By Greg Taylor
Living seven years in poverty in Uganda changed my life.
We didn’t make a lot of money by American standards—$27,500 annually—but we were rich compared to our Ugandan neighbors who live on less than $2 a day.
We had 30 times more money than our Ugandan friends!
They seemed to think we had a bottomless bucket of money, and we soon realized they viewed our wealth as we might look at that of Bill Gates. Some wondered why we couldn’t always help them with medical problems, school expenses, or a good business idea that needed funding.
One event in our early days in Jinja, Uganda, underscores how we became aware of the disparity and incredible tension between missions and money.
Before leaving for Uganda, our mission team of five families shipped goods, such as mattresses, washer and dryer, and fridge in a 40-foot container. Each family was allowed to use an eight-foot cube of space in the container. Our supporters pitied us. All our stuff in the space of a pickup bed!
Months later, when the container arrived in Uganda, we unloaded the contents and heard one Ugandan say, “All these goods for only five families?”
In Uganda we came face-to-face daily with the plight of the extremely poor. More than one-third of the world lives on less than $2 a day, and nearly everyone we knew in Africa fell into that category.
Why Are People Poor?
In America, many of us think poverty comes from bad or immoral choices. Make good choices and you’ll get out of poverty. Others think poverty is caused by bad structures. Add enough government to the mix and the problem is solved.
Either idea oversimplifies the problem. Both of these factors contribute to poverty, but not everyone in poverty has made an immoral choice, nor is everyone in poverty simply because of bad structures. It’s much more complex than that, and to focus on one view and exclude the other is not wise or ultimately helpful. The scale and magnitude of poverty globally is also very different from poverty in the United States.
Consider too that immoral choices made by the rich, middle class, and the poor all can contribute to poverty, not just bad choices by the poor. Bad choices by the middle class are caused by inattention to wastefulness that the poor have never considered or experienced. Bad choices of the rich or large employers or governments can bring on structural injustice or bias against the poor.
Two billion people—one-third of the world—do not fall into poverty simply because of bad structures alone or bad choices alone. Many, many factors lead to poverty in certain countries or regions, including bad governance and immoral choices from the top down, bad geography of a country, unjust practices, bad trade relations or sanctions, disease, and accidents of geography (being landlocked and without good transportation such as rivers and rail and roads). Disease, drought, and war also contribute to poverty.
And people are dying because they are so poor. Thirty thousand people die every day from preventable diseases such as water-borne illness that causes dysentery and dehydration and death. Thirty thousand. That’s one person every three seconds.
Living among the poor changed me, my family, and my mission teammates forever. Making friends with people who are poor changed both them and us. We struggled daily to follow God’s calling by sharing with those who are poor and learning from them as well. But we did so very imperfectly and were sinful and wrongheaded many times in the process.
In this beautiful land at the source of the Nile River we awoke to ibises screeching, enjoyed year-round summer and bougainvilleas, purchased five-cent avocadoes, and smelled coffee blossoms with the fragrance of honeysuckle. But we lived amid neighbors who were so poor they didn’t even have the most basic necessity: pure drinking water. They certainly couldn’t buy shoes for their children, and when their children got sick, they had no insurance, no recourse but to beg for help.
So, What Did We Do?
We tried a holistic approach to sharing Christ in Uganda: we went to villages with a Bible in one hand and a medical manual or technical manual for helping drill water wells in the other hand. We rarely returned from a village without someone who was acutely ill.
We helped but we did so imperfectly. Often, I did not help as much as I could have. I turned away many in need. Mostly because I didn’t have the resources they were asking for. But sometimes because I had so little faith. We didn’t always know if the person truly needed money when they asked. Although we tried to err on the side of compassion and generosity, we became cynical at times.
We took to the villages a copy of Where There Is No Doctor, a health manual, along with our Bibles. We helped villages get water wells. I couldn’t stand by in Bulanga village and baptize people in the only spring available when they had no clean water and they were trying to learn good practices of keeping animals and people out of that spring.
When you are thirsty, you want water. Jesus didn’t forbid the woman at the well to fetch herself water. Then he told her there’s living water she can have as well. Try to hear the gospel without having clean water to drink—or after going a day without drinking anything—and see how well you can listen.
We did medical missions—with visiting doctors from the United States—with varying success and failure. We helped people short-term, but we also caused problems, because every time we’d return to that village, people thought we were doctors; we had one doctor on our team, but he could not make it frequently to the 60 villages we were working in to help plant churches. We learned to help where we could, preach God’s incredible love, and pray without ceasing.
We started the first-ever Internet and business center in our town and called it the Source Café (naming it for the source of the Nile). Today, the café houses the Jinja Church and accommodates weeklong leader training sessions for village church leaders, an Internet café and coffeeshop, business training classes, and a book loaning library. Thousands come in and out of the Source Café each week, and dozens of jobs have been created. Evangelism and health and AIDS prevention and treatment programs have all been supported out of profits from the company that is managed by Ugandans.
The Eye of the Needle
And what will the poor do for us? They will help us get into Heaven. Even today we are scared to take a plunge of faith, to let go of some of our assets, our resources, and time. And the poor are observing us trying to figure out how to get all this stuff through the eye of a needle. They will say to us, “You have too much stuff. You’ll never get through the eye of the needle with all of that!”
Living with Ugandans expanded our worldview. We learned to read passages like Luke 6:20, “Blessed are the poor,” at face value. Jesus truly did bless the poor and lived incarnate among them. So we had to as well.
Greg Taylor is author of How to Get Ready for Short-Term Missions (Thomas Nelson, 2006). He is promoting the idea that oil companies can help fund and drill water wells globally. He planted churches with his wife, Jill, and a mission team in Jinja, Uganda. Greg and Jill have three children: Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. He is author of several other books, including a novel set in colonial Africa called High Places. He is associate minister with Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and managing editor of New Wineskins magazine (www.wineskins.org). You can write him at email@example.com or through his blog www.gregtaylor.cc.