Panama is a country where, according to La Prensa (2 Nov 2008), almost 1,000,000 people live below the poverty line.
That’s approximately 33% of the nations population
About 385,000 of those do not have the earning power to even cover the basic human needs for food and shelter.
The reports point out that some earn less than $95 monthly, some under $64 a month. 8 out of 10 in the comarcas (where the tribes live) survive under $36. Extreme poverty covers 80% of this regions population in 2007 (down from 89% in 2001).
According to the index of Global Competitiveness at the 2008 World Economic Forum, the education system in Panama is ranks 108 of 132 countries evaluated. Sixth grade math scores were the worst in the Americas.
Poverty is not unique to Panama. I’ve seen poverty in other central American countries. I’ve seen images in real life that have seared my soul with such pain that I can’t bear to see it again. Images that have stayed with me and will not get buried in the recesses of memory.
So many problems come alongside poverty, as well as so many solutions.
I’ve been reading Walking with the Poor, by Bryant L. Myers.
The book looks at principles and practices of transformational development.
The book explores poverty, causes of poverty, and calls the church to action in engaging broken systems that cause poverty. He lays forth a strong case that poverty is a “deficit, entanglement, lack of access to social power, powerlessness, and the lack of freedom to grow” (Myers 81).
Poverty is a complicated issue that involves all areas of life — physical, personal, social, cultural, and spiritual.
I live and work in a country where poverty is more visible than the suburban America where I lived before.
The gospel is relevant to people such as these. But what difference does evangelism make in their life? Can it lift them out of their poverty?
This is the question that Myers seeks to get at in this book.
For example, he presents a simple chart about solutions to the cause of poverty (p.81).
View of Cause, Proposed response
Poor are sinners, Evangelism
Poor are sinned against, Social Action and justice
Poor lack knowledge, Education
Poor lack things, Relief / social welfare
Culture of the poor is flawed, Become like us / ours is better
Social system makes them poor, Change the system
Certainly poverty has many causes and many possible cures. It is beyond the task of our family to challenge the system, but rather to focus on Evangelism and helping churches engage.
Evangelism calls people to personal transformation — to step up into the purposes for which the individual has been created.
Evangelism calls people to societal transformation — to participate in the work of the Kingdom of God.
The picture is not complete
Evangelism as traditionally practiced by many in Latin America (based on my observation on 10 countries) by itself is not a solution to poverty. The focus is on salvation for a better life at in eternity.
Get saved and you’ll live forever. Who wants that? Everyone! Life sucks for so many people in this region that a presentation of the sweet by and by is most appealing.
Yet what is missing is what I would call
1. incorporation into a local church and
2. obedient service to the world.
There is a vital component to helping people join a local community of faith. The church can grow and become a vital part of the transforming the local community. The church can nurture the faith of people and call more people to participate in the work of the God.
The second part is obedient service to the world. There is a calling to go back and seek to transform the world and culture, to be salt and light, to work for justice and fight for the oppressed. The kingdom of God is not about you, but about advancing the reign of God into the world.
What’s your vision?
Organizations abound to serve the poor that do not have a kingdom vision. Some want to extend their branding (think some Fortune 100 corporations). Some want to give their profits away because they want to avoid paying taxes. Some have altruistic motives to simply serve the poor, and based on their worldview, work at the appropriate solution.
Meyer’s book points that your worldview as to the cause of poverty will form your solution. Mine clearly does. The article in La Prensa cites that poverty is rooted in lack of education, and thus the solution is for the Government to improve the education system.
Part of our calling here in Latin America is to help the church get beyond the soul recruitment and to cast a vision that new believers and the church can engage the culture and transform it.
I’m not talking about political control like the Religious Right’s strategy in the US.
I’m talking about the church being involved in solutions for poverty, fighting for justice for the oppressed, and proclaiming the Good News. The church can be the salt and light to to the world and needs to be. By having a kingdom vision, the church can address the human needs.
The kingdom of God is such an awesome message that we give ourselves to it’s cause. Think about how you can support us in our vision
[…] The fellowship around the table was fantastic. Nine different nationalities. One of the blessings of being in this country is that it is also a national melting pot of immigrants. While Spanish is the common language, many come to Panama in search of a better future — economic and social. There is lots of economic opportunity in this country, even in the midst of such extreme poverty. […]
[…] fact, 1/3 of the country lives below the poverty line; some surviving under $36 a month, so there has to be some creative way to communicate the gospel […]