You See Progress, You See Hope

Some Battles in the War on Poverty are Being Won

By Frank Stirk

Life was good to Greg Cornish. His family owned a very profitable restaurant in Saskatoon. He had his own carpentry business. Then tragedy struck. His wife and their two boys died in a fire—and suddenly everything went spinning out of control.

“I hit the bottle hard. I didn’t even realize how bad and ugly it was turning until I had a stroke,” Cornish says. “It’s been six-and-a-half years, and I had a number of seizures after that. Once I had the stroke I put down the bottle. I was lucky to be alive.”

By January [2014], Cornish had recovered enough to begin working for JustReno, a department of JustWork, a non-profit social enterprise run out of Grandview Calvary Baptist Church in East Vancouver. It provides gainful employment for people like Cornish who need some help if they’re to be healthy, contributing members of society.

“I’m cornered and poverty-stricken,” he says. “They’ve been patient with me. And encouraging too. They make me feel I belong, like I’ve got something to offer. Now things are getting a little bit better.  I think I’ve got nobody else to thank but the Good Guy upstairs.”

There are many ways to fall into poverty, and maybe just as many ways to climb out of it. The good news is that like Cornish, many people globally do find their way back. But it takes giving them the help they really need—help that they cannot find for themselves.

For the millions of poor people globally, their greatest enemies are often the wealthy who routinely abuse and exploit them because they’re confident the local dispensers of so-called justice will let them get away with it.

“In India, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than be convicted for running a facility where you enslave people,” says Mark Wollenberg, International Justice Mission Canada’s national director of church mobilization. “In Bolivia, you’re more likely to die from slipping and falling in the shower than be convicted of sexually assaulting a child.”

Last year, though, IJM was successful in helping Cambodian authorities jail a retired army colonel who had been charged with sexually assaulting girls whose families lived and worked on his large estate. But just getting that one conviction took three years.

Another major impediment to the global poor is hunger. But even there, says Jim Cornelius, executive director of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, “massive progress” has been made in both China and much of Southeast Asia to reduce chronic hunger. And although Africa is seeing “less progress” overall, one fairly bright spot is Ethiopia, which suffered through a deadly drought and famine in 1983 and 1984.

The Winnipeg-based bank, which delivers Canadian grain to church-based international aid agencies to distribute, also helped one ravaged community construct a new water-diversion irrigation scheme. Thirty years later, Cornelius went back to see what their help had accomplished.

“It was like driving into an oasis,” he says, “because with the water they’re growing a lot of high-value crops, a lot of fruit, that they’re selling in the city not far away. They’ve never needed any food assistance since.”

In fact, thanks to a range of improvements to agriculture and systems to make sure food gets to people when they need it, Cornelius says, “Ethiopia hasn’t faced another famine like that even though the population is substantially larger. It’s still got huge challenges and we’re working on those. But you see progress, you see hope.”

Yet Cornelius warns that many of these gains remain fragile at best and could easily be wiped out if countries aren’t prepared for the impact of climate change.

“All the evidence is pointing to the fact that we’re going to be seeing more extreme weather events and more extended droughts,” he says. “That could certainly jeopardize the progress that’s being made, and requires a lot of very targeted and thoughtful interventions to help people adapt to the change that’s coming.”

A critical factor in bringing about even this limited progress has been a heightened public awareness due to campaigns such as the annual Operation Christmas Child. Run by Samaritan’s Purse, it encourages Canadian churchgoers to fill shoeboxes with small gifts, including toys and school supplies, to be given to destitute children overseas.

In 2014, Canadians donated 700,474 shoeboxes, or 35,408 more than in 2013. Over a four-year cycle, close to half of Canada’s churches get involved in the campaign. Yet more significantly, the impact often goes far beyond—as we in the West would see it—the simple gesture of giving someone a gift.

“Most places we go, they just don’t give gifts. People don’t have the money to do that kind of thing. Culturally too, it’s not the norm,” says Randy Crosson, OCC’s Calgary-based director. “So when we give a gift to a child who’s never had one, it blows the whole family away. Most kids start handing out the stuff in their box to their family.”

Less well-known is the fact that the gift-giving is followed up soon after by a 12-week evangelistic children’s Bible study called The Greatest Journey. Parents will often show up with their kids. And many come away with an infinitely greater gift. “In terms of the kids who received Canadian boxes in 2013, just over 74,000 made a commitment to Christ,” says Crosson. “It’s through the roof.”

But as important as it is to meet the poor at their various points of need, often an even greater need is the basic human longing for positive and lasting personal relationships.

Lighthouse Supported Living in Saskatoon offers an array of housing options and social services to the city’s poor, homeless, and mentally challenged. But director of client services Dennis Bueckert says none of that cancels out the need to foster relationships with those they’re trying to help.

“At the very least we are keeping people alive another night. And another day that they’re alive is another opportunity for them to engage in a course of action. If we can get them here, then hopefully we can build a relationship,” Bueckert says

“A lot of them are street-entrenched people who are used to being ignored by everyone. So it might be several months, but eventually they begin to share that they really would like something better and different, and just don’t know how to go about it.”

Groups such as Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor take an incarnational approach to building relationships. They don’t just visit the poor in their local community and leave the same day; they actually go overseas to the huge urban slums where the marginalized live and make a home alongside theirs

Andy and Trudy Smith recently began living and working in the Downtown Eastside with Servants Vancouver after having lived two-and-a-half years among the poor in a city in northern India. (For security reasons, they declined to name the city.)

“The approach we tried to take was empowerment by recognizing the gifts of the people we lived with. We wanted to build up the capacity of the people to transform their own community with the skills that they already have as opposed to just developing programs or something that depended on us or on foreign resources,” Andy Smith says.

“It is in some ways more difficult and adds some complexity, but there’s a totally different quality of relationship that can develop.”

After gaining their community’s trust, Andy and Trudy launched a basic literacy program. Those who went through the course are now teaching others to read and write.

“We’re not just trying to pull people out of the river, but also we’re going upstream to see who pushes them in,” says Servants Vancouver team leader Tom Wartenweiler. “We’re thinking about the systemic side of things and what it means to help the poor. There is a need sometimes for material and direct help but often it’s much more complex than that.”

There’s no denying that the global poor continue to suffer greatly, whether it’s due to natural disasters such as typhoons or droughts, or at the hands of other human beings. Consider this: The Global Slavery Index reported in October that it estimates 35.8 million people—roughly equal to the population of Canada—now live in slavery.

And yet it’s also true that Canadian men in greater numbers are taking on such challenges.

“I encourage people to think of ways in which they can take something that they really love doing and find a way to connect it to this work of justice and to what IJM is doing,” says Wollenberg. “There’s some guys in Calgary who love playing squash. They did a fun tournament called Squash Injustice and raised $1,500.”

Rural men especially are also getting more heavily invested in projects to grow food for the Foodgrains Bank. “It’s a program that guys find they love,” says Cornelius.

“Here in Winnipeg there’s a retired couple that moved to the city from the farm. They do a fundraiser in their church and the money goes into a project. They go out to the planting days and the harvest. They feel connected with it, and they try and get their urban congregation to feel connected with it as well.”

Now that the word is getting out that Operation Christmas Child includes sharing the gospel—with impressive results—that’s proving to be a great incentive for men to get more involved with its year-round all-volunteer “connect teams.” Their job is to contact the people who filled a shoebox and thank them.

“Those teams are pretty dynamic groups,” Crosson says. “And especially on the logistics side we’ve got a lot of men involved.”

But Crosson would still like to see more men actually pack a shoebox, something that’s usually done by moms and kids. “One of the groups that we get the least amount of boxes for are boys that are 10 to 12,” he says. “It would be great if guys would start packing boxes with things like small tool kits. We’ve heard of kids going on to get jobs because they got a hammer.”

And Servants Vancouver’s Wartenweiler says he would like to see more men rise up against the evils of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in places like the Downtown Eastside.

“Often it’s women doing advocacy down here. But we feel there’s a big role for men too to say, ‘Look, it’s not OK to watch pornography and to engage in these kinds of things because people are being exploited. It’s a big industry we’re feeding.’ Men don’t often think of that, and it’s a huge issue.”

Trudy Smith goes further. She believes if we’re really serious about combating poverty and injustice, we need to be looking inside ourselves as well as at the world around us.

“Poverty,” she says, “is the result of alienation and inequality and the selfishness and greed in our own hearts. It’s the outworking of broken relationships on all these different levels. It’s something we actually have to be addressing with our whole lives, because the way that we make choices even about where we live or what we buy or who we spend time with is directly impacting the people who are marginalized.”

FRANK STIRK has more than 35 years as a print, radio and online journalist and editor, and is the former senior correspondent for ChristianWeek. He resides in the greater Vancouver area.