Pearls of Poverty

by Wess Stafford

There are a lot of things you can learn from the poor. That may sound like a trite saying but it's something I firmly believe. As I mentioned in a previous article, I grew up in a tiny village in West Africa. My parents were missionaries who believed firmly in their call to bring the gospel to those who had never heard the name of Jesus. But during my childhood, one thing became abundantly clear. The poor in that village were teaching us just as much as we were teaching them. Their lifestyles, their values, were so strong. Somehow, without knowing God, they already understood many of His principles.

I have come to call these precious values "pearls of poverty." Why? Well, the pearl, a beautiful jewel, originally comes from suffering. The oyster gets a grain of sand inside its shell. This is uncomfortable; it hurts the oyster. Over time, the oyster begins to protect itself from that irritant by coating it with a secretion, layer upon layer, until it becomes a smooth, brilliant and shining treasure - a pearl!

The lessons my village gave me were just such treasures. Many of them came from suffering, hunger, sickness, and vulnerability of the peasant eking out a living for himself and his family in the harsh rural African environment. Here are a few of the precious pearls I still carry in my heart today:

The pearl of love. Nothing is more powerful in the world today. It cannot be bought; in fact, it belongs to the very poor as much as to the very rich. My village taught me in so many ways that you may not have anything else to give but you can always give love. Day after day I saw this lived out. The adults in the village lived the example and we children mirrored that. That tiny village may not have had much but love was always in abundance.

The pearl of joy. The poor comprehend that joy is not dictated by the circumstances of life. Joy is a decision, a very brave one, about how you are going to respond to life. We in the West tend to be joyful when things go our way and good things are happening in our lives. For the poor, such good fortune and good things almost never come. Yet laughter and smiles abound. It's a lesson that the wealthy could stand to learn. And by wealthy, I don't mean the multi-billionaires in this world. I mean those of us who don't have to worry about where our next meal is going to come from. I mean those of us who have a warm bed to sleep in at night and a roof over our heads; those of us who can hop over to the doctor's office when we're not feeling well. It's a fact that if you have those things you are wealthier than two-thirds of the world. If we could only learn to find joy in things immaterial, perhaps we'd be willing to share more of what we have to balance those scales.

The pearl of hope. This is another courageous decision. Even when life's harshness and injustices pile up, the poor cling tenaciously to hope. They will humble you with their absolute belief in a loving God who can be trusted to sustain and bless them. We tend to be hopeful when we have more assets than liabilities. The poor always have more liabilities than assets. Yet their hope is consistently and amazingly strong.

The pearl of time perspective. The poor understand that time is to be our servant, not our master, and as a result, they manage always to have time for one another and what is important. In our village, I never saw a mother or father refuse to hold a hurting child just because there was a meeting to catch. That's a concept that may seem absolutely absurd in our busy lives. But the truth is that we could all be better managers of our time. If we learn to make time for family and loved ones-for building relationships-we will find more of the joy and hope that my African friends already knew so well.

The pearl of relationship building. I also learned that, when it comes down to it, people are what matter-not things. Of course, that may be easy to say, when you don't have any material possessions. But maybe that's what it takes for us to realize the value of each other. If we were stripped of our belongings, what would we cling to, to make it through each day? Many of us would turn to family or friends. It's that sense of community-an importance on relationship-that sticks with me most, of the lessons I learned from my little African village.

Yes, there are a lot of things we can learn from the poor. Not the least of which is faith. When my parents shared the gospel with the poor in our African village, they got it. It made sense to them. There were no questions about "Why would God do such a thing?" They understood grace. They understood mercy. It's exactly what they would expect a loving God to do. Because each person in our village was willing to lay his or her life down for another, they understood why God would do the same. Yet so many Westerners I've met can't grasp the concept.

Jesus said, "The poor you will always have with you." Some have interpreted that to mean "Hey, they're always going to be here, so don't get too caught up in it." I don't think so. I think Jesus was saying, "They will always be here so you can learn. They will always be here to show you what reliance on God really looks like. They will always be here so there will always be an opportunity for you to be Christ-like and help provide for their needs." I believe it's supposed to be a give-take relationship. We who are blessed with so much are called to give, out of our abundance, to those who have so little. But we are also supposed to take back some of the lessons that the poor model for us everyday: love, joy, hope, time perspective, the importance of relationships over material goods-and true faith.

Reprinted from Too Small to Ignore. Copyright © 2005 by Compassion International, Inc. Used by permission of WaterBrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO. All rights reserved.

Wess Stafford is the president of Compassion International, Inc.

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