stop saying “less fortunate”

If there’s one thing I learned from my time serving in a non-profit with people experiencing poverty, drug and alcohol addiction and single parent families, it’s that I want to stop saying “less fortunate.”

“Less fortunate” implies that the speaker has been somehow endowed with fortune, of which others have less. First off, if the speaker chooses to see others as “less” so, it is only in comparison to the speaker. Secondly, if the speaker decides to “help” the “less” fortunate, she risks investing her own status with undue significance – as having excessive wealth is the most desirable.

Attaching “less fortunate” to other human beings is a surefire way to shortcut mutuality, a value that I’ve adopted as I’ve examined my own initial attitude when I started working with at-risk teens. I thought that I was doing something good, and noble. I thought I was reaching out a hand and giving myself away. Little did I know that I was going to be a recipient; I was a version of the “less fortunate” in many ways.

This past semester, I was reading a lot about John Wesley in preparation for a paper about giving as a means of grace. Wesley, in stark opposition to modern Western culture, did not tolerate an anonymous philanthropy that left in place the barriers that separate giver and recipient; his commitment was to a mutual relationship between the rich and poor.

In a famous sermon, Wesley seeks to explain the reasons for the general lack of animation he observes in his fellow Methodist Christians. He exhorts them with this triad: “Make all you can, save all you can and give all you can.”

In Wesley’s injunction to “give all you can,” a scholar called William Jennings detects a resolution to place the welfare of the poor at the center of all economic activity, personal, ecclesial and social. He goes on to surmise that in Wesley’s view, it is the failure to keep the poor at the center that is destroying the Methodist movement.

It seems that this failure to view care for the poor as a means of grace is also causing the evangelical church in the West to remain stagnant in some ways today, as we become increasingly influenced by a predominantly wealthy, self-centered culture and its trend towards philanthropy – that is, wealthy Christians considering ourselves “fortunate,” and choosing to demonstrate “pity” to others who are “less fortunate” than ourselves … through initatives like soup kitchens, clothing banks and the like. In my research, I concluded that it is Christians who imagine themselves as in need of the poor as a means of grace who might be able to shed light into the Western culture, a place of competition, self-fulfillment and virtually no unconditional care for the other.

Christine Pohl has written extensively on the Christian art of hospitality and has written on the practice of engaging with the stranger, practices which I believe must urgently be revisited in our day. In Wesley, Pohl finds a renewed attention to “visiting” – that is searching out and moving into relationship with – the stranger, rather than “hosting” – inviting in – the stranger. For Wesley, “visiting was a route to understanding, sympathy and practical care, while also controlling for unscrupulous misuse of charity. It could challenge the apathy of those with resources and address the needs of those without them.” According to her analysis, the “significance of interpersonal relations in transformation is a vital contribution.”

My hope is if we stop calling others “less fortunate,” we might open their imaginations to see that all, poor AND rich, are in need of constant grace.

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