the newspapers about some kind of “tribal warfare” in an African country I had never heard much about. Then I saw pictures on the evening news of bloated bodies floating down a river and heard commentators talking about genocide. Apparently thousands, maybe even millions, of Tutsis were being slaughtered by their Hutu compatriots in a genocidal hysteria sweeping across Rwanda. But like most of the great ugliness transmitted by TV across the world and into my living room, the terror in Rwanda just did not seem real. It seemed true, but not real – not to me. I did not dispute the accuracy of the reports, but they might as well have been pictures from Sojourner on Mars or reports about people who lived in ancient Rome or statistics about how many bazillion other solar systems are in the Milky Way – all true enough, but not real. Not real like my kids when they are sick, not real like my job when I am behind in my work, not real like my neighbors when one of them has been in a car accident, not even real like my Midwestern compatriots when they have been flooded out of their homes.(10)
Haugen later traveled to Rwanda, as part of the UN’s genocide investigation team, and came face to face with survivors that had lost their families. He interviewed two little girls, one with a thick pink scar across her neck, and the other with one across her head. They talked about where they had lived, their favorite animals, the families they used to have, and the neighbors that were now caring for them. The two left the room tugging each other close and whispering. He thought of his two daughters in the United States, and at that moment, it became real to him. Haugen realized that poverty, slavery, disease, and genocide were not merely the troubles of a far-away and misty country. The world of slaughtered parents and scarred orphans was the same world as the more familiar one of iPods and high definition TV. Haugen could no longer turn away from such stories, and the more that I learn, the more I am convicted that, as a Christian, I cannot look away either. Lata’s story is real, and no matter how much I wish it were not, when I close my eyes, she is still there.
I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I believe in his crucifixion and resurrection as the necessary and complete atonement for my sins and the sins of humanity. I believe in salvation by grace alone, the authority and authenticity of the Bible, and the Church as the body of Christ. What then, does it mean for me, as a Christian, to engage the reality of extensive and excruciating poverty and oppression in our world? What does God’s Word say about the darkness that envelops the earth, and what does he enjoin us to do about it?
Throughout the Bible, it is made clear that the poor and the oppressed have a special place in the heart of God. Catholic social teaching calls this a “preferential option for the poor,” and the idea that God loves the poor extra finds strong Scriptural support, especially in Jesus’ ministry. God could have manifested himself as a powerful Roman governor or an influential priest in the Jewish court, but instead was born in a manger, lived as a humble carpenter, and acted as a servant to all he encountered. As St. Paul writes, “Though he was rich, yet for [our] sakes he became poor” (II Cor. 8:9). When Jesus announced his ministry, he read from Isaiah that “the Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). When John the Baptist’s disciplines came to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah, Jesus repeated the same, and replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:4-6). The sign of Jesus the Messiah is ministry that emphasizes service to the poor. If Jesus came today, would we find him preaching in a clean, comfortable suburban church, or shuffling down a dusty, dirt road in the red-light district of Kamathipura, ministering to prostitutes and healing lepers?
Jesus also actively calls us to prioritize the poor as he did. He says, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors… But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (Luke 14:12-14). God’s preferential option for the poor is seen even clearer in the Epistle of James, where St. James writes that not only should we not favor the rich as the world does, but asks rhetorically, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5-7) God’s preferential option for the poor says that God gives an extra measure of grace to the poor, and challenges us to care extra for those who are marginalized, because they are the ones who are blessed. The sick, the poor and the oppressed are where Jesus’ ministry started, and we are exhorted not to forget them. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops recognizes this, stating boldly and unambiguously: “Our parish communities are measured by how they serve ‘the least of these’ in our parish and beyond its boundaries: the hungry, the homeless, the sick, those in prison, the stranger… A parish cannot really proclaim the gospel if its message is not reflected in its own community life.”(11)
But, we might ask, does Jesus really care so much for the materially poor, or is he merely talking about the spiritually poor? Many people point to the Beatitudes, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” with no indication given of material poverty (Matt. 5:3-6). In any event, for many of us, the “blessing” of material poverty is perhaps one we would be happy never to receive, and in fact, is one that we fear and work hard to avoid. Is our responsibility to serve the materially poor quite so clear, then, as we had thought? The portrait of Jesus as a social activist seems lacking. While he reacts strongly against money changers in the temple court, he has little to say about the injustices of Roman society, from slavery to the sexual exploitation of young boys. By this reading, it seems that Jesus’ primary purpose was redemption and reconciliation of humanity to God, and while helping the poor is a powerful expression of love, it is not a necessary component of authentic faith like prayer, fellowship, or confession. Most of us are not perpetrators of injustice, nor do we cheat others in order to make money—so poverty and injustice aren’t really our responsibilities, right? Christians are called to believe in Jesus and to pursue God: if we also feel called by God to seek justice or help the poor, that’s a personal spiritual calling, but we’re not all called in that way, are we?
A deeper look into Scripture shows that, in fact, God cares profoundly about how we respond, or do not respond, to the poor and the oppressed. The language used is actually so strong that I wonder if complacency and inaction in the face of injustice and poverty is not just a minor fault, but a sin that will be judged as severely as any of the others we worry about so much. Proverbs 24:11-12 says, “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” Jesus exhorts us in the same way and makes it eminently clear that we are judged with regard to how we treat the most vulnerable in society:
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They will also answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (Matthew 26:41-46)
A preferential option for the poor is not optional. It is in the poor that Jesus dwells, and blindness to oppression, poverty, and suffering is itself a rejection of Jesus. The picture Jesus paints is chilling, for if we persistently ignore and reject him, he says he will ignore and reject us.
Scripture further supports the critical role of the pursuit of justice and care for the poor in our spiritual lives. While sometimes it seems like Christians are defined by religious activity such as prayer, fasting, and going to church, the prophets in the Bible are adamant in their assertion that justice is a necessary component of worshipping God. In the time of Amos, Israel and Judah were experiencing a period of great prosperity and military success, and while they continued to worship God and offer sacrifices, they quickly forgot the poor and suffering in their societies. The prophet Amos harshly condemned their shallow religious piety, declaring on behalf of the Lord:
I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)
The prophet Isaiah carried the same message. God speaks clearly to Israel that justice for the oppressed and help for the poor are critical components of authentic worship:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Scripture speaks with a clarity, potency, and authority that I cannot hope to attain. Our worship to God becomes empty without concern for the “least” in our world. As Mother Theresa said, “Do we share with the poor, just like Jesus shared with us?”(12) We are called to love our neighbors. We are called to care, and we are called to action.
So, what’s next? God calls us to care for the poor and the oppressed, but how are we to care? Each of our responses will be unique and personal, and God calls each of us to love our neighbors in different ways. As such, the following suggestions are by no means meant to be exhaustive or required; they are merely my limited personal reflections on how we can serve the poor as part of our worship. My hope is not that this would be a to-do list, but instead that it would be a starting point for struggling and striving toward a fuller manifestation of God’s love for the poor.(13)
First, because it is so hard to love people whom we cannot see and do not know, it is important to have a direct connection with the poor. Interacting with people who are poor can put us outside of our comfort zone, and can stretch and grow our hearts to be more compassionate and to love the way God loves, not the way the world loves. Furthermore, often, it is not our presence that blesses the poor, but theirs that blesses us with a perspective that is, in many ways, closer to that of Christ. Connecting with the poor could mean taking a homeless person out for a meal, volunteering at a homeless shelter, participating in an urban plunge, or going overseas on a short-term missions trip. Sometimes we do not truly know something until we see it with our eyes and touch it with our hands—we should step firmly into the world and live among all God’s children.
It is also important that we educate ourselves about global poverty and injustice. There is no shortage of topics, and resources abound: newspapers, magazines, periodicals, books, movies, and the Internet. Awareness is important because structural oppression, violence, and poverty are often very complicated issues, and we need to critically evaluate each situation to ensure that our efforts are not counterproductive. For instance, in the early 1990’s, the US Congress considered passing the Child Labor Deterrence Act that would have authorized punitive actions against companies benefiting from child labor. On its surface, this bill seemed to be a victory for overworked, underpaid children, but the reality was much different. At the threat of legislation, a German garment maker laid off 50,000 child workers, thousands of whom were later found to have become prostitutes, turned to crime, or starved to death. We ought not to react only with moral indignation, but instead should dig deeper to understand the true effects of our actions.
Third, we can engage the world by being more generous with our money. Christians have historically given more to charity than non-religious people, and Christian organizations are at the forefront of helping the poor around the world through organizations like the International Justice Mission, World Relief, Catholic Charities, and many, many more. However, when Christian contributions are considered as a percentage of our immense wealth, our actions have been nothing less than shameful. In 2002, church members gave only 2.62 percent of their income to charity, with only 0.38 percent going to activities beyond their congregation.(14) This compares woefully with the Biblical command to give ten percent of our earnings to the work of God. My pastor remarked that 92 percent of the world’s wealth is in the hands of Christians, and it fills my heart with sorrow that we, the body of Christ, have not given generously of our riches, but have instead selfishly spent the vast majority of our wealth on personal comforts and pleasure. St. John’s exhortation to us seems to be largely forgotten: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:17-18).” We should not trust in our own riches, but should instead allow God to use our money to help the poor. We should give generously. The question is not how much of our money are we willing to give; it is how much of God’s money are we going to keep.
Fourth, God’s heart for the poor and oppressed ought to influence our advocacy. The word “evangelical” elicits a remarkably negative reaction from most non-Christians, for we sadly are known most for our opposition to gay marriage and abortion. While I do not denigrate the importance of those issues, I believe that they have too often been emphasized to the detriment of issues of social justice. Why should we care so much about abortion, and so little about global poverty and oppression, which also involve life and death? The example of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is often cited as an example of how God responds to sin, specifically with reference to homosexual sex. Yet in the Book of Ezekiel, we read that Sodom’s principal sin was her material wealth and neglect of the poor. Ezekiel declares, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen (Ezekiel 16:49-52).” The prophet Isaiah calls the Israelites “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah,” not due to homosexual sex, but because of their meaningless worship and neglect of justice (Isaiah 1:10-17). Isaiah then exhorts them to “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” A survey of Scripture reveals God calling again and again to care for the poor and to pursue justice, while homosexuality is mentioned only infrequently. Our advocacy ought to reflect God’s priorities—we should not forget God’s teachings on life and sexuality, but we ought to cry out on behalf of the poor and the oppressed just as loudly, and probably even more loudly.
Finally, we can care for the poor by considering how God might use our career choices to help the poor and oppressed. We are, of course, not all called to be medical missionaries in impoverished rural villages, but I fear that most of us do not even have ears to hear God’s call to serve the poor. Our primary motivation should not be comfort, security, or prestige, nor should it be our own personal interests and happiness, but rather an honest desire to do the work God has called us to, with a willingness to sacrifice our ambitions and desires. It is a dangerous and false belief that God wants us to do the things that we think will make us happy. God desires our joy, but he desires our joy in him. The psalmist writes, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart (Ps. 37:4).” Jesus does not promise comfort or an easy life; instead, he calls us to faithfulness and says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it (Matt. 17:24-25).” Will we follow after Jesus? Will we care about what he cares about? Today, we as a generation have historically unrivaled influence over the condition of the poorest in the world. If we unite in a commitment to serve the poor, even at expense to ourselves, I believe strongly that it will transform us, and will transform our world.
There is great darkness in our world, and we must open wide our eyes and confront it. Lata’s story is only one among millions: innocent people are tortured and murdered all around the world. Children die of starvation, for simple lack of nourishment and clean water. The immensity of suffering is impossible to capture or comprehend, and it is easy to despair when confronting the magnitude of poverty and oppression in our world. It is easy to sink into depression when the truth hits home, and the nameless, faceless statistics turn into people – beloved children of God no different, and no less loved than you or me. It is hard to love Lata while feeling so helpless to change her life or impact the lives of thousands of girls like her. Despite all of the possibilities for action, when faced with suffering of such enormous magnitude, we are still tempted to ask: “What can I do? What impact could I possibly have on a world so full of pain?”
The good news is that God has not called us to save the world—in the end, that will be His doing. In our lifetimes, he has only called us to be faithful. God wants us to respond to his voice and say, “Here I am. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8). He is calling us to come forward with what we have, even if it is no more than the widow’s mite (Luke 21:2) or a few fish and loaves of bread (Matt. 14:18). We are to do what we can, and trust God to do the rest. We may never bring an end to suffering in this world, but while we are here, we are to be salt and light in this broken world: to sincerely love and earnestly pray for all who are suffering, both in our backyards and in the farthest corners of the globe. Let us step out, then, into the world that God has called us to serve, to do justice, and to love mercy, until the words of the prophet Amos are fulfilled: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
- Farmer, Paul. Infections and Inequalities: The modern plagues. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1999. p. 73.
- Ibid, p. 74.
- Ibid, p. 75.
- International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org), a Christian relief organization that works to fight bonded labor, illegal detention, and forced prostitution through casework and education estimates that it costs them around $400 to free someone like Lata who is being forced illegally to be a prostitute.
- Gupta, Ruchira. “Trafficking of children for prostitution and UNICEF response.” Asia Society, Social Issues Program. 2003. Available online: http://www.asiasource.org/asip/gupta_nature.cfm.
- Vitagliano, Ed. “Slavery continues in the form of forced prostitution.” Agape Press. April 15, 2004. Available online: http://www.crosswalk.com/news/1257639.html.
- For a compelling look into the AIDS pandemic, listen to an interview with Stephen Lewis, the UN Ambassador for HIV/AIDS in Africa at: http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/2003/200302/20030212.html.
- For documentation of the genocide and horrors in Darfur, read the Human Rights Watch reports at: http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/darfur/
- For a comprehensive account of the Rwandan genocide, from the history, to the 100 days of killing, to the aftermath, I highly recommend We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch.
- Haugen, Gary. Good News About Injustice. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999. p.24.
- United States Catholic Conference 1993. “Communities of Salt and Light: Reflections on the Social Mission of the Parish.” Approved by the Administrative Board in September 1993 and by the Catholic bishops of the United States at their General Meeting in November 1993. Available online: http://www.nccbuscc.org/sdwp/saltandlight.htm.
- González-Balado, José Luis, ed. Mother Theresa: In my own words. New York, NY: Gramercy Books, 1996. p. 23.
- For another look at how to engage with the world as an affluent Christian, see Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ronald J. Sider.
- Empty Tomb, Inc. “The State of Church Giving through 2002.” 14 th edition. 2004. Available Online: http://www.emptytomb.org/research.php.
Yi-An Huang ’05 is an Economics concentrator in Kirkland House.