1My journey with destitute people – becoming aware…
As the minister of a rural congregation in Estcourt I met the occasional “nomadic destitute person,” as they travelled through our town to the warmer weather of Durban for the winter. I always wondered about them: why do they choose this life, do they have any choice, how must we help them, what is the role of the church in their lives, in fact, what is the role of God in their lives? I felt a real desire to help, to bring about an authentic, permanent change in people’s lives, to help them experience something of God’s desire for His children, but I didn’t know how.
These and other questions plagued my mind as I wrestled with the role of the congregation in these people’s lives. We tried to help where possible, providing food and the occasional overnight shelter. I personally had numerous discussions, most of them theological in nature, with a variety of destitute people, and in my ignorance I usually focused on the spiritual problem to the exclusion of the rest of the problems. Many were “converted” in this way in the religious sense of the word; how many are following Christ today is another matter entirely.
I also came to realize that a person with an empty stomach does not listen well, even to a message as important as the gospel. In this way I started to learn something of a holistic approach in helping people. Slowly a more structured way of helping these people emerged, and today there is a good programme running in Estcourt, one that helps destitute and poor people in a variety of ways.
At the same time I developed a personal conviction surrounding a move into the city, since I began to develop an interest in urban ministry. This led to my arrival in the city of Tshwane (Pretoria at that time), where I was offered a position in Popup, an “upliftment” project. The project focused on the development of destitute people. My initial task was to provide counselling in the project. This developed into managing the “upliftment course.” Later on the “upliftment course” became a development programme with a multidisciplinary team and a variety of different activities. We moved away from the term upliftment, since the word itself already carries negative connotations (“I, the one who has it, stands up here and helps you to get here as well”). I managed the development part of the project, and derived great satisfaction from the work. While working at Popup, I observed that, seemingly, some destitute people really want to change, grow and improve. However, it also seemed that some chose to remain in a state of destitution. This opened up a “Pandora’s box” of questions: why would they choose to remain in such a state? Is it because of the fact that they choose the reality they know best? Or because they have lost all hope? Or because of a lack of necessary skills to cope in a complex world? These questions urged me to explore – leading, eventually, to this thesis.
My involvement with Popup led to a move where I became more fully involved with community development, both via my local congregation, as well as through Pretoria Destitute Association, for which I served as director, and in the capacity of consultant and project manager.
At the same time, government established an action committee to design a viable policy to address the problem of destitution. I was chosen to serve on this action committee, and later on to lead this for a short period of time.
Thereafter I started serving in an urban congregation (Alberton), specifically in the areas of human and community development and empowerment. This congregation is an independent church, working with a model called “the seven dimensions”. It is a very practical way of making sure that people’s needs are addressed holistically, simply by addressing every area of their lives. This serves to empower them to lead the lives they choose, and, in the context of my own belief, to fulfil the purpose God has for them.
All this led to a focus on two main areas of concern where the destitute are concerned. Firstly, I am very much interested in the development of destitute people, and secondly, I firmly believe that reconnection to a good “community” (a community of care that provides empowerment through support) plays a cardinal part in this development; since I believe people can only function fully within good “community”. I see the church as such a community, a community of care in action, but then an empowering care, not care that creates dependency.
This study is therefore also the story of my own growing understanding of destitute people, and of how to assist them better in their quest (for SHALOM). It is furthermore an attempt to share the insights I have gained in working with destitute people, so that others can benefit as well.
In my journey with destitute people, I have come to know God better, by starting to understand His love for people better. May we all grow through our various journeys.
2The purpose of this study – some personal thoughts
When thinking about destitute people, I immediately reflect on two things/ issues, namely why, and how?
The why simply deals with “why do people become destitute?” There is no simple answer to this question, and I have made some discoveries during my journey with the destitute that have altered my perspective and thinking. I found this simple question to interconnect with a number of different issues, issues that meet when we talk about the destitute, interrelated/ interconnected issues. In this sense I believe the problem of being destitute to be systemic: it seems to be the product of the sinful and broken world we live in, and the actions and reactions of broken people in this broken world.
Seltser and Miller, in their book Homeless families, struggle with these same questions, and I found my own struggles echoed in their words over and over again. I use a number of their insights (among others) in developing and eventually verbalizing my own thoughts.
In grappling to gain a better understanding of the causes of destitution, I finally distinguished between external and internal factors contributing to destitution. In a way these can be understood as “causes” but they are more than that. External factors deal with “causes and factors of destitution that function mostly from ‘Outside’ a person to promote destitution”. These refer mostly to social factors, things outside of a person’s direct control. Internal factors stem from “causes and factors of destitution that function mostly from ‘Inside’ a person to promote destitution”. I realize that this separation is artificial and possibly academic, yet it helps me to better define and understand the complex systemic causes of destitution.
The how deals with “how do we help destitute people not to be destitute anymore, and not to become destitute again?” For me, this is firstly a theological issue: the Bible has much to say about helping the poor and advocating social justice. However, the issue is also a multidisciplinary one, since interventions to help destitute people take insights from various disciplines.
This study has been a personal journey of discovery, reflection, and often repentance. It has been a journey of broken-heartedness. It is the result of trying to understand, and working towards making a difference to the one person, within his or her community…
This thesis concerns destitute people, but it is addressed to those who are fortunate enough not to be destitute. It is a study examining events that author and reader alike will probably never experience, about struggles most of us will never live through. Although I will be pleased if destitute people read these pages, the study is written not to them, but about them and for them.
The difference between the reader and the destitute subjects creates both possibility and peril. The distance allows us (both author and reader) to stand back from the
subjects’ painful and frightening experiences, to gain some perspective on the recent increase in the number of destitute people and families, to think through the implications of our response to destitution, and then to empathetically identify with the lives of destitute people. Indeed, this thesis attempts precisely that, to take a small step toward breaking down the barriers to understanding and compassion.
However, the distance also creates the danger that we will remain aloof, considering these experiences to be so alien to our experience as to be either unintelligible or unworthy of serious concern. After all, for those likely to read this dissertation, life is too steady, predictable, and balanced to allow easy identification with the lives of destitute families. Just as we are tempted to cross to the other side of the street when confronting a destitute person who might make some demand on us, so we may avert our attention from the social and economic factors that create destitution.
The greatest challenge in writing this has been to find a way to reaffirm the distance and the identification, the uniqueness and the universality of the experiences I seek to describe. Most of us have never been destitute, are unlikely to become destitute, and cannot easily put ourselves in the shoes of destitute people and know what their lives are like.
But, at the same time, there are elements in the experiences of destitute persons with which we can identify. Elements such as the challenges of life, financial trouble, feeling alone, and the whole range of feelings people experience when going through trauma. The task is to translate these experiences into our language, to find the common denominators of our lives that allow us to recognize that what is happening to them is a quintessentially human experience. Those of us reading this book may not be destitute, but we are nevertheless susceptible to life threatening diseases and experiences that challenge our self-sufficiency and reveal our personal vulnerability.
This study combines empirical and moral analysis in order for us both to understand some of the experiences of destitute families and also to ask ourselves what these experiences can and should mean to us as citizens of South Africa today. In collecting the data for this book, I have attempted to observe the canons of impartial social science research. But I also believe that interpretation of data inevitably is undertaken from a vision of what is desirable and humanly possible. Indeed, the greatest figures in sociology have all possessed a moral vision of what constitutes a good society.
Therefore, rather than grudgingly admit that description is always tinged with prescription, I self-consciously examine destitution from a moral perspective. For instance, I am interested in the ways in which destitution attacks the dignity of its victims and the ways in which mediating institutions, such as shelters or the social service system, either restores dignity to destitute families or else contributes to the attack on their dignity. Thus my approach moves back and forth between description and prescription, in part because of my conviction that social problems such as destitution require both careful description and impassioned critical response.
A few years ago I became fascinated and troubled by the growing problem of destitution, particularly by the apparent increase in the number of destitute families. My interest was very personal. In crossing paths with these “pilgrims of life”, I was frustrated by my disability to really make any difference of a permanent nature – it was not enough to give handouts, because the problem of destitution persisted.
I acknowledge a more basic – and more troubling – motivation for addressing this problem: namely, my own personal responses to confronting individual destitute people in daily life. I was uncomfortable with my feelings of discomfort and embarrassment and by my all-too-common reactions of denial and avoidance. Do you give money when approached on the street or when called on the phone by an advocacy group? Do you talk to someone who is sleeping on a street grate?
I suspect that these tensions apply to most of the people in our society as well. The ways in which most of us are confronted with the problem of destitute people are not conducive to easy solutions or moralistic arguments on either side. And this is precisely why it is important to take the time to look directly at the experiences of destitute people in terms of what they can tell us about our own values. Our response in morally ambiguous situations is the best gauge of our underlying ethical commitments; nothing is likely to challenge a comfortable self-assured ethical identity as much as a sudden and uncomfortable confrontation with someone who is destitute and hungry as we are leaving a restaurant or are on our way to a secure job or the comforts of a home.
Examining the experiences of destitute people reveals a great deal about our social and political culture/ structure. I believe in the old truism that a society can ultimately be judged by the way it treats those at the bottom of its social structure, and destitute families represent that population in stark ways. They are really the most vulnerable among us, with little power and few resources to take control of their lives. How we (both as individuals and as a society) respond to them speaks directly to the actual moral commitments we are prepared to embody in our lives. The choices are not easy, of course, and the policy decisions are seldom clean. But the mere existence of families struggling in extreme poverty challenges many assumptions about our country and our way of life.
My hope is that this study will eventually both inform and motivate readers to respond to the poorest members of our society. The voices of the destitute women and men in these pages can help us understand ourselves and our moral commitments as well as what it means to experience poverty and destitution. I do not claim to be responding more “correctly” than anyone else. Indeed, it is precisely my many personal failings in this regard that enable me to share some of what I have learned about the experience of being destitute – and some of the moral implications of that awareness.