I've seen a lot of heartbreaking examples what people who are the poorest of the poor live like... I've fed the homeless in New York City, seen the aftermath of Tent City in Nashville being washed out by the May 2010 flood, lived right next to what we called "Tin Town" in Costa Rica for 3 weeks with my family one summer... none of those things come anywhere close to the poverty I saw in Honduras this week.
Tegucigalpa sits in a valley, and when you look up on the hillsides in every direction, all you can see is what literally looks like cardboard boxes stacked on top of one another as far up the mountain as you can see. There are no paved roads or paths that go up into all of these slums, they just carve out steps in the dirt and climb to wherever their "house" is. They only get water 2 or 3 times a week. Some may only get it once.
And all of this is just normal to them.
There is a very small "elite" — my grandpa said something like 1/10 of 1% of the population — that holds all the wealth in the country. Many of them probably being government officials. It's so corrupt, and they just look out of their mega-mansion windows from the top of these mountains, and their "beautiful view" of the mountainside is just covered with the way the rest of the population lives, with almost nothing. They just ignore it, as a vast majority of the Honduran people struggle to feed their families every single day. So the goal of educating the poor is to ultimately get them voting and fighting back and ending the corruptness that allows them to stay in extreme poverty while just a few live in the lap of luxury.
The very first thing we did when we got there (it was a Sunday) was go to church in one of these little slum communities. I was blown away by the joy in that place. I've never seen these people a day in my life, I obviously look nothing like any of them, I speak very little Spanish, but I was greeted with open arms and kisses, and it was just a beautiful thing. As the service went on, it was sweet to listen to their praises and prayers, though I didn't understand much of it. The line from Phil Wickham's song "Cielo" came to mind, "All around me melodies rise, that echo with a joy inside." I was so humbled as I watched them give what little they had in an offering. Luke 21:1-4 comes to mind, when Jesus says that the poor widow's offering was worth far more than the rich people's, because she gave all she had to live on.
It got me thinking about this: I don't think it's a coincidence that the poor seem to have a joy that is invaluable, and the rich, with all of their valuable possessions, often seem to be lacking that. I don't think it's by mistake that the very first of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 is, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." In all the poverty I witnessed in Honduras, there was this joy in the hearts of each of the people I met that I was just so humbled by. We would make house visits, delivering food to the families of kids in the Becas program, and those people were just some of the sweetest souls. Always offering us a place to sit down, scrounging up every chair they could find from their house... their neighbor's house... their neighbor's neighbor's house... they wanted us to be able to sit down and just be with them for a few minutes. One lady sent her daughter down the street to buy us something to drink. We brought her food so that she could feed her family, and she bought us a drink. I think if Jesus had been there, he would have spoken of that woman the same way he did the poor widow.
Here's the interesting thing about seeing the way the poor people in Honduras live: they may not have anything, but they have a joy that just made me see Jesus in them. Shane Claiborne writes in The Irresistible Revolution about spending time in Calcutta with the diseased and the dying, and he said over and over they would whisper "namaste" in his ear. He later learned that namaste means, "I honor the Holy One who lives in you." If there were a Spanish equivalent to namaste, I would have said it to every person I met in Honduras.
Leaving Tegucigalpa, I didn't really feel sorry for those people. Frustrated with the social injustice of that country and the poverty that results from it, absolutely. And I believe my grandparents are doing an amazing thing that will hopefully over time make a difference. But as far as the hearts and souls of those people go, I think they're doing a lot better than a lot of people in America. (Or I suppose I should say North America) I think we could all stand to be a little more poor. I think there's a clear calling in scripture (more than once) to let go of our possessions and love on the needy. I don't think anyone can say, "You know, I don't really feel called to do that." And if you can say that, I think you need to search your heart and try again. In fact, we're warned in Revelation 3 of being lukewarm. (Take a look... particularly at verses 16-17)
I hope we'll all learn to be poor. Now I'm not saying I think we all need to live in poverty; I'm saying that we need to learn to live with the same spirit of those people. Gosh, can we learn something from the way they live despite the conditions that they live in. They have no distractions... only non-material things to cling to. And the non-material things I took away from them were love and Jesus; two gifts that are way better than anything anyone ever gave me with monetary value.