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Why don’t you reach out to poor Americans first?

There is an implied criticism for short-term missionaries when would-be supporters sometimes ask this question:”Why do you want to go overseas? There is plenty of poverty right here in the U.S.” Give such critics their due. They may be motivated by compassion or by a sense of stewardshi…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

There is an implied criticism for short-term missionaries when would-be supporters sometimes ask this question:”Why do you want to go
overseas? There is plenty of poverty right here in the U.S.”

Give such critics their due. They may be motivated by compassion or by a
sense of stewardship. Who hasn’t seen
the homeless on our cities’ streets and felt as though something needed to be
done? Going overseas can seem like a
costly extravagance when the need is great right here in our backyard.

That said, anyone who has seen
the great swarms of hungry children picking through the mountains of trash
outside Manila or Maputo can’t help but be struck by the thought, “This is a whole
different level of poverty. These people
are just barely surviving.”

When You’re Down in the Dumps from Brady on Vimeo.

At least in America there is a
safety net. There is food. Any large city has multiple homeless
shelters. Emergency rooms will take you
in if you are desperately sick. The
poverty line for a family of four is defined as $21,201.
Contrast that with the 1.2 billion people in the world living on less
than a dollar a day or the 2.5 billion classified as living in extreme poverty. That is a
standard of living that is more than twenty times poorer than those classified as poor in

At its worst, someone asking the
question, “Why don’t you reach out to poor Americans first?” is parochial or
nationalistic. They value a poor human
being in America more than a poor human living elsewhere. Because you’re American, you belong to some
sort of really big club of special people.

God classifies the poor not by
nationality, but by their ability to care for themselves – widows and orphans
being first in line for help.

Perhaps the best response to someone who is just looking for an excuse to not support you is to assume the best and challenge them: “I absolutely agree, we should be doing something about poor Americans first. Let’s start here in our hometown. Let’s find a family and make a difference in their lives – waddya say?”

Comments (12)

  • That remains one of my favorite videos from the Race. Thank you for posting this video. Thank you for addressing an issue we hear raised a lot in our country. Thank you for giving your life to the Lord to change the world.

  • You put it much nicer than I would have. I would have told them, “You’re right, we should help the poor in America as well. So, what are YOU doing about it?”

  • Well said. We take for granted the social programs, infrastructure, church support,nursing homes,and even government run programs that we have in the this country that helps and saves multitudes every year. Most of the world has nothing close to what we have. “To whom much is given, much is required.”

  • Hey Christine, I might not be so nice, I’d probably say “Wow!! You’re helping the American poor! That’s so cool! What are you doing?” God has a sense of humor though and I’d probably get someone that’s doing way more on half my budget. Seriously though, I am for helping the poor everywhere and fortunately my church gives our members opportunities to help the American poor and the world’s poor on a regular basis. Seth, thanks for all the blogs that make us think about what we are doing to serve our Lord and bring Him all the glory. I look forward to your emails.

  • Here’s a thought: as part of the body of Christ, I know that a majority of my family gives a majority of their time, money and effort helping the poor close to us. And since our family is already pouring the bulk of our surplus among the relatively few needs here, I’m satisfied, and thankful, with the job they’re doing.

    Meanwhile, so very few of us work to help the majority of the poor in the world. I’m dismayed at how few of us don’t turn our resources toward the greater needs outside America. So, since my brothers and sisters are working so effectively here, let me encourage the rest of my family to look up and out, and redirect our compassion to where the greater needs exist.

  • Seth, THANK YOU for writing this blog! It’s so good to hear your heart on this.

    That’s the most hurtful rebuke I get when I start sharing about the kids in Swaziland, or India – “Why are you going over THERE? Don’t you know there are orphans here in America? You need to save our kids first” – and I struggle not to cry when I desperately try to explain to them IT’S JUST NOT THE SAME.

    My heart goes out for the poor in America- I started doing missions first with the homeless, street kids, and ‘park rats’ (as they called themselves) in Oregon. But it’s just not the same. It’s a different desperation in Africa…

    And I’m reminded that the BIBLE says “go into ALL the WORLD” – it never said “go save America and stop there”. (believe it or not, I’ve never read ANYTHING about America or Americans or all the ‘special treatment’ we should get in the bible. Go figure?!)

    Jesus loves the little children, ALL the children of the WORLD! What a simple song full of truth.

  • Can’t we save both? I feed hungry people in America, visit the poor and homeless living on the streets of Nashville, and hear people’s awful stories of destitution in the States, but I don’t for one second think that’s the end of it… especially when I encounter those who don’t have enough money to buy their kids food, but have a satellite dish and a flatscreen (I’m not exaggerating). It is different, but the call is the same – reach out to those who are hurting, lonely, and desperate wherever you are. I try not to compare one person’s desperation to another – their level of poverty compared to someone else’s may be irrelevant. What’s relevant is how it affects them – it’s a heart issue, and that’s why Christ sent us to bind up the brokenhearted. I have noticed that those who know their hearts are broken are much more open to having it healed. Thus, “blessed are the poor in spirit…”

  • Thanks for writing this Seth. I’ve also struggled with this for a long, long time ever since I first did a student internship at the welfare/child protective services agency in my college town and contrasted that with what I saw as a student missionary in Israel (visited the Gaza Strip) and then as a fresh college grad in Swaziland. And since returning to Swaziland in January after 18 years, I was reminded once again how truly desperate the situation is for so many in other countries.

    I agree with Jeff. We need to do both…help those here and those in other places. But I do struggle with how many of our poor here in America are poor because of choices that they have personally made as opposed to the majority of poor in other countries who are poor because that’s what they are born into and are rarely given any chance of overcoming that. I also struggle with the large amount of resources (money, churches, individual Christians, etc.) we have here ministering per capita as opposed to places where there are very few if any Christians and churches or if there are churches, the members themselves are just barely surviving. We’ve got all these churches with all these Christians and all these finances and all these discipleship programs and Sunday School programs and on and on and on yet we are so spiritually anemic in many ways and our poor seem to be getting more and more in BONDAGE! Its not just a matter of money, its spiritual bondage and the poverty is just a symptom of that.

    Anyway, I could go on and on about this so I’ll shut up for now. But I do appreciate what you are doing and I’ll be sharing this post at my blog.

  • Christ! Yeah! Being from Bangladesh, it really gets to me when people say things like that. There is nothing close to abject poverty in America.

Comments are closed.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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